My dreams took up the job of writing coach early on. At twenty-one I wrote in the artists’ sketchbook that served as my journal: “My dreams give me advice on writing. They say, get the idea out first—then leave it for a day and come back.”
That’s good advice for any aspiring writer.
In that same journal, sandwiched between outpourings about friendships and descriptions of conversations about art that took place over games of pool, I wrote, “I feel like my life is a novel and I am an English teacher reading too much symbolism into it.”
Over the course of a few days, I worked out what has become my ars poetica, an expressive statement of how dreams and writing connect in my life. I typed it up and used it as the epigraph for a staple-bound collection of poems I photocopied and gave to family and friends for holiday presents later that year. It read:
I am a dreamer, a writer without words.
I am a writer, a woman who wants to share her dreams.
I spent the next few decades forgetting and then remembering that insight about myself. Again and again, through years when I worked as a journalist at a county newspaper in western Massachusetts, then as the director of a poetry program I created for teen mothers, and eventually as an author and professional dreamworker offering workshops, classes, and individual sessions on dreams and writing, I have flip-flopped between seeing myself primarily as a writer or a dreamworker. But a part of me has accepted and integrated these aspects of myself all along—and my decades-long journaling habit has been there to remind me.
I began talking about my dreams even before I started nursery school. And although my sister in the single bed little more than arms-length away wasn’t interested in hearing about them, and my parents laughed them off, I continued to look forward to seeing what dreams had in store for me each night.
At age 12, the same year that my grandfather gave me a paperback copy of Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, I received my first diary as a gift from my mother’s best friend. In that cloth-bound book with the word “Diary” embossed in silver on its plaid cover, I confessed my secret loves and recorded fights with my sister.
My diaries grew up as I did. As a teenager I kept journals in which I wrote more about my inner life and dreams than what the weather was or what I filled my hours doing. I recorded song lyrics and quotes by activists as if they were lines of gospel handed to me from on high.
A lifetime of devotion to processing my life on paper has resulted in a ragtag collection of journals, from pocketsize to oversize, hard-backed to hand-stitched, cloth-covered and sticker-decorated, that now fills a closet in my study and spills over into plastic storage bins stacked in the cellar. I take pride in the sheer volume of collected pages, the way that marathon runners boast of miles logged and some women exclaim at the headcount of their children and grandchildren. These are accomplishments of accretion, and I am proud of mine.
Contrast my prodigious output of journals however, with the small bookshelf in my study where I keep copies of the anthologies and periodicals where my work has been published, and books with my name on the spine. I can’t help but notice the ratio: a dozen or more journals for every published book. And some days that lopsided balance tips me to despair: What if I had journaled less and published more?
I’ve come to realize that there has been little choice. The preponderance of journals, and their entries that slosh over the shoreline dividing day and night, attest to a way of life that has served me. My commitment to doing my innerwork from the pillow to the page, has allowed me to rest my pen and show up more fully for my life each day.
I’m proud of my published books; as a professional writer, I appreciate the satisfaction of a polished piece of prose and of seeing my words bundled up thoughtfully into a book. But I’m also more than a little bit in love with my clutter of notebooks filled with my erratic handwriting and rambling thoughts. Whereas publishing is the equivalent of stepping out with matching socks and my best duds on, journals are where I scuffle about in my slippers – completely at home with my hair uncombed. In my journals I glimpse myself as I am. Brief bursts of brilliance, splashes of sweetness, rambling ribbons of confusion, self-righteous anger, pettiness, and dull patches of the trivial and the mundane.
My journals refuse to be contained and instead serve as catchalls for dream reports, ideas for books or blog posts, bits of collage, lines of poetry I wish I’d written, rough drafts, and everything in between. A single journal gathers all the ingredients into one pot to simmer. Also, recording dreams and waking events in one book affirms the cyclical interconnections between our conscious and unconscious processes.
As for my dreams, they have led me into—and out of—relationships. They’ve helped me locate places to live, and they’ve stopped me from moving when I was about to step into a bad real estate deal. They’ve advised me to stay put in a job when I wanted to leave, then prodded me forward when it was time to go. Sometimes literary role models appear in my dreams to advise or guide me: Robert Frost, Stanley Kunitz, and Emily Dickinson have made cameo appearances, for example. (Memorably, Kunitz advised me in a dream to hold any object in my hand that I planned to include in a poem.) A dream might end up in the mind of a fictional character, or it will become the basis for a sonnet.
Nurturing these twin sparks of dreams and writing is what makes me who I am. But they have not saved me from disappointments and difficulties along the way. My writing career has had its ups – and more than a few downs. My dreams and journals have been my constant companions through it all. In my journals I commit to the process of writing even on days when I feel ready to abandon the enterprise. And when my momentum flags, there are my dreams, at the edge of the field, waving me on and calling me back to who I am.
About the Author
Tzivia Gover is the author of several books, including Dreaming on the Page: Tap into Your Midnight Mind to Supercharge Your Writing, from which this post has been excerpted and adapted. Learn more at www.dreamingonthepage.com. Find her also on Substack: https://tzivia.substack.com/