Using Dreams and Reveries for Creativity


Freud called dreams “the royal road to the unconscious.”  Robert Louis Stevenson (c. 1887) called the dream state “that small theatre of the brain which we keep brightly lighted all night long, after the jets are down, and darkness and sleep reign undisturbed in the remainder of the body.”  Author Isabelle Allende says, (1993), “It is as if one has a storage room where you have information that you can’ reach when you’re awake” (20).

Integrating Night and Day   

In sleep the body and five senses are disengaged.   The soul, freed of its “mortal coil” (Shakespeare, Hamlet, III.1.68), journeys forth on its own adventures.

Michelangelo portrayed these sleeping and waking states as the feminine Night and the masculine Day (1520-1534), both guarding the tomb of Giuliano de Medici in the Chapel of San Lorenzo in Florence.  Integrating night and day provides more synergy in the creative process.


Edgar Cayce said we should apply in the physical world what our dreams are telling us at night.

Cayce said that the sleeping self draws on “the sixth sense, as it may be termed for consideration here,” and “ partakes of the ACCOMPANYING entity that is ever on guard before the throne of the Creator itself” (5754-1).  This self may have a different agenda from the waking one: “some definite line” (5754-1), “for the associations of itself with that whatever has been set as its ideal ” (5754-2).  According to Thurston (2004), Cayce calls this soul entity the “Individuality”: “our more authentic being” (p. 77).


Remembering our Dreams

If we have trouble recalling our dreams, we can program our minds.  Van Auken (n.d.) recommends a three-step method based on Cayce’s work:

1. Give yourself a pre-sleep suggestion;

2. Don’t move the body upon waking;

3. Record the content or impressions right away.

The “pre-sleep” INTENTION is the most important part: the Day Self is talking to the Night Self.  Think, I will recall my dreams; then concentrate on the question you want answered.  What should the point of view of this novel be? How shall I market my paintings and crafts items?

Also it is helpful to keep a tape recorder or pen and paper beside the bed.  Each time you wake up, jot down whatever fragmentary images or whole narratives you can recall.  Start with the most recent thought or image and then go backward.  You may find that the time going to sleep or waking up are especially rich.  You will also find out the dreams get longer and more complicated as the night wears on.

Using our Dreams

Along with INTENTION, the dreamer should prepare by obsessing about the project during the day, actively working on finding a solution.  Robert Louis Stevenson (c. 1887) explains how he received the idea for The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde:

I had long been trying to write a story on this subject, to find a body, a vehicle, for that strong sense of man’s double being which must at times come in upon and overwhelm the mind of every thinking creature. . . . Then came one of those financial fluctuations. . . . For two days I went about racking my brains for a plot of any sort; and on the second night I dreamed the scene at the window, and a scene afterward split in two, in which Hyde, pursued for some crime, took the powder and underwent the change in the presence of his pursuers.

He attributes such night-time inspiration to the work of his “little people” or “Brownies.”  He adds, “All the rest was made awake, and consciously.”

I wrote a similar account in an early author’s afterward to my novel Love and Death in Vienna (2011):

This book began with a dream I had in September of 1987.

In a white nightgown I ran through hills of snow, wolves howling and chasing me. Then suddenly I was standing inside a hunting lodge with wooden walls and looking out on some tree-studded snow drifts where wolves howled in the moonlight. The first scene had been luminous and dreamlike; the second, hard-edged, with the substance of reality.

I knew the name of the lodge: Mayerling. Then I heard a click and looked up. The Crown Prince Rudolf wore a look of great sorrow as he pointed a gun at my head. His features kept changing from his own to those of a man I knew and loved.  Then with a great explosion of white, I flew from my body and awoke.

I turned on the light and sat for three or four hours, scribbling.


In 2008 I visited the hunting lodge at Mayerling.  Though it had been converted into a church and was now a tourist center, I looked out of the large window in my dream and recognized the forest—the same view, but with summer grass instead of winter snow.  The walled-off room was now a tourist’s annex.  The guide said the great bed, site of the deaths, had been further to the left, in the current sanctuary.  If that was true, the window must have been moved when the annex was built.  I knew the bed was just below the window.

Isabelle Allende (1993) says she writes about scenes and images she cannot have known by ordinary means. So do I.


Using Dream-Like Reveries

Sometimes a creative person uses dream-like states: reveries, spontaneous imagery, the hypnagogic and hypnopompic states before sleep and waking.

A famous example is Mary Shelley’s “waking dream” of the Frankenstein monster.  In the summer of 1816, Mary was sojourning with her husband-to-be the poet and her stepsister Claire Claremont on Lake Geneva.  They frequently visited the nearby Villa Diodati, occupied by the poet Lord Byron and his companion Dr. Polidori.  In her Introduction to Frankenstein, Mary narrates what ensued. “It proved a wet, ungenial summer, and incessant rain often confined us for days to the house.” To entertain themselves, the group read ghost stories.  Then Lord Byron issued a challenge: “We will each write a ghost story.”  Mary says she “busied myself to think of a story. . . . . I thought and pondered—vainly.  . . .Have you thought of a story? I was asked each morning, and each morning I was forced to reply with a mortifying negative.”

On one particular night, which may have been June 16,[1] Byron and Shelley fell into a philosophical discourse about “the nature of the principle of life, and whether there was any probability of its ever being discovered and communicated.”  Their discussion turned to a rumored experiment about “a piece of vermicelli in a glass case” that “by some extraordinary means . . . began to move with voluntary motion. “ [2]  Polidori was familiar with Galvani, who claimed to have electrified corpses so that they could “sit up, raise their arms, clench their fists, and blow out candles placed before their mouths.”[3]

Byron and Shelley speculated, “Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated; galvanism had given token of such things: perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endured with vital warmth.”[4]  At bedtime Mary found herself unable to sleep.  Perhaps she entered the hypnogogic state, that period of fragmentary imagery that comprises Stage 1 of sleep, for she reports a “waking dream”:


My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie. I saw—with shut eyes, but acute mental vision,—I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world. His success would terrify the artist; he would rush away from his odious handywork [sic], horror-stricken.

She opened her eyes “in terror.”  She had found her story:

“I have found it! What terrified me will terrify others; and I need only describe the spectre which had haunted my midnight pillow.”  On the morrow I announced that I had thought of a story. I began that day.

The fragment of s story proved so compelling that the poet Shelley urged her to turn it into a novel.  Now the cliché “Frankenstein’s Monster” has entered the lexicon for any creation that turns on its creator.

Nobel-prize-winning physicist Kekulé discovered the secret of the benzene chain in some version of meditative or non-ordinary consciousness. In a reverie like Mary Shelley’s, he “saw atoms ‘gamboling’ and dancing and forming combinations. . . .the origin of his theory of carbon bonding in chemical structures” (Moss, 2009, pp. 139-140) In another “dream or reverie,” this time before a fire, “whirling snakelike images danced before him, and when one snake grasped its tail, he awoke with a start to realize he now understood “the structure of the benzene ring” (Moss, 2009, p. 140).

Henri Poincaré the mathematician reports a similar process.  After working on a problem four hours a day for fifteen days, he spent a sleepless night during which

Ideas rose in crowds; I felt them collide until parts interlocked, so to speak, making a stable combination.  By the next morning I had established the existence of a class of Fuchsian functions. . . . I had only to write out the results, which took but a few hours.  (1913, p. 387, qtd. In Weisberg, 2006, p. 391).

Wesiberg, who reports this incident, remarks that it entailed not dreaming per se but another sort of non-ordinary state: the consciousness of the Watcher or observer.

Another famous reverie is that in which Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1816) alleges that he wrote Kubla Khan:

In the summer of the year 1797, the Author, then in ill health, had retired to a lonely farmhouse between Porlock and Linton, on the Exmoor confines of Somerset and Devonshire. In consequence of a slight indisposition, an anodyne had been prescribed, from the effects of which he fell asleep in his chair at the moment that he was reading the following sentence, or words of the same substance, in Purchas’s Pilgrimage: “Here the Khan Kubla commanded a palace to be built, and a stately garden thereunto. And thus ten miles of fertile ground were inclosed with a wall.” The Author continued for about three hours in a profound sleep, at least of the external senses, during which time he has the most vivid confidence, that he could not have composed less than from two to three hundred lines; if that indeed can be called composition in which all the images rose up before him as things, with a parallel production of the correspondent expressions, without any sensation or consciousness of effort. On awakening he appeared to himself to have a distinct recollection of the whole, and taking his pen, ink, and paper, instantly and eagerly wrote down the lines that are here preserved. At this moment he was unfortunately called out by a person on business from Porlock, and detained by him above an hour, and on his return to his room, found, to his no small surprise and mortification, that though he still retained some vague and dim recollection of the general purport of the vision, yet, with the exception of some eight or ten scattered lines and images, all the rest had passed away like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been cast, but, alas! without the after restoration of the latter!

This account of an opium-induced trance has been questioned.  For instance, Weisberg (2006) has provided evidence that the poem was revised more than Coleridge admits.  However, there is no reason that the original inspiration cannot have been received as reported.  Coleridge was prone to such reveries, and the opium to which he was addicted encourages them.

The experiences of Kekulé and  Poincaré (as well as perhaps of Coleridge, Stevenson, and Shelley) entail a four-step process summarized by Krippner (1981):

1. Immersion . . . [in] a subject

2.  Acquisition . . . of data and experience . . .

3. Inspiration—the eureka moment

4. Evaluation—testing the discovery through experiment and dissemination.

(qtd. from Moss, 2005, p. 141)

Jungian psychologist June Singer (1972) says, “The psyche consists of consciousness and the unconscious, but the critical point is that these are not two separate systems, but rather two aspects of one system, with this exchange of energy between consciousness and the unconscious providing the dynamic for growth and change” (p. 15).  The bridge between the Daytime and Nighttime selves begins with INTENTION and ends with APPLICATION. Our dreams “are produced by the integrative centre in the psyche” (Kaplan-Williams, 1990, p.17).

…We are such stuff

As dreams are made on, and

Our little lives are rounded by a sleep.  (William Shakespeare, The Tempest, 4,1.156-158).



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[1] The Hooblers give this conventional date; Reiger believes it to be approximate.

[2] Introduction to Frankenstein.

[3] D. and T. Hoobler, p. 142.

[4] Introduction to Frankenstein.