This is an exercise that I've done with a couple of different classes. I gave out a version of this at AWP a couple of years ago, and someone was just asking me about it again, so I thought I’d share it more widely. This can be done either alone or in a group; it's one of the best exercises I know for interrupting excessive literalism or linearity, subverting writer's blocks, and creating stories that have some of the strangeness of our dreaming life.
THE DREAM STORY: A ROUNDABOUT GROUP EXERCISE
Because writing usually seems to be richer after reading – when our minds are full of beautiful language – I recommend beginning this exercise by looking at dreamlike pieces. Here are some possibilities: Gabriel García Márquez’s “Eyes of a Blue Dog”; Kelly Link’s “Water Off a Black Dog’s Back”; an excerpt from Writers Dreaming, ed. Naomi Epel, in which Bharati Mukherjee talks about how dreams influence her writing; ghazals by Adrienne Rich and Agha Shahid Ali; and almost anything by Angela Carter.
One way of doing this exercise would be to do the steps one at a time. That way, there’s no question of thinking ahead to the ghazal when selecting an image or doing a freewrite. Also, it’s more interesting and inspiring when everyone reads both freewrites and ghazals aloud. Here’s the complete exercise:
The Dream Story
Dreams – full of mysterious and witty symbolism, strong images, and direct messages from the unconscious – can be rich sources for imaginative writing, can give us directions or hints in working on current writing projects, and may be models for us to be as daring and surprising as our dreaming mechanisms. Readers and critics are sometimes dismissive of dreams in fiction or poetry, perhaps because they often serve an expository function or exist only to advance the plot. Often dreams work best in fiction or poetry when they’re incorporated in juxtaposition to some other element: a story you’re already telling, images from elsewhere, even a contradictory dream. Bringing in research, stray images, and overheard moments can enrich and complicate our poetry/fiction.
The following is a multi-part exercise, designed to break the linearity that can get in our way as writers and instead to let the images and story come up out of the unconscious. (Later we can edit and bring in the left brain, but for right now, we’re going to circumvent over-thinking.)
1. On the board, write a vivid image or event from a dream (just a few words, one sentence maximum).
2. Pick any five of these images, including your own, if you wish. (If you’re working on your own, rather than in a group, pick images from several of your own dreams). Another possibility is to include 1-2 vivid, surprising images from life, something you’ve seen that week, or something from an image notebook, if you keep an image notebook.
3. Tell a story in a wild freewrite, getting in all five images. Start with “Once upon a time” and then go...don’t worry about how it all ties together.
4. Take your freewrite story and turn it, in some way (which can be quite free and bring in new material) into a ghazal. Try this with the simplest possible form – contemporary free-verse ghazals. Five (or possibly six) self-contained couplets. No enjambment between couplets, each couplet self-contained in subject and imagery as well as in form. (Fiction writers -- be sure to do this step, a crucial one for unlocking associative leaps and stripping away explanations and unnecessary connective tissue.)
5. Take home the results and see what kind of story unfolds from them, playing freely with everything you made so far and adding any elements, characters, or structures the story seems to want.