Tuesday, 1 September 2015

'Writing In The House Of Dreams' by Jenny Alexander - reviewed by Susan Price

Writing In The House Of Dreams by Jenny Alexander
'Writing In The House Of Dreams' by Jenny Alexander

This is an astonishing book. I don't think I've read another like it.

It's a book of writing exercises and advice on how to write - but, equally, exercises and advice on how to live another life, in your dreams. Jenny Alexander has spent a lifetime exploring and coming to know that other world that we visit when we dream. She's spent twenty years writing and revising and adding to this book.

I feel it's as much a shaman's handbook as a writer's.

I remember a conversation with Jenny where she told me that she'd become a writer because of her dreams. She'd always been creative, but had suppressed that side of herself, and gone to University instead of to Art school. That other, suppressed side of herself reacted with fury, sending her terrible nightmares where she killed herself. [You can read a record of our conversation here.]


Jenny Alexander
Finding no real help in dealing with her nightmares from doctors, counsellors or psychiatrists, she began exploring her dream world for herself.

For most of her life - certainly for all of her writing life - she has been, perhaps, more aware of that other self, The Dreamer, The Creative Self, than most of us.

Having moved from an exploration of dreams into writing, Jenny taught workshops both on writing and dreaming. In this book she has pulled together a lifetime's experience of both.

It starts with 'The Ordinary World' - how a child leaves 'the magical world of childhood, where teddies can talk...and monsters hide in the shadows.' This is close to the dream-world, from which writers - from which all artists - have always drawn inspiration.

Then there's 'Crossing the Threshold' of the House of Dreams - in which Jenny urges us to let go of the Western idea that dreams are merely a rehashing of waking events, or something to be 'interpreted' for psychological meaning. That, Jenny says, is simply rationalising something which disturbs us, so we can dismiss a terrifying nightmare, or a sequence of strange dream events, with a glib, 'Oh, I know what that meant.' - Perhaps we do 'know what it meant' on one level - but perhaps the dream is larger and contains more than its meaning to us at that moment.

Another approach, instead of dismissing the nightmare with a rationalisation, is to enter it and explore it as a reality. Then you are approaching and communicating with the source of your own creativity, even with the worst, most sinister nightmare.

This makes the chapter, 'The Beast In The Basement' a necessary one, as it arms you with techniques to deal with the Beast when it charges out - and here Jenny shares some of her own dream-battles and victories.

Then comes 'Making Yourself At Home' in the House of Dreams. We're all familiar with the weird images that dreams can throw up but Jenny, as a seasoned explorer of the dream-world, can assure us that as we become more familiar with it, the dream-world 'stabilises' and even has its own familiar landscape, time-sequence and
Shaman: from Wikimedia Commons
inhabitants. Is, in fact, another world, with its own reality.
This is something that the shamans, who climbed or descended ladders into the spirit-world, always maintained. Now, I have never been one to insist that a belief is 'wisdom' simply because it's old. On the other hand, age doesn't mean a belief has no basis either.

Jenny is a writer, and this book is partly about writing. The value of exploring this dream-world, for writers, she says, is that 'it makes us aware of the continuous flow of stories and images moving through us all the time, like an underground stream.'

Jenny has moved far beyond my piddling knowledge of such things, into areas that I doubt I shall ever experience - but again and again, as I read the book, she described things that I recognised and have experienced. Which makes me pay more attention to the rest.

She talks about dreams that are indistinguishable from waking life. I am well aware of such dreams. When I wrote my book 'The Ghost Drum', I was writing about a shaman who spirit-travels in other worlds. I needed to be able to imagine what that was like - and after some thought, decided to conceive of these other worlds as the places where we go when we dream. This gave me a firm basis: I was able to believe, entirely, in my shaman 'turning and stepping into another world' simply by imagining this as a kind of dreaming.

This worked for me because, throughout my entire life, I have dreamed in full-colour, 3-D, stereo-sound surround, with a sense of touch thrown in. In my dreams, if I put a hand into water, I felt the wetness. If there was snow, I felt the bite of the cold. In one of my short stories 'The Dreamer' (included in my collection, Hauntings) I used an experience - which I've had - of dreaming that I'd woken and begun my day, only to find, after half an hour or so of what seemed perfectly normal waking life that I was, in fact, still asleep and had only dreamed waking. Which raises the question: how do we know which waking, which world, is the 'real' one?

Jenny mentions lucid dreams and predictive dreams. Well, I've never personally had a lucid dream - which is where you know, while dreaming, that you are dreaming, and can take control of the dream and direct events, or ask questions of dream inhabitants. But once, many years ago, when I expressed doubts that such a thing as lucid dreaming existed, my brother said, no, he had them all the time. So commonly, in fact, that he'd assumed everyone had them and had never thought them worth mentioning.

He is also quite matter-of-fact about predictive dreams. Has them all the time. That's where the sense of deja-vu comes from, he says.

I've had what you might call predictive dreams myself, though never in any dramatic, save-people-from-an-aircrash kind of way. The foreseen events are mundane - but you're left wondering how and why you dreamt of this little incident two nights ago. There are 'sensible explanations' about the unreliability of memory and our eagerness to see patterns - explanations which I've accepted but not altogether believed.

If I clearly remember buying milk on Tuesday, nobody tells me to doubt my memory. So when I wake up on Tuesday morning, clearly remembering a dream where I knock my favourite yellow mug off the dresser and break its handle, why should I doubt that memory just because, on Thursday, I knock my favourite yellow mug off the dresser and break its handle?

Jenny's experience is that you rarely recognise that a dream is predictive unless you keep dream-diaries and look back through them. Her diaries, when re-read, contained a quite eerie prediction of a miscarriage, disregarded at the time.

My 'predictive dreams' and those of my brother are usually about small, insignificant events, of no importance even to us. A cup being dropped and broken, or, say, stubbing your toe painfully. They're only noteable because they were dreamed before they happened.

All this makes me trust Jenny when she reports on her exploration of the dream country far beyond where I've ventured.

I can also vouch for the effectiveness of her writing exercises - my story, Mow Top, which is found in Overheard In A Graveyard, sprang fully formed from her 'collage' exercise.

'Writing In The House Of Dreams' - altogether a fascinating, original book, whether you're interested in writing, dreams, or both.



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