When Work And Dreams Collide

Originally posted March 19, 2014

I’ve been working too hard.

I woke up this morning with the lingering memory of a series of dreams, all centered on Laura Ingalls Wilder, undoubtedly an unconscious reaction to the twenty-something lectures I’ve written over the last two months for the online class I’m teaching at Missouri State University this semester, “Laura Ingalls Wilder and Her Literary Legacy.”

In one series of dreams, I was myself, living in Pierre, South Dakota, where I first wrote about Wilder; in another, I became a fractured version of the fictional Laura Ingalls, realizing that I had forgotten to wear my shoes to school. In another, the real town of De Smet, South Dakota, morphed into the Silver Dollar City of my childhood in southwest Missouri. An Ozark cabin became the building in De Smet where the Ingalls family lived during the Hard Winter of 1880-1881. Again I was Laura, but somehow I knew I was only pretending, that I wasn’t who I seemed to be: I couldn’t remember how to get upstairs to the attic, so obviously I wasn’t really Laura.

I know where the dream about going barefooted to school originated. It sprang right from the pages of On The Banks Of Plum Creek, which my students are reading this week. In a poignant scene in this book, Laura and Mary walk barefooted to school for the first time. They step only in the grass, careful to avoid the “dusty wheel tracks” because “their feet must be clean” when they get to town (p. 142). The passage is a flawless example of vivid writing, of revealing character simultaneously with action and setting. Maybe that’s why it transformed itself into dream this morning; maybe I need to work more on vivid writing myself.

I’m writing about dreams this month because they can be a source of inspiration and revelation. Often I’ve dreamed whole stories—mysteries, fantasies, historical romances. If the ideas remain intriguing when I wake up, I write them down and file them in my “Ideas For Work.” Granted, I’ve never yet used any of these ideas, but one dream did prompt me to outline an entire plot and sketch out an opening chapter. I have a feeling that this dream isn’t quite finished with me yet.

Other dreams I record simply because their images are so vivid. It’s a kind of advanced writing exercise, trying to capture their intensity and beauty on the page, to choose the right words and phrases to describe them, to transition effortlessly from one dream sequence to the next. If only all our transitions on the page could be as effortless and as easy as those in our dreams (to say nothing about transitions in real time, in real life).

Still other dreams seem to relate to a deeper sense of self, what’s happening in my life now—or perhaps what might happen in the future. These dreams often seem familiar. They unfold in settings that I’ve visited in dreams before, and sometimes seem to be part of an ongoing series. The colors, sights, smells, and sounds of these dream places have become familiar, and when my writing life seems arid, I consciously attempt to re-visit these dream scenes during waking hours; they’ve become my creative retreats, places of mental solitude, renewal, and inspiration.

When I was growing up, my father often shared his vivid dreams with the rest of us over breakfast or on Sunday mornings during those long forty-mile drives to church. Sometimes his dreams were weird, sometimes funny, sometimes scary. But I learned from him to pay attention to dreams, to view them not just as a source of entertainment but as gifts from our unconscious and sometimes more creative selves.

So today I’m going to take a break from writing lectures. I’ll read, walk my dogs through this morning’s fog, and maybe later, pull out my Ideas File to see if one of those dream mysteries, fantasies, or romances is ready now to take more permanent shape as a real story on a real page.

It’s spring, after all. And all kinds of wonderful things can happen.

Wishing you a springtime of pleasant and inspiring dreams….


Laura Ingalls Wilder, On The Banks Of Plum Creek (Harper & Row: New York), 1971.

Rosalie Stanton