by Eric Maisel
The song "Yesterday" came to Paul McCartney in his sleep. Jasper Johns' flag paintings came to him in a dream. The opening notes to a song woke Keith Richards up in the middle of the night. He got up and tape-recorded the beginning to "I Can't Get No Satisfaction." The ending to Isabelle Allende's novel House of the Spirits came to her in a dream. Sue Grafton explained, "I reach a point in many of my books where I have a problem I can't solve, so as I go to sleep, I give myself the suggestion that a solution will come. When I wake up, the solution will be there." After writing seven hundred pages of It and not knowing where the novel was going, Stephen King had the conclusion come to him in his sleep.
It will not surprise you to learn that your brain works while you sleep, that it dreams, thinks, and creates. You've already had the experience of creating your novel, painting or song while you slept, of finding the right word, the right plot twist, the right image while you were in the land of nod. The idea of sleep creating is not new to you or news to you.
However, what may surprise you is that you can cultivate and improve your natural ability to sleep create. Not only will you solve creative problems more easily but you will enter into a routine that dramatically increases both the quality and quantity of your creative efforts. You double or triple the hours you currently create when you sleep create.
In Sleep Thinking, my latest book, I outline an eighteen-step program for fashioning this new routine. If you follow the steps of the Sleep Thinking Program, within a week you will find yourself more productive and more creative. You may not think that something as simple as learning to sleep create could make a giant difference in your creative life. But you would be wrong.
What you are doing by following the apparently simple steps of the Sleep Thinking Program is moving your creative efforts to the top of your internal to-do list, catapulting them over the other matters that clutter our mind. This is a profound change guaranteed to increase your output and deepen your art.
What did you think about when you went to bed last night? If you are like most people, you stewed about the day's events, replayed an unpleasant conversation from work, or began dreading what tomorrow would bring. Maybe you lie there, restive and unable to sleep, listening to your lover snore. But there are far better things to do with that time than stew and worry. The very best thing is to ready yourself for a night's worth of creating.
As soon as you crawl into bed, start thinking about your current creative project. Give your brain a real invitation to think. If you do, your brain will take sleep as its opportunity to make all the necessary connections. You'll drift off and sleep like a baby. When you wake up, head straight to your current creative project, so as to make the best use of your night efforts.
Just wondering (and not worrying) about your current project as you drift off to sleep is the best way to enlist your brain. But you may feel blocked or you may not be working on a project right now. In that case, the following are some good sleeping thinking questions to get you started. Choose any one of them of them as a portal into sleep creating. 1. What do I want to create? 2. What is my deepest creative project? 3. What is waiting to be born? 4. What piece do I want to return to? 5. What new project do I want to launch? The following are two brief examples of how the Sleep Thinking Program can help with your creative life.
Joyce, a second generation Chinese-American, had gotten her undergraduate degree in economics and an MBA after that. For twenty-five years she'd worked in corporate America in increasingly demanding jobs, while at the same time marrying and bringing two children into the world. But when her aunt was diagnosed with colon cancer in her early seventies and her mother was diagnosed with the same cancer shortly thereafter, something in Joyce snapped. It no longer made sense to her to just push herself, her husband, and her children as if nothing mattered but achievement.
But she didn't know what else she should do. She began sleep thinking on the question, "What would a more meaningful life look like?" One morning she awoke and knew that she had to make a documentary film about the women of her mother's generation, the Chinese women in their eighties and nineties who had grown up in China and about whom she knew next to nothing.
She knew that her pursuit of the American Dream had something to do with her feelings about these women, what they stood for and what they demanded of their children, and that she had to come to terms with her feelings while these women were still alive. To honor her realization, Joyce began a journey into film making, oral history, and the hidden recesses of her own psyche that culminated in a film that she never knew she had it in her to create.
Loretta was a young woman who hated making mistakes. She had grown up with critical parents who made her feel worthless whenever she displeased them, which, since nothing could ever be done to their liking, was all the time. If she played a piano piece decently at recital, they could only comment on the way she had slouched, how shy she had seemed, or on how much better they had expected her to play, considering all the lessons she had taken. Loretta could do nothing right.
The upshot of their meanness was to ruin her ability to make mistakes freely. She still made mistakes, since we all do, but she hated them and tried to hide them from herself and from everyone else. But she couldn't really hide them and ended up chastising herself and saying things like "Only a champion idiot like me could make this many mistakes."
Finally she realized that she had to change her attitude, since her fear of mistakes was ruining her ability to write papers in her graduate psychology program. Because she felt that each paper had to be perfect, she couldn't start them. Then, at the last minute, she would grind something out, but what she turned out was never as good as what she might have written if she had felt free to write multiple drafts.
Desperate, she began to sleep think, choosing the following statement as her nighttime prompt: "I am so scared of mistakes." About the third or fourth night, she had a dream about mud. It wasn't just any mud. It was the kind of mud you make when you mix too many pigments together. It was painter's mud. What she saw in the dream was a happy child obliviously mixing too many colors together, making a face at the mud she produced, and blithely starting over.
The child in the dream just didn't care that she had wasted some paint. It simply wasn't a tragedy or an issue at all. No word like "mistake," "failure," "stupid," "wasteful," or "incompetent" even crossed the little girl's mind. She had simply made some mud and now needed to discard it. Loretta made the pledge to herself that she would learn to become like the girl and woman she might have been if she hadn't received so much disabling criticism. Her mantra became "mud means nothing."
I hope you will try out the Sleep Thinking Program to help with your creative life. D. H. Lawrence explained that "sleep seems to hammer out for me the logical conclusions of my vague days." Art Spiegelman described how he handled problems while writing Maus: "If I go to sleep laying out the day's problem to myself and let those be my last conscious thoughts, I'll more or less consistently wake up with a solution." When you get in the habit of sleep creating, your creative efforts will reach new heights.
Bio: Eric Maisel, Ph.D., is the author of Sleep Thinking, Fearless Creating, The Creativity Book, Deep Writing, Affirmations for Artists, and many others. He is a family therapist and creativity coach with fifteen years' experience counseling creative and performing artists. He is currently training creativity coaches and working on a pair of books, one on creativity coaching and one on creativity and depression. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can visit his website.
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