Dream journal

The era of pandemic has affected even our sleep and dreams, and you may find yourself wanting to reflect these odd night-time experiences in your journal.

Yet the distinctive shape of a diary relies on dailiness. Diaries record time in regular periods of waking life covered in an entry, punctuated by gaps of nightly silence between entries, when we imagine the diary-keeper sleeps. To recall the classic example of this framing, Samuel Pepys announces over and over that he arose “up betimes” (or sometimes, he confesses, late) and concludes many an entry by signing off to sleep again: “And so to bed.”

In the diary each day opens the door to a new entry, whether it marks a fresh start or simply dives back into the routines and unfolding circumstances chronicled in entries past. Yet as journal-keepers widen the scope of reflection and explore internal life by describing varied states of mind, the day-by-day structure may run up against the challenge that a significant portion of mental life takes place in sleep. “No matter how you want to think about dreams,” says Christina Baldwin in One to One, “they are helpful pieces of knowledge and insight to include in the journal for self-awareness” (131).

So, how to incorporate dreams into the diary? Nearly every book about journal-keeping sets aside a chapter to address the issues surrounding a dream journal. The first question involves whether to keep the dream journal as a separate book. Ron Klug gives the example of a “dream log” in his list of journals that might stand on their own: Stored right beside the bed, the dream log waits for the writer to “immediately jot down their dream and any thoughts they have as to its meaning” (30).

Kay Adams describes the trade-off between a separate dream log, which has the advantage of providing “a running ‘script’ of your dream life,” versus integrating dreams within the context of daytime entries, a juxtaposition that more easily reveals connections and reference points with events that happened in waking life: “the sum of the parts can create a greater whole” (190).

Tristine Rainer in The New Diary recommends a framing method that both marks off the dreams and keeps them together with the rest of the journal: “If you put a box around your dream titles or write your dreams in red ink or otherwise distinguish them, you can later read through the dreams alone as in a dream log. The added benefit is that the night dream and the day life remain side by side. . . In retrospect you can see even more patterns and interconnections, and you can also observe to what extent you successfully listened to and answered your dreams in your waking life” (158).

Teachers and counselors with extensive experience in guiding dream work agree without exception on the importance of capturing a dream directly upon waking, before the details fade from memory.  They all give some version of Baldwin’s advice in Life’s Companion, to “keep a dream journal, notepad, sketchpad, or even small tape recorder by your beside” (139).

Sleep scientists have established that everyone dreams, even if they don’t retain their dreams in memory; apparently the simplest way to improve retention is simply to allot a certain amount of waking time to thoughts about dreaming. If you have dream-related ideas and intentions on your mind during the day, especially in the crucial minutes just before sleep, you are considerably more likely to remember at least fragments of a dream when you wake up.

Books on journal-keeping advise jotting down whatever you can remember of the dream, “catching it by the tail” so you can reel in more of the dream as you write it down. A popular format seems to involve recounting the dream in present tense and first person, as if it’s unfolding before the reader’s eyes. Another standard practice in dream therapy (which in these times seems heavily dominated by Jungian depth psychology) is to give each dream a title (see Tristine Rainer above), presumably for indexing and reference when later analyzing and interpreting the dreams in sequence.

Clearly, though, it’s up to each journal keeper to handle their dreams in any way that feels useful and instructive. Dream life, as part of internal experience, offers access to elusive non-rational, associative, and image-centered mental processes that may reward creative exploration in the pages of a journal.

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