Every writer knows a thing or two about daydreaming. But what about dreamzoning? What’s that—and how can it help you cultivate inspiration for your storytelling?
Put simplistically, dreamzoning is basically just daydreaming on steroids. It’s purposeful, focused daydreaming. It’s intense. It’s fun. And if you’re a writer, it’s the mother lode of all story ideas.
I’ve named-dropped “dreamzoning” a lot in recent years, but after an exchange on Patreon with Susan Geiger, I realized some readers may not fully understand what I’m talking about. Susan said:
I look forward to trying out “dreamzoning” (I’ve heard you talk about it on your podcast before but never fully understood it….).
Because dreamzoning is such an amazing tool and experience, I figured it was time to do a core post about it.
What Is Dreamzoning?
The word “dreamzone” came into my consciousness years ago when I read From Where You Dream, a transcript of Pulitzer winner Robert Olen Butler’s lectures about “the process of writing fiction.”
In the book, he talked about how he would take the time to find his story inspiration by sitting back at his desk and “zoning out.” He’d watch the pictures in his head, following them, not guiding them but just watching to see what would unfold. Later, he would record the snippets of his imaginings on index cards and use them to formulate an outline. If he ran into a plot problem or question, he would revert to dreamzoning to find the solution.
Like many writers, I immediately resonated with his description of this deeply intuitive mental space. I’d naturally gone there for years, even calling my imaginings my “movies” when I was young. The dreamzone was the space I lived in between waking and sleep every night, as well as the space I physically played in as a child when acting out my stories (a practice that only petered out in my twenties). It’s where I went mentally when doing the “creative lollygagging” chores of dishes or weeding. It’s the space we all go when we’re in the throes of writing—particularly when we’ve hit that sweet spot of “the zone.”
That said, the act of “dreamzoning” itself is, as Butler indicates, always intentional. It is a purposeful quest into the land of stories in order to excavate needed inspiration. Dreamzoning is a way to fill the well so our creative output doesn’t drain it.
Dreamzoning can be done in any number of ways. It can involve sitting at one’s desk with a handful of note cards, like Butler. Or it can happen on commutes with the scenery blurring past outside. Or it can happen every night before sleep. Or it can become a scheduled daily practice.
Over the years, my own preferred setup for dreamzoning has come to revolve around two key ingredients: fire and music.
It started years ago when my brother staged elaborate “fire nights.” Outside under the full moon, he’d create themed “sets” around a campfire, using a playlist for inspiration. There was a safari theme one night, a Dracula theme another. One year for Christmas, he created a winter wonderland complete with fairy lights, which my two-year-old niece went wide-eyed over, but which unfortunately had to be called due to a blizzard. Later on, he’d just curate playlists (my favorite musical discovery from those nights was Van Canto).
For me, the experiences naturally lent themselves to, you guessed it, zoning out and dropping in on my stories. I loved the experience so much and found it so conducive to inspiration that I eventually adopted it for myself. My fire nights, however, were significantly less elaborate—featuring a three-wick candle instead of a full-on set.
As I’ve struggled with burnout in the last few years (which, now that I think about it, coincided rather suspiciously with my brother’s moving away and the end of the fire nights), I’ve returned to this form of dreamzoning more consciously, incorporating it as a fifteen-minute practice at least three nights a week. Although I’m occasionally reluctant to make time, as soon as I drop in, I’m always reminded, Oh yes, this is why I love stories!
Why Should Writers Dreamzone?
First and foremost, dreamzoning is fun. Unless you happen to be that one brilliant adult who is still swordfighting and dragon-riding out in the backyard on a regular basis, you’ve perhaps noticed the intense creativity of childhood doesn’t always seem so available. Dreamzoning is a way to access that regularly (without throwing your back out or alarming the neighbors).
The dreamzone is a meditative state where your logical brain isn’t allowed. Like any form of meditation, logical thoughts may knock at the door, but you keep returning to the intuitive center from which the stories spontaneously arise. If you use music, as I do, it can be an aid and a cue to guide the dreaming. Sometimes, I see a full scene acted out, but often what I get is more like a music video—flashes of dramatic and symbolic imagery syncing up with the music.
Sometimes I get lots of good stuff, sometimes just one nugget, sometimes nothing. But the experience is always renewing and regenerative. It takes me back to the stories of my childhood, which were about nothing but play.
Finally, like any meditative state, dreamzoning can be calming and grounding in its own right within the mental buzziness of the normal day. Fun, useful, and healthy all at once–how about that!
7 Steps to Start Dreamzoning
Ultimately, dreamzoning is a highly personalized experience. You can do it randomly, or you can turn it into a daily practice—either right before writing or at another convenient time during the day. You can do it simply by leaning back and closing your eyes or by staring into the corner. You can do it for ten minutes—or you can do it for two hours (in the right circumstances, the latter is amazing). You can do it with props, or without. You can create an elaborate set around a campfire with high-def speakers and woofer—or you can opt for a candle and headphones.
The only thing that really matters is that you create for yourself a situation in which you can tune out the world and really drop in to your imaginative center.
The followings steps outline my own current process, which I’ve found highly effective.
1. Turn Out the Lights
You might also add “shut the door.” The point is to create an environment in which you can tune out the rest of the world—and your own chattering thoughts along with it. I do my dreamzoning practice in the early evenings, which means it’s not actually dark for half the year. But when it is—it’s even better. (And if you’ve opted for a fire pit under a full moon, better still!)
There’s just something immersive about being wrapped in darkness when going deep into the story realm. It’s like being in a huge dark theater while a gorgeous movie plays on the big screen. If nothing else, the darkness usually helps with concentration.
2. Light a Candle/Fire
The second concentration aid I’ve found transformative is fire. This started with my brother’s campfires, but for simplicity’s sake has now devolved into a three-wick candle on top of a trunk in my spare room (Spare Oom—the portal to all fantasy realms!). Especially when it’s dark, the fire helps focus attention. The flame’s undulating is enough to keep your eye’s attention without distracting you. (Plus, it’s led me to a lot of great fireside scene ideas.)
3. Set a Playlist
The final magic ingredient is music. I set a playlist for the amount of time I want to dreamzone (usually about fifteen minutes—or three songs). Sometimes I’ll specifically choose songs for a particular story I’m working on. Other times, I’ll just randomly select stuff and see where it takes me.
4. Get Comfy
Find a position you can comfortably hold for the duration of your playlist. I generally sit cross-legged on a floor chair across from my candle. If I were dreamzoning for a longer period of time, I would probably opt for a chair with a back. If you’re outside at the fire pit, bundle up against the cold and/or the mosquitoes. As ever, the point is to minimize distractions.
5. Drop In
The whole point of dreamzoning is to get out of our logical, “talky” brains and into our deep imaginative, intuitive cores. For me, as a visual thinker, this looks like mini-movies playing in my head. Back in childhood, this zone was my preferred mental state. These days, the talky brain sometimes has a hard time keeping quiet (it’s kind of like a kid squirming in church). Particularly since my dreamzone practice is only fifteen minutes, it’s important for me to drop in as quickly as possible and stay there. The music helps a ton, and, honestly, so does the urgency. (If I had an hour or two, I’d probably be a lot more lazy about disciplining my thoughts.)
6. Find the Zone
Usually, my brain will pick up a story thread right away, but sometimes it can take me a bit to find a dream that really resonates and interests me enough to follow it down the rabbit hole. If I’m struggling, I’ll consciously bring up a specific story or a scene from the previous day’s dreamzoning and use it to kick-start my imagination. If I’m trying to work through a specific story question or problem, I will gently pose that to my brain—being careful not to start rationalizing answers but just using the question as a prompt to see what my subconscious has in response.
7. Make Notes
Finally—and this is super-important—I make notes as soon as the dreamzone practice is over. Otherwise, like my night dreams, my gleanings from the dreamzone tend to slip away. I keep a running document of notes for all my story ideas, and at the end of a dreamzone session, I’ll just take a quick minute to type some one-sentence descriptions of ideas, answers, or images that I can use to trigger my memory later on when I start writing or plotting in a more logical way. When I look through my notes, I’m often surprised by all the good stuff I’ve recorded but have forgotten about in the interim. It always reignites my excitement about a story!
When people ask me to name my favorite part of the writing process, my answer is always “conception”—or, more to the point, daydreaming. Dreamzoning has become my main go-to tool for retaining the playfulness of my childhood creativity in conceiving and nurturing my favorite ideas. It’s good fun in its own right and an incredibly powerful tool for nurturing inspiration on a regular basis. Give it a try!