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Dream Journal

Little Pieces, Big Messages

People often complain That they remember their dreams in choppy pieces that seem unrelated to one another. They mistakenly believe that unless they have a coherent narrative of a whole dream, they don't have enough essential information to do dreamwork. Further, some people who do not remember their dreams in a neatly linear fashion fear they have "repressed memories" or other bugaboos of modern psychotherapy. In short, they worry that their sketchy dream fragments mean something is wrong with them.

Each person remembers dreams in his or her own way. Some people have three-act plays where they are the stars. Others feel as if they are watching a movie, as the audience or director. Some dreamers report specific lines of dialogue and wise pronouncements, while others only grasp the intentions of their dream characters in a hazy, telepathic way. One woman I know always sees a little drawing during her dreams. Another sees only swirling colors and shapes.

Who's normal?

They all are. Each dreamer stamps a personal style onto the dream and then acquires an individual way to relate it to others. Any dream or dream fragment is suitable for dreamwork, no matter how jumbled, short, broken, silly or trivial it seems at first glance.

Dreams don't usually follow the narrative tradition we use in waking life, where a story has a beginning, middle and end. In dreams, we're more likely to interrupt ourselves—to throw in a comment about Uncle Henry, an ingredient for barbecue sauce or an old song lyric. Somehow, these disparate elements are relevant and meaningful, or we wouldn't put them together in our dream.

For this reason, the chronology of dreams or dream fragments is unimportant. More important for understanding is knowing the significance of each element and what it calls to mind. My first association to barbecue sauce is a cookout or party. That makes me think that it's been years since I entertained. With that image, perhaps I'm saying to myself that I need to be more sociable instead of working so hard. Maybe it's time to invite guests again.

A dream is a condensed representation of all your concerns at the time of the dream, along with some attempt at resolving whatever problems are pressing at you. The compression and multiple subjects make the dream seem nonsensical or just a mishmash of unrelated images. We are trying to tell ourselves so many different bits of wisdom in one short night's sleep.

This economy leads to quirky symbols and bizarre juxtapositions of dream elements, just as it does in poetry. For this same reason, poetry is often difficult for people to understand until they learn to tune into poetic language. But as dreamers, we are speaking to ourselves in the poetry of our personal inner language. We choose the perfect image that holds layers of emotional truth.

The value of "little" dreams is that they contain big messages without all the frills and filigree of longer, more convoluted dreams, which may overwhelm the dreamer with their complexity.

If you have only a dream fragment, you can still do dreamwork in the same way you would with a longer dream story.

Steps for working with a fragment:

  • Write down in your journal whatever you remember, even if it's only an odor, a color, feeling, word or single image. Don't expect it to be clear.
  • As you write, note whatever spontaneous associations you have to this image—perhaps a snippet of conversation or a scene.
  • Does the fragment call to mind other dream fragments that came before or after this one? Write these, too. Don't worry about the order in which you had them. With each fragment, you can reel the dream in.
  • What emotions did you have during the dream? If you have several dream pieces, label each one with a dominant emotion, such as fear, surprise, anger, curiosity, sexual excitement, delight, anxiety or sadness. Emotion is key to meaning.
  • Note any evolution of feelings within the dream fragment or among the dream pieces. Perhaps you first felt confusion, then fear, then a sense that you could conquer or escape from the dangerous encounter. Describe these emotional shifts.
  • On waking, what were your feelings about the dream? These may be quite different from the emotions during the dream. For example, perhaps you were sexually excited and happy during the dream, but on waking you are dismayed or appalled at your choice of partner.
  • Ask yourself how your emotional state during the dream is a statement about something in your waking life from the day of the dream.
  • What does the dream teach you? What wisdom does it offer? Consider how this statement refers to several areas of your life—work, home, relationships.
  • Write down a question you'd like an answer to when you dream again. Make this a question that needs a paragraph for an answer, not a yes or no answer.

Your dream fragment or dream jumble, rather than being flimsy or inadequate, is actually the perfect vehicle for you to talk to yourself and listen. That simple metaphor can speak to you. An example might be a dream image where you put on the shoes of a stranger. This can fully capture a message of compassion: to walk in another's shoes. If you needed something more elaborate or complex, your unconscious would have provided it.

If your dream style is terse, work with what you have. No dream is too short or too mixed up to do dreamwork. All dreams contain important information that you are trying to tell yourself. Learning to listen to your inner self is the first step toward interpreting your personal symbolic language. Then you can take this information into action in your waking life.

This article appeared in the August 2001 issue of Personal Journaling.

Joan Mazza is the author of From Dreams to Discovery, Things That Tick Me Off and Exploring Your Sexual Self all Walking Stick Press. Visit

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