Electric Dreams

Jill Mellick on Creativity and Dreams

Interview by
Kathleen Sullivan
Edited by
 Peggy Coats 

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Sullivan, Kathleen and Peggy Coats, ed. (1996 October). Jill Mellick on Creativity and Dreams. Interview. Electric Dreams 3(9). Retrieved July 26, 2000 from Electric Dreams on the World Wide Web: http://www.dreamgate.com/electric-dreams  

The following are excerpts from a longer interview conducted by Kathleen Sullivan with Jill Mellick, author of "The Natural Artistry of Dreams", a creative approach to dreamworking, which presents and utilizes a variety of non-analytical means of connecting with the dream and with our natural creativity. Kathleen Sullivan is a dreamworker in the Monterey Bay area of California, and the host of a weekly radio show on dreams, "Dreams, Another Way of Knowing". Electric Dreams wishes to thank Ms. Mellick and Ms. Sullivan for their permission to share portions of this interview with our readers.

KS: This evening, we are delighted to be interviewing Jill Mellick, who has written a remarkable book called "The Natural Artistry of Dreams". Jill comes at the dream from a multi-faceted perspective and opens up your innate abilities as an artist as you engage with an art form called The Dream. Thank you, Jill, for giving us the time tonight to be with us.

JM: I'm delighted to be here with a group who share the same sorts of enthusiasms and beliefs I do.

KS: I'm going to start by introducing my audience to you through your writing, Jill. Let me do a little quoting now from your book, so our audience can have a sense of who you are as a writer:

"Dreams prove us creative artists, natural poets, capable of simile, metaphor, symbol and shear imagery unbound by the cognitive restrictions of waking life. Dreams prove us painters, sculptors, superb storytellers and mythmakers. Dream images are sketched in fugitive ink, however. We do not reexperience them immediately; they fade to invisibility on the fast-turning pages of waking consciousness. In the ocean of the unconscious, dreams are swells that rise and pause and break on the shores of personal consciousness, leaving precious flotsam and jetsam on the beach of waking awareness. We cannot influence the tides and the currents, but we can ride the crest of the waves into shore and gather the treasures to us, as we walk at dawn. We cannot make a contract with our dreams, and dreams do not make contracts with us. Dreams promise nothing. They don't give answers. They don't even promise us their remembered presence. We can, however, make a covenant with our dreams. Dreams ask trustworthy questions. Questions from our deepest selves; perhaps deeper. We can choose to have a passing acquaintance, or a deep, long friendship with them. We can promise them we shall be with them, sing them, dance them, laugh them, weep for them, draw them. If we are willing to make this covenant, we can then receive what comes from our dreams as unbidden gifts. Two separate, trusting people, in a loving, conscious relationship cannot demand reciprocity, they can only offer each other the possibility of being together in ways that allow their best selves to fly accompanied into the unknown, often moonless sky, sustained by quiet air currents of acceptance. Like lovers, all we can do is promise to be there for our dreams, with heart, soul, intellect, body and discernment. If we can let go of demanding, we can begin to learn the dreams language of love.

KS: Id like to give you an opportunity to add to that from your perspective today anything new that may have been generated since you wrote this, or anything that struck you as you heard your writing.

JM: I think its been a deepening, Kathleen. I said that out of my own lived experience with dreams and in working with people here in this office. Every week people walk in here with their dreams, and I am stunned at the wisdom of the dreams. People will bring in something they had ten years ago and say "here it was!" I wouldn't say that what I said there I can always hold as a constant, and when its not staying a constant for me, inevitably someone will walk into my office that day with something that shows that they are carrying that constancy in them. So the presence of that kind of fidelity that I'm talking about is there in the room even when I'm thinking "oh, those were some pretty banal images I had in my dreams last night". Suddenly Ill find that image appearing in someone else's dream that day, and Ill realize I was wrong again. There's this wonderful sense of comeuppance from my own unconscious! So I think it is a deepening, rather than something I would add to.

KS: An awesomeness of the form isn't it incredible what this process allows us; invites us to do demands of us. Isn't it amazing that there is this inner working that's going on 2-1/2 hours every night out of our consciousness that can so profoundly and so dramatically affect our lives if we enter into relationship with it.

JM: I would venture to say that it profoundly affects our lives even when we DON'T. But we don't get as much conscious choice about how we work with that. We are not the partners I'm talking about. If we choose to ignore it, it can sometimes have an influence in our lives in a very different way.

KS: You say here that "Dreams promise nothing. They don't give answers. They don't even promise us their remembered presence" We've commented tonight on the importance of the message which the dream brings. Is that paradoxical to the relationship, or is it when we enter into relationship, then we get the answers?

JM: My sense is that they're not promising anything in the waking world. When I say "dreams promise us nothing", I mean that were often bringing our waking consciousness to our dreams and wanting something from them, in the way that we want our partner or our child to behave in a certain way. Dreams are coming from their own culture; their own world; their own awareness. It offers us something, but it wont promise us something, that fits our particular template of what we have a need for. Its like an augury. When you read an augury, its never clear. It doesn't say "go left", but it might say "its better to take one direction than two", but it wont tell you which one! So that's what I mean when I say they're not promising us anything they're not promising anything in the waking world. I was really taking an extreme statement there by trying to free us up from the danger of co-opting the dream into the service of our ego world.

KS: No question, and I would make the statement that people who are reading dreams literally and interpreting them without benefit of symbol or metaphor are working in service of the ego, the old script; the original myth. They are staying stuck, rather than, as I hear you describing it, going into a relationship with the dream which presents a broader perspective unavailable to my conscious ego self, and which has very different goals from the person who went to sleep last night having this image of the world or self. My sense is that we are always being presented with models, more than images, of how we can be, as Jean Houston refers to us, as "the possible human". And that these models come but if we don't work with them, don't move into partnership with them these fabulous diamonds sit, almost wasted.

JM: Yes, a very tragic waste. I think you would agree with me though that there is no guarantee that even if the dreamer had worked with the dream at that time that he or she would have come into partnership with it, and not in the way that we can twenty years later. That's where the covenant part comes in. We can only be with the dream; it doesn't guarantee us that automatic wisdom, but the act of being with it allows us to stay in relationship with something larger. For some reason, before you came this morning, I was wandering around with the word "wonder" in my mind. Playing with the two sides of that "I wander about" and holding a sense of "wonder" at the same time. For me, that's enough sometimes. If I can wonder about the dream which is the same as wandering about or around the dream, its keeping something vivified between me and my unconscious, between me and the collective unconscious of our larger society. At some point that will synchronize or come into synergy with the outer world, so that twenty years later I will open up, because Ill hear somebody talking, perhaps using an image in a speech and suddenly it becomes vivified and I will get a flash of that dream. Something was opened up in me at that time; an aperture, simply by my being willing to be with the dream in a state of wonder. Not necessarily in a state of wisdom.

KS: I like that! And I so frequently have that experience of being in conversation with somebody and having a flash of a dream from long ago, and knowing that somehow that is enormously important because I took the dream twenty years ago, played with it; kept it alive; kept it in front of me.

JM: Exactly. Sustain the energy and the mystery of it, without pinning it. If you take a butterfly and you pin it down and describe it all, you've got the butterfly, but it will never fly again. My intent in working with the creative arts with the dream is to allow that butterfly to continue to fly.

KS: Keeping the vital energies moving, rather than turning the dream into a dead language for scholars to look believing that I know what that means, and, worse yet, that I know what that one means for you. I'm thinking again about the wondering and the wandering about and playing with a dream so that the images are alive, so that were intrigued by; energized by; irritated by the dream. Its as if there is a road that's open between me and my future and when I walk into that part of my future where the dream is going to turn from wonder into wisdom, then it pops back up.

JM: Oh yes! And that's what I call "comeuppance" to my cynicism or skepticism. It just keeps happening.

KS: And that's why doing dreamwork for an atheist is still a spiritual experience. It has that transpersonal, beyond-the-self, beyond-the-ego charge to it that is such an exciting, meaningful way to live and be. Lets move into dreams as art forms. Id like to have you, first of all, address the significance and importance and value of theory in understanding the dream. In my own case, I've been very activated by Jung's theories, and Hillman's take on Jung's work which you presented very well in that the dream is not to be used to serve the ego; not to be used as a lottery ticket; as a psychic tarot card reading, but that the dream has its own agenda. Now these are all theories. We cant talk without these theories, and I cant teach people how to begin to approach their dreams and keep them alive unless they have a connection to them, which comes to a great extent at least being intrigued by the symbol and being willing to wonder, wander and play with it, and begin to make guesses as to what this is. For that we need theory. In several places in the book, you make strong assertions that you don't want people to get locked into a theoretical, analytical perspective with their dreams. On the other hand, we do need theory. So speak about this conundrum, paradox, interweaving that has to happen left brain/right brain/unconscious/creative.

JM: My sense is that theory is a story, except that the protagonists are concepts. I happen to find that Jung's and Hillman's stories about dream life work for me because they enable me to stay with the dream; they give me ways to ask questions to stay in deep relationship with my dream world. What I like about Jung is he felt that we must be ready at any stage to construct an entirely new theory of dreams. Its that kind of freezing theory, using theory as a template; using the theory as a story that doesn't allow for revisions. For instance, when I'm working with people who have a theme in their lives, of, perhaps, competition, if they could only see their world through that one storyline, then everything that happens to them is fitted into that template. That, to me, is not allowing the material to inform us. That's the risk we take when we get into theory. The other thing is that we live in a fast food society, and we like answers. Its very convenient to say "oh! She's blonde and has brown eyes in the dream, therefore she is my shadow." Its a way to dismiss something by naming it. Instead of "I wonder if this has something to do with Shadow; I wonder if I consented to the gestalt of the figure in the dream; I wonder how I might be with this----", then the theory becomes a jumping point; a place of expanding rather than wrapping it up. Its a paradoxical place to be, where we move between maps and exploring unmapped material. So that I might say "Well, I've never been in this valley before, but I've been in other valleys. And Jung says that valleys can mean this kind of thing I wonder if this means that to me, or does it have something else to tell me."

KS: In addition, there's a sense of a need we have as human beings to have a multi-faceted way of approaching things, and we tend to get locked into one repeated pattern. One of the reasons I love your book is that you give such a multi-dimensional approach to working with dream material. Your book is a great permission-giver in terms of actual process.

JM: When we work with our dreams, were a little like trapeze artists, and we need a net underneath. Id like to think of the exercises I've created in the book as "the net" they give us a place to bounce off. My hope would be if I've led people through the exercise successfully the exercise will be irrelevant because they will have started their own creative process. I don't want my exercises to become exactly what I'm talking about; another way to define the dream. I want to provide enough foundation so people can springboard off of it.

KS: As an artist, you are interested in having people work with the image in its raw form; not just sitting down with a dream dictionary and trying to determine its meaning.

JM: Yes, and also, to allow the other sense channels to have a say as well. The concept of synesthesia is very possible a mixing of the senses. To taste a sensation; to image a taste. My grandfather used to say, when he'd get a meal in front of him, "Be quiet, I'm listening to the taste." And to me, dreams do that; they have that capacity to simply mix the senses. We have to find a way to open up to that language that goes beyond storytelling. When we simply speak about the dream; when I try to tell you about my dream this morning, I'm still going to get caught in that Western hole to tell a story with a beginning, middle and end. I will probably say "and then", or "the scene changes" or "it stops there" and there'll be a note of apology in my voice because it didn't have an end. I mention in the book that there was a very well known writing teacher, who shall remain nameless, who asked his students to bring in their dreams. They had to write them out, and read them out in class, and he critiqued them from the point of view of whether or not they were "good" or "bad" stories. That, to me, epitomizes what I prefer not to do with dreams. Dreams are more than stories; more than the conventional Western story line that really only came into being with determinism in the 19th century. Until then, stories were freer and more fluid things where your point of view could change; the time frame could change. But from the 19th century on, with fiction, we became bound by the Western form of the story, whereas the arts and other cultures ways of telling stories are not bound by those things; the dream is not bound by those things. So if I have a dream feeling or a dream image, I can express that in a non-linear way that's not bound by beginning, middle, end; by causality; by steadiness of viewpoint. If I paint it or take the clay and breathe my experience of the dream into it, the clay can hold that form of the dream that goes beyond those constrictions.

KS: You've presented a whole lot of freeing ways to approach the dream in your book. One of the complaints I hear the most from dreamers I my groups is that "I didn't have a dream; I only had a snippet." In fact, we can work for hours on that snippet. A single sentence; an incomplete phrase is often more profound than a dream that is written in a linear fashion and overs many pages.

JM: Absolutely. One of the suggestions that I make for people to begin to appreciate the depth of those images, is to simply take one of those images, such a visual image, and to imagine that it is a six foot by six foot painting in a well known gallery, on exhibit all by itself. If its just a hairy arm, and that's you see, imagine what its like to have a modern painter paint that arm six foot by six foot. What does it say to you? What does it evoke in you? Its a way of shifting your perspective. If you just get a word, like "experience" and you tell yourself that wasn't a dream, if you imagine that there is the most respected actor in the world standing on stage and saying that word to two thousand people, what's it going to do to you? So its a way to shift our relationship, again, to what were saying instead of just dismissing it.

KS: In fact, one of the most prominent forms of dream abuse is judging the dream. Saying a dream is "bad" because ---. People new to dream groups almost invariably do that because we come from a very judgmental culture.

JM: And guilty, too. We have affairs in our night life and we feel terribly guilty when we wake up.
KS: Its amazing to watch people move into dream work for the first time and to see how the inculturation of the individual is what determines the understanding of the dream, without any concern for protecting what the dream image is.

JM: That's where I find it very helpful to remind myself that to enter into the dream world is to enter into a different culture. To lay my values or my morality on the dream world is a form of spiritual colonialism. I have to tell myself that this is a culture that I don't understand. When you work with dreams over a long period of time you become like an anthropologist spending a long time in one culture, and you gradually come to understand the rules, the ethics, the energy of the dreams.

KS: What do you do, Jill, with psychological tests that purport to determine whether or not an individual is creative?

JM: Well, that's a little like commenting about a horse after its out of the gate! When I work with people, I don't have to question whether or not they are creative, because it is so obvious that they are. I do have to ask myself, and invite them to ask themselves, what their perception of creativity is.

KS: And whether they're willing to exercise their creative muscles. I think most of us in this very judgmental culture in which We've been raised are afraid of our creativity for a lot of reasons.

JM: Well, it gets co-opted in the service of product. Most of the people I know who have difficulty with their creativity were told somewhere along the line that "that doesn't look like a tree", and then, given that the product was not what somebody else expected, they conclude they have no creativity. Whereas my sense is that this is not about product its not about "art for arts sake", its about "art for the souls sake". A dream is art for the souls sake. I find myself much more aligned with and helped by the Pueblo Indian culture there's a beautiful word in the Tewa Indian language called "po-wa-ha". These people are so creative so many artists, sculptors and potters and weavers - and there is no word for "art" in their culture. The closest word for "art" in their language, "po-wa-ha", kind of means "creativity", but the literal translation is "water-wind-breath", and it is the spirit that moves through everything. It is the process of creation that is within each of us, so they value the process as the thing which is priceless, not the product. That's why I've paid so much attention to presenting so many art forms in my book from myth to drama to ritual to painting to haiku to sculpture; all of this because its not about us being able to produce a good dance or a good painting its about us being with "po-wa-ha", that spirit of creativity that is the language of the soul. Its a cycle creativity/soul/dream they're all tied together.

KS: Dreams evoke so much in us, as does any art form. What does it mean to say that dreams evoke something in us?

JM: Being an old English major, I immediately went back to the meaning of the word "evoke", which comes from "vocare", "to call", or to call out. That's what I experience. I would hope that I could be there with a dreamer to call out what is there; not to call it or name it, but to call it out.

KS: Would you agree that is the job of the dream to evoke from us?

JM: I don't know if that's the job of the dream, but it certainly seems to do that a lot. It lays down new energetic pathways.

KS: Well here's an interesting question raised by Clairessa Pinkola Estes why is it that so often when people tell a dream they begin to cry?

JM: Well, I wonder if we can go back to the idea of that which is evoked; that it is the call of the soul, and when we speak the dream; when we re-embody the dream with words we resonate with the truth that is coming from our soul, even when we don't understand. It goes beyond cognition; beyond reason, into the felt sense of the dream.

KS: Jill, our time has run out, and were so delighted to have spent time with you. Perhaps we can "evoke" your willingness to do this again sometime! Thank you, and thank you for your wonderful work.

Jill Mellicks book, "The Natural Artistry of Dreams Creative Ways to Bring the Wisdom of Dreams to Waking Life", is available through Conari Press, ISBN 1-57321-019-2.