Author: Renée Coleman Ph.D.
Book: “Icons of a Dreaming Heart”– The Art and Practice of Dream-Centered Living
1. What inspired you to write this book?
Well, the kind of work we do in the dreamtime makes it difficult for people to describe to others what actually goes on. In some ways the intention was to put some of the work that we do out there, making it practical and accessible to all people. But the other thing is that people ask me all the time about what books on dreams they should read. While there are some really great books out there on dreams, none of them convey the kind work we do with this approach “from the inside.” I wrote Icons of a Dreaming Heart as an attempt to do just that. But, it was also a way to answer all the frequently asked questions that folks pose. So when Robert Sardello turned to me during a conversation and suggested, “Why don’t you write a book on dreams,” it struck me that the time was right. I’d wanted to write something for a long time but I didn’t know how to do it.
2. Tell me about the book. How did you come up with the story, angle, or idea?
Initially, I wanted to write a kind of “soul” biography, which would include things that struck me from the dreamtime. So the stories that I use in the book are stories that I tell in my practice, stories from my life. I use them to highlight the kinds of things that the dreamtime is trying to open us into. I’ve used some of these stories for quite a while, but I never tried to string them all together. The process of trying to find the right form took me 5 or 6 or maybe even 7 years. But slowly, over time, the form began to take shape. When the form of the book began revealing itself to me the writing aspect got a lot easier, and I just began weaving the whole thing into a kind of dreaming tapestry.
3. Can you describe the essence of the book?
The title and subtitle let us in on a lot. It’s really about the art of dream tending and the various practices for being in the dreamtime, that is, noticing the dreams as presences, as ongoing invitations, as initiatory encounters, and as the call to our destinies. All of these things are what the book (and the dreamtime) try to bring to us to recognize, so we are invited to become on-going creative participants in and of the dreamtime.
4. What kind of research did you do for this book?
I’ve spent decades engaging with dreams, my own and others. I’ve followed the more traditional paths of other dreamtime practices and sought out the various ways of working with dreams, mostly out of curiosity. But I was dissatisfied, and more than just a little uncomfortable, with all the elaborate systems. They just don’t sit well with me, somewhere deep inside, perhaps with the “Cree” in me, the First Nation part of me that cannot be conquered by a system, any system. Dream systems seem to me to be imposed on the dreamtime rather than the other way around. In other words, it’s the systems themselves that freeze the dream in a kind of a framework that is decidedly un-dreamlike. So imagine my delight when I found James Hillman. His work is so revolutionary and so surprising, and it allowed me to engage with the kind of language that is very much like the dreamtime. The moment I read The Dream and the Underworld it became my bible.
But as far as research, it has always been from within the dreamtime, that is, phenomenologically, and descriptively from within the dreamtime itself. So I’ve spent a good deal of time moving into what is actually going on. Dream Tending asks: What is happening here? Who is visiting here? And what is being asked of me now? These are the kinds of questions that draw the individual into the actual dream, into what our dreams are trying to give us. I am deeply informed by James Hillman, Robert Sardello, Henry Corbin, Steve Aizenstat, Chris Downing, Rumi and others. But in the dream room, they become dreaming presences rather than theories that I apply to the work. Their work, their presences, become present to what is actually there in the dreamtime, between us, and between the dreamers and me, and between the dreams—and all of it actively and creatively present and mingling, lovingly interweaving.
5. What is the hardest part of writing for you?
Stopping. I would love to write everyday, there are two things that I really love to do: dream tending and writing. The hardest thing I find with writing is knowing when it’s time to leave it alone. I can endlessly tinker with something, in an effort to stay engaged with the material, I suppose, or as a way of not letting it be, to have its own autonomy in the world. So the endings of a creative writing endeavor are difficult for me to navigate. But, of course, I didn’t write the book for me. Without the “reader” in mind, as James Hillman reminds us, all writing is vanity. But I can get caught in the personal aspect, enjoying the process and not wanted to let it go. I suppose it’s a bit like a love affair that has come to a natural end—both lovers know it’s over but it’s still hard to go your separate ways.
6. What is a typical working day for you as a writer?
I jealously guard my office and keep it exclusively for the dreaming presences that find their way into my practice. So I don’t use my office for writing. Instead, I write in bed, mostly supine, with my back propped up with a bunch of pillows. In addition to my private practice, I have 4 kids that I’m still trying to raise, so I write in all the “in-betweens” whenever I can. Oh, and I don’t watch any television. So, that helps free up a bit of time.
7. What is the best thing about being an author?
The presence of the book being, in other words, the life presence of the book itself. I loved discovering the book’s personality as it revealed itself to me. And the process of trying to render it properly—I looked for the various ways that I might reveal the book’s being to the reader—so that it might “be” in the world as it wanted, and that it might continue to unfold through the reader’s attention to it. It was amazing to be a part of that, and challenging as well. Challenging because everywhere I looked, there I was . . . and it was hard to step far enough back so that the book’s being could step forward. I’m not sure I always managed to do this, but not for lack of trying.
8. When do you realize you wanted to write a book?
I have been trying to write this book for a long time; it was a question of trying to find the form. But when Robert Sardello suggested that I write a book on dreams it prompted me to get serious.
9. How long did it take you to write this book?
My whole life. On the one hand, of course, this is very true. There’s a lifetime of experience and of showing up in the book. But the actual writing took about a year. I’m a bit of a binger in that when I’m actively engaged with something creative, a lot of other things that I normally engage in and with fall by the wayside. Like friendships. I’m a rather lousy friend as friends go. Luckily, I have very patient and supportive and understanding friends.
10. What was one of the most surprising things you learned writing Icons of a Dreaming Heart?
The discovery of the book being and how it continued to unfold with me, through me, and into the world. But besides that, it was proven to me by my editor, Lee Nichol (a brilliant editor, by the way!) and by Robert Sardello, that I don’t know when I’m good. And that all too frequently when I think I’m good, or even at my best, I’m actually not. That was really surprising and quite a lot of fun, actually, to learn.
And I was really surprised when I finished the writing how much sadness I was visited by. It reminded me a bit of post partum blues. I really went through a period of deep sadness that washed over me like waves. And, though I didn’t take it personally, it really surprised me a lot. It felt as though it had something to do with the book being itself and not a “thing,” and now no longer something that was just between me and the book being. It’s really rather like what happens when a woman has a baby. For those first nine months, it’s mostly between the mother and the child. But when the mother gives birth, suddenly the child is in the world for it’s own sake and for the sake of the world. And that’s what it was like for me with the book. It was no longer something I “had” all to myself (and maybe I never did, but it felt as though I did). And now I was sending the book out there, into its own life, its own on-going creation. And I was really surprised by the sadness of letting go. But it was something, I guess, that I needed to go through. I’m not sad it’s out there on its own any more. In fact, I’m delighted.
11. Can you tell us about the challenge of getting your first book published?
Well, the publisher didn’t like the first draft. He liked the first half of what I wrote but not the second half. So I had to drop that second-half thread, double back to the middle, and pick up a different thread altogether. And then I followed the new thread to where it led. Naturally, that took me in a completely different direction. It was clear to me that the book was trying to be different than what I originally imagined. Once I recognized this, it was like feeling my way along in the dark, slowly, which was a challenge and also a great joy. So it’s a discovery, and maybe you see a little bit with the corner of your eye, but then, when you get closer to it, and your eyes begin to adjust to what you’re seeing, and you discover what is actually there, trying to be born through you. And that’s quite a lovely creative process.
I really didn’t know what the book was until, indeed, it was. It was a slow recognition of the book being itself, and even now, though it sits there on the table like a “thing”—with the words set on its pages so that they cannot be changed–it’s not “done” in the sense that it’s not a finished and fully-created thing. In other words, the life of the book, which intends to be on-going—depends entirely upon the reader and what is creatively possible between the reader and the book.
12. How did you come up with the title?
The original idea was to call it “Iconographia.” I wanted to write a book about icons. The idea was to take little vignettes and piece them together so that the viewers gaze would be focused as though through icons. But I couldn’t actually write that book, and so I stumbled around for a long time beating myself up about the book I longed to write but was not yet “ripened” enough to be able to write. But that’s when Robert Sardello said, “Well, what book can you write? Why not write the one that you can write right now?” And so then we got talking about the realm of the dreamtime. And, as you may already know, there is an ongoing argument among scientists about where dreams take place in the brain. But I contend that it doesn’t really make any difference “where” the dream takes place. Dreaming is always happening, and the organ of perception for the dreamtime is the heart, not the brain. So that’s how I came up with the title.
13. What have been the toughest criticism and your best compliment as an author?
My editor, Lee, said things that made me laugh all the time, like I was “getting tangled up in my own socks” and that I was sometimes “seduced by my own brilliance.” That’s why I needed someone like Lee to edit the book. I’m not a reliable judge of when I’m good or when I’m muddled up. And I consistently take too much for granted with this work.
And one of my former professors, whom I greatly admire, found that while the writing was “enchanting,” the book was a bit too “New Age” for her. There is nothing New Age about this book, so her comment came as something of a blow to me. I think the difficulty with this material is that the reader is required to encounter it from within the realm of the heart. Readers can miss this altogether if they are trying to get something with their “heads.” So my professor’s comment made me aware of the challenges of this sort of book. It’s easy to misread it. And so I imagine that this is bound to happen. We are so used to reading books for their content, or for what we can get out of them, the take-away message, or whatever. But this is not that kind of book. This is “book as encounter” with the dreamtime. There are others who have read it and who have gotten this. They have been really touched by the “encounters” with the dreamtime, and so they talk in terms of being changed by what the book offers. And that’s very encouraging.
14. What books have influenced your life the most?
There are two books that make me tremble, still, after all these many years: Henry Corbin’s Alone with the Aloneand Robert Sardello’s The Power of Soul. James Hillman’s The Dream and the Underworld, I’ve read something like 20 times. It’s magnificent and vital and rich and filled to the brim with dreaming wisdom. But it doesn’t make me tremble like the two I mentioned. Alone with the Alone and The Power of Soul cause me to bodily tremble with a kind of recognition, as though they were written for me. Not only for me, of course, but as though my body recognizes them before my intellect does. And so I’ve spent a good deal of time with them, engaged with both of them, separately and together. And they deeply inform my life, my work, and my practice.
15. Which writers do you consider as mentors?
I really admire what Robert Sardello does with books, which is one of the reasons I wanted to work with him on this book. Very few “non-fiction” writers these days are doing what he does with books. Very, very few. Where the books themselves become a portal and the reader is drawn through the material to who he or she is on the other side of the book, that is, to whom they are becoming through the book. Extraordinary! But besides him, it’s the poets and the fiction writers that I admire the most and that I spend the most time with, though I don’t have a lot of time for fiction these days. But as for the poets, I’m especially smitten with Rumi, and Hafiz, and Rilke, of course. And Pablo Neruda. I think Neruda is the poet of the future.
16. What projects are you working on now?
I’m working on how to be in the world with this book, which is something I actually have to learn. It’s one thing to write the book, but now I have to get the word out about it in ways that will encourage readers to reap the benefits of what it has to offer them.
And there’s another book gathering itself at the edges of things—on the so-called dead—I’m in the contemplation phase.
And I’ve been mulling over the possibility of a radio show. I do a lot of dream work over the phone and several people have asked me to do the phone thing as a group. And it’s out of trying to figure out how to do this that I got the idea to do a radio show. So that’s one of the next things. And then I’m also starting to do dream work with couples, privately, and in couples groups. And that’s really exciting as well.
And I’m also going to the School of Spiritual Psychology in Benson, North Carolina, in October to get a certificate of teaching there. So there are lots of new and exciting things to look forward to.
Note from the Author:
My sincere hope is that people will read the book and get a feel, a strong feel for how to work with dreams in a really practical and accessible way. Folks don’t need any degrees, or any kind of systematic learning…its just about learning how to be open and receptive to what dreams are actually giving us. Dreams are so generous. They give themselves to us all the time, all the time, all the time. But at night the conditions are just right so that we might remember what dreams we are being given. So I would like people to become more engaged with what is being so freely and generously given. Every night seems like a miracle to me, so I would like people to know that they don’t need an advanced psychological system. All they have to do is learn how to be with what’s being given, and then to make something out of this. It’s lovely. So I want people to have a story that opens them up to the loveliness that’s being offered through dreams and the dreamtime.