it’s all about me: an experiment in using projective dream work as a model for giving feedback to other artists

Creating work in isolation is often lonesome.  That’s why many writers and other artists turn to the workshop for  critique, feedback, and inspiration. While helpful in many ways,  much of the feedback I’ve received at writers’ and artists’ groups seemed superficial and impersonal.* In the traditional workshop, artists sit fidgeting, drink too much coffee, and tell each other lies.  Members tend to offer sweet generalities about the piece in question so that everybody will think they’re nice and will like them, or they rip the work to shreds with their cleverness so that everybody will think they’re smart and will like them.** In either case, the critique is typically far more informative about the people doing the critiquing than about the piece on the table.

I wanted something better for our 8-day multidisciplinary arts intensive. I wanted to go deeper. I wanted the artists to share what they honestly thought and felt about the content of newly created pieces. I wanted to have nothing to do with weak cheerleading or clever critiquing. I wanted genuine response.

Genuine response would require a genuine shift in what we artists ordinarily do. Instead of simply evaluating and critiquing the technicalities of a piece, each member would share what she thought and felt about her own experience of another artist’s work.  In other words, each artist might get a glimpse at the impact her work might have on an audience.

I had been planning the intensive with Roger Sams at his Sacred Arts Center, when I met Donna Mazzola, a student of what she called “dream work.” Donna invited a small group gathered around Roger’s dining room table to try a little dream work of our own.

I love dreaming and talking about my dreams. Who doesn’t? Still, I was reluctant. I feel irritated when I share a dream with someone who tells me what they think my dream means. Usually it’s clear that all this person is doing is projecting their own stuff into my stories. And, frankly, I was a little reluctant to join in at first because I find listening to other people go on about their dreams  kind of boring. But the model Donna practiced made the sharing fascinating. She used a practice called projective dream work, based on the work of Jeremy Taylor.

A woman at the table told the story of her dream. Then, instead of asking us to avoid projecting our own meanings (a practice I thought of as invasive and negative), Donna encouraged projection. She asked that we begin each response with “If this were my dream…” as we offered our responses. This little phrase made all the difference for me. The projection we unintentionally inflict on each others stories became transparent.  The urge to plant our own experience into another person’s dream added depth to the story. Since I respond to your dreams from my own experience, your dream has personal significance for me. Now that I know it really is all about me,  your boring dream becomes fascinating, and my response adds layers to its meaning.

Honesty. Transparency of intent. Support in peeling back the layers of meaning. Deep discovery.  This is what I wanted in our feedback circles at the arts intensive. I told Donna then of my plan to borrow Taylor’s model, modify it, and use it for art and works-in-progress.

Donna agreed to share her dream work with our group, give us the chance to practice sharing our dreams as a peer group, and I proceeded to adapt Jeremy Taylor’s process for our feedback circles.  During the day, with Donna we shared and responded to dreams. In the evening, we shared our work. For both we used the following, with my adaptation (in red)My comments appear in blue. Taylor’s unmodified Dream Work Tool Kit is available here.

The Dreamwork (Artwork) Tool Kit:
Six Basic Hints for Dream (art) Work


All dreams (all works of creative and expressive art) speak a universal language and come in the service of health and wholeness. There is no such thing as a “bad dream (inspiration for art)” — only dreams (works of art) that sometime take a dramatically negative form in order to grab our attention.   This statement assumes that the piece of art speaks to universal experience. Seems a little lofty, doesn’t it? But why not assume that our work is universal? Why spill so much blood, sweat, and tears in service to anything less?  The idea that “negative art” might work in service of our “health and wholeness” encourages the feedback circle to respond with honesty to work they might not think is pretty or pleasing.


Only the dreamer (the artist) can say with any certainty what meanings his or her dream (his or her works) may have. This certainty usually comes in the form of a wordless “aha!” of recognition. This “aha” is a function of memory, and is the only reliable touchstone of dream work. There may be many reliable touchstones in responding to works of art in progress.


There is no such thing as a dream (a work of art) with only one meaning. All dreams (works of art) and dream images are “overdetermined,” and have multiple meanings and layers of significance. To me, nothing feels more magical than when new layers of meaning are discovered in response to an emerging work of art.


No dreams (works of art) come just to tell you what you already know. All dreams (All works of art) break new ground and invite you to new understandings and insights. Breaking new ground with new understandings is a rather high bar for a work of art.


When talking to others about their dreams (pieces of art), it is both wise and polite to preface your remarks with words to the effect of “if it were my dream (poem, play, dance, painting, garden or other work)…,” and to keep this commentary in the first person as much as possible. This means that even relatively challenging comments can be made in such a way that the  dreamer (artist)may actually be able to hear and internalize them. It also can become a profound psycho-spiritual discipline — “walking a mile in your neighbor’s moccasins.”  “If it were my -fill in the blank-” became a group mantra at the arts intensive. We used it to preface just about suggestion, interpretation, or opinion we wanted to qualify.


All dream (arts) group participants should agree at the outset to maintain anonymity in all discussions of dream work. In the absence of any specific request for confidentiality, group members should be free to discuss their experiences openly outside the group, provided no other dreamer (artist) is identifiable in their stories. However, whenever any group member requests confidentiality, all members should agree to be bound automatically by such a request. Creating art can be risky. Confidentiality helps us to feel safe. Safety allows deep, personal sharing to happen.

© Jeremy Taylor 2004, with modifications

Artists very often require feedback about technicalities. We need to know the specifics about what works and what doesn’t.  This is all good and fine, but when I’m presenting a work-in-progress, often one that just came to me like a gift from the cosmos, I have more basic questions. How have I reached you? What does my work mean for you personally? How does my work resonate with what you’re feeling and thinking?  What made it into your head and heart? How do I connect with you and how does the work that flows through me flow through you?

The results of this experiment continue to unfold. Our circle often focused on personal stories and revelations  rather than addressing particular works of art. During our week together we bonded much like a close family, made possible, in part, by Taylor’s process. We lovingly referred to each evening’s feedback circle as our “deep dive.” I, for one, dove in much deeper than I expected or intended. Deep sharing about art can be painful, challenging, and life-changing, not unlike working with dreams.

*I found notable exceptions to this phenomenon in workshops at Women Writing for a Change.

**For anyone who has ever sat through too many writing workshops, you must read Billy Collins’ “Workshop”.

***I know, I know. There is a time and a place for technical critique. I could have used some for this entry, right?

sacred arts intensive part one: open space technology

This summer’s eight-day Sacred Arts Intensive was such a powerful experience for me, that I’ll be writing about the week in a few different posts.  For now, let me just boast a bit about our adaptation of Harrison Owen’s Open Space Technology.

Whose idea was this anyway? Roger and I weren’t sure who first came up with the idea of  hosting a cross disciplinary laboratory for creating new work in community, but that didn’t matter. The idea seemed silly, risky, weird, and totally impractical. As Roger would say, the idea was perfect.

The idea: Gather artists together from different disciplines for at least a week under one roof in Cleveland, Ohio and dare ourselves to create. Dig in deep. Dive in deep. Explore. Focus.  Incubate. Tease. Make messes. Stay up late and get up early. Cross pollinate.  Mash up processes from other disciplines. Push each other to our bleeding edge. Trust in the wisdom of the group to make sense of it all in the end.

The plan: Organizing an eight-day arts intensive for a diverse group of artists without creating total chaos or total structure would be tough.  I knew this would be tricky, and that skillful facilitation would be key to pulling it off. So I was a little nervous going into this, but I would be working with Roger Sams, master teacher and facilitator with a proven track record of bringing out the best in people, so no need to worry.

We wanted to allow the participants to help create the activities for the week, have time and space for both solitary and group work. We also wanted a structure that would gather and focus our forces for at least part of the time. We wanted both choice and structure, freedom and organization.

I’d seen Open Space Technology work for meetings,  conferences, and corporate retreats, so why wouldn’t it work for a handful of artists in Cleveland? Given we’d be together for eight days, we’d have to adapt the process. Again, I was working with the best, so no worries.

Everyday we met to discuss what (if anything) we were offering to share, invitations were made. An eight-day time space matrix (Owen’s fancy word for sign up sheet) was spread out on the kitchen cabinets. We trusted each other  to self organize and to share. We discussed the principles for Open Space and we hoped for the best.

First Principle of Open Space: Whoever Comes is the Right People. I was concerned about the numbers.  Would there be enough people?  Would everybody get along? Was there too much diversity? Not enough? Would there be enough to eat? How would this mix of six people whose labels included a playwright, a drag king, a performance artist, a filmmaker, an acting coach, a poet, a composer, a dancer, another dancer, a music educator, a visual artist and a dream worker all get along?  Turns out, Harrison was right. The right people showed up. The first principle was at work in the individual sessions as well. Sometimes everyone showed up. Sometimes no one. But it was all good and again, no need to worry.

Whenever it starts is the right time. This principle seemed a bit flaky to me, and I almost chose not to mention it. Tell a gathering of creative people “whenever is the right time” seemed to be asking for disaster. (I even went out and bought an extra clock.) Still, for each of the sessions, activities, meals and field trips, we self organized to the point that flexibility about start times seemed normal and stress over time seemed rare.

Whatever happens is the only thing that could have. Hard to argue with this one. Also good to be reminded.

When it’s over, it’s over. After a bit of adjustment, we learned we didn’t need a clock to tell us when a session was complete.

The Law of Two Feet. Owen explains his one law like this: If at any time during our time together you find yourself in any situation where you are neither learning nor contributing, use your two feet, go someplace else. I didn’t see many people leaving activities mid-session. Just knowing that I could leave an activity at any time with no hard feelings gave me an incredible sense of power and freedom.

We ended up quoting from the Open Space principles and the law often during the week, even when the context had nothing to do with a session. I’m still enjoying the freedom and power of my two feet. I’m looking at start and end times differently. I’m challenging myself to see everyone who shows up around me as the perfect people. Open space works in meetings and in arts intensives because it’s principles work anywhere in life. Thank you, Harrison Owen.

Next posts about the Sacred Arts Intensive will include: projecting our dreams, deep dives and feedback, going to Mass, safe emergencies.

naked learning

Every two weeks I meet with my Butoh teacher, Maureen “Momo” Freehill via Skype. Momo challenges me. She teases my curiosity with bits of learning. She invites me to collaborate with other exploerers. She helps me to expose new things about myself to myself and to others.  You can get a taste of what we do from looking at her blog, and her post about one of our lessons.

Through Momo’s teachings and bold examples I’ve been inspired to document my dancing  journey and to share these images with you at my dance blog. The raw immediacy of the experience captured in these images are all part of the wisdom of the process. The exposure leaves me feeling quite naked sometimes.  It feels like no mistake, that this week Momo and I talked about nakedness, about exposure, about revealing layers and layers of learning. We also talked about naked feet in particular, and the baring of souls (and soles).

All this talk about nakedness reminds me of a little handwritten gift book I once made (about ten years ago) called Naked People.  Here’s the web version I had posted on my first website, now defunct,



Naked people are born naked.  Naked to the world, even on the coldest of winter evenings, naked people are meant to be naked always.  Destined to remain naked, naked people love their nakedness and they honor nakedness as sacred and holy.

Nakedness should be honored, even by the naked people themselves.  Though most naked people, truly naked people, are so shy about their clothes that one might assume they were shy about their nakedness, too.

But they’re not.

Naked people like to share their nakedness.

Like this.

“Who me?  Work?  I’m too busy being naked.”

But even when a naked person’s bare naked breasts aren’t all perfect and perky like those you see here, a truly naked person doesn’t mind.  And a truly naked person doesn’t mind if your naked breasts aren’t perky either.

A truly naked person would never measure her nakedness against yours.  A naked person is simply naked. No reason. No motives. No judgement.  Naked people don’t critique your nakedness, or your spelling.

Naked people are fun to be with.

One moment a naked person can be talking to you all shy and self-conscious about work and dead authors, politics and religion.

Then, the very next moment, one of you takes a big risk, opens up, and exposes a naked truth once hidden inside. Suddenly, you’re both naked and you’re not talking about work any more. Nakedness makes all the details of work and buying stuff and accomplishment irrelevant. All that matters when you’re naked is the pure pleasure of your shared nakedness.

Chapter One

Finding Naked People

Naked people are not always easy to find. This is especially true since naked people are usually wearing clothes.  They have to in order to survive.

In public, anyway.

Naked people have a beauty and purity rare and raw that shines through the drabbest and dreariest of clothing.

And you might meet a person with no clothes on at all and he still might not be naked.

People like that are hiding behind their nakedness. They’re not naked at all.

It can be terribly confusing with so any unclothed people parading around as if they were naked when they are not, and so many naked people walking around with clothes on.

Just remember this.  Everyone has the potential for nakedness.  In fact, everyone, no matter what they’re wearing or not wearing, has a nakedness as unstoppable as babies, once revealed.

Often, people are just waiting for you to get naked first.

Chapter Two

Getting Naked

The best way, the only way, to nurture nakedness in others is to be naked yourself.

In a world of nakedness, this can be hard to do. Especially if you’re used to wearing clothes all the time.

If you’re always comparing your own nakedness to other people’s nakedness, then you’ll never really be naked no matter how many layers you take off.

You’ll never be able to enjoy the nakedness of others because you’ll be too busy thinking un-naked thoughts like, “ I look better than they do.”  Or, “I wish I could look as good naked as he does.”  Or, “If I looked like that I could be naked.”  Or, “That person has no business being naked.”  Or “That’s not the way naked people are supposed to look, they’re supposed to look like the ones in my bookmarks or in magazines and maybe someday when I get skinny enough or work out enough or go to the surgeon enough or when someone invents a time machine that will take me far back enough in my youth, then I can be good enough to be naked around all these other naked people.”

No, you’ll never be naked if you measure your nakedness against the nakedness of other people.

To become naked, you simply have to be naked.  And you can’t wait for other people to take your clothes off for you.

Even if you could piece together a perfect body, you could still find fault.  There would always be lots of other bodies out there that are smoother, stronger, bendier, leaner, lovelier than your own.  But you’ll never find a nakedness more worthy of love than your own.

If you’re always busy finding fault with other people’s nakedness just so that you can feel better about your own, then you’ll never feel the joy of sharing in other people’s nakedness.

Just think.  We are  surrounded by beautiful nakedness all the time. It’s up to us to enjoy it.

Chapter 3

Ever meet a baby?

Babies are naked no matter how many clothes they’re wearning.  Naked and open, babies are ready for anything.

Babies have been naked all along, naked in the womb, surrounded by their mother’s naked insides, they are born with no regard for hiding behind clothes, not their own or anybody else’s.

Babies love being naked and they love it when everybody else is naked too.

Babies could care less what their own nakedness looks like.  We call them beautiful even when they are bald and cone headed, even though they have rolls of fat and cellulite, even when they have little penises and dimpled butts and double chins and are loud and stinky and selfish, even when they do nothing but make work for everybody else, demand attention, drain bank accounts, and leak foul substances. We say they are precious little miracles even when they have no degrees, can’t do laundry, and haven’t been published. Still, we say they are beautiful and lovable.

How can this be?

Maybe it is their nakedness that makes it so.

Babies, in their nakedness, could care less what you look like naked.  They enjoy your nakedness no matter what. Even if you don’t appreciate your own nakedness, they do.

They love the touch of your naked hands and will cling to your naked belly and crave the warmth of naked skin surrounding naked skin.

When babies suck on your breasts, they don’t care what your breasts look like or if they’re big enough or firm enough or symmetrical enough or match up to some picture they saw nor do they fantasize about some other baby’s mother’s breasts.  All they care about is if those breasts are present here and now, naked, exposed, and accessible.

And the pleasure a baby gives in return is exquisite.

But babies don’t care about giving you pleasure.  They don’t touch you to make you feel good.  They don’t offer their hungry little naked sucking lips to you to bring you ecstasy.  They just do.

And when a baby first recognizes his own naked body in front of a mirror, he doesn’t judge or compare or wish for a different body or seek self improvement or make promises to go to the gym or wishes he looked more like the baby on the diaper commercial or decide he should concentrate on achievement or long for the body he had when he was younger of if other people would love him if they saw his nakedness or worry if when he grows up if he’ll have acne or lose his hair or grow any in the first place.

No, when a baby first recognizes his naked body in the mirror as his own,

he laughs.