I have two burningly vivid memories of my college writing professor. One is his insistence on making his students repeat the same lesson on Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” every single semester. The other is when he called bullshit on Toni Morrison.
Specifically, he was calling into question her assertion that one of her novels (probably Sula, which was the only Toni Morrison novel I ever got to read in school) had “come to her in a dream.”
For the sake of argument, let’s assume that this is an actual thing that Toni Morrison said. In which case, yeah, it is a certain level of ridiculous. Entire novels do not simply fall from one’s subconscious fully formed and without any input from the author.
But that’s not to say that you can’t dream up a story. Just not in the way that’s presented here.
Let’s take another example: Robert Louis Stevenson is reputed to have written The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde after receiving the idea in a fever dream, but what’s not often included in that story is that all of the elements of the story had been in Stevenson’s brain for years. The tale of Deacon Brodie, Edinburgh cabinetmaker by day and burglar by night, was one that Stevenson had grown up with. He was educated alongside Joseph Bell, the doctor who inspired Sherlock Holmes, and sat in the court galleries while an acquaintance of his, a French man by the name of Eugene Marie Chantrelle, was convicted of the brutal murder of his wife, having fooled everyone into thinking he was a respectable family man.
So I do firmly believe that Jekyll & Hyde could have come to Stevenson in a dream. But the story wasn’t created out of thin air. It was all already there, in Stevenson’s head. He just needed his subconscious to turn it into an unpredictable mélange before he could write the story he wanted to write.
The most tired writing advice of all time is “Write what you know.” I would like to propose a modification to that. Rather, “Writer, know thyself.”
There’s value in writers listening to their subconscious and mining those bizarre jumbled-up ideas for all they’re worth. The first short story I ever wrote came from a dream. (I may even be working on a short story collection right now that was largely inspired by dreams.) I was thirteen or fourteen at the time, which was, um…A while ago. And one morning I woke up from a dream about a walled garden hidden behind a bunch of ivy and went, “Huh. That was kinda…cool. And like, story-ish.” So I made a story out of it.
That dream gave me a complete, if simple, plot:
- Girl meets Guy
- Guy tries to convince Girl to magically stay with him for eternity
- Girl turns Guy down
It’s not much, but it was made up of things that were important to a lonely, dreamy, melodramatic preteen who read a lot of fairy tales and had memorized a huge chunk of The Secret Garden.
And that’s the critical thing: the recognition of what aspects of the writer’s life created that particular dream in the first place.
The story isn’t going to come to you all in one complete lump. Honestly, if it did, dreams being the slippery bastards that they are, you’d be lucky to remember half of it long enough to wake up, grope for your phone or bedside notebook, and start sleepily scribbling and/or typing. But it doesn’t have to come to you as a complete narrative.
The things that matter are what I’m told board game designers call “bits.” The bits are the parts of the game that make the game fun to play.
Stories—narratives with plots and characters, and events that propel those plots and characters forward—are easier to come by than the bits that make the story fun to read. And I have found that the best way to do that, and make the story resonate with the reader, is to make it resonate with the author during the writing process.
You don’t necessarily have to pour your soul into your fiction, but you absolutely do have to put something of yourself into the story to make it resonate with you, and dreams, which have an unnerving way of rummaging around in our darkest thoughts and most private and closely held hopes and then running those bits through a blender, can sometimes provide the best way of finding that resonance.