The Important Bits: Dreams and Writing

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

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,

  • 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.