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Reflections of a working writer and reader



Dreaming for Writers

In a post on Spend Me To School, there is a list of people who have solved problems by dreaming.

Mary Shelly, apparently, dreamed up Frankenstein:

“When I placed my head upon my pillow, I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think… I saw — with shut eyes, but acute mental vision — I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavor to mock the stupendous Creator of the world.

…I opened mine in terror. The idea so possessed my mind, that a thrill of fear ran through me, and I wished to exchange the ghastly image of my fancy for the realities around. …I could not so easily get rid of my hideous phantom; still it haunted me. I must try to think of something else. I recurred to my ghost story — my tiresome, unlucky ghost story! O! if I could only contrive one which would frighten my reader as I myself had been frightened that night!

Swift as light and as cheering was the idea that broke upon me. ‘I have found it! What terrified me will terrify others; and I need only describe the spectre which had haunted me my midnight pillow.’ On the morrow I announced that I had thought of a story. I began that day with the words, ‘It was on a dreary night of November’, making only a transcript of the grim terrors of my waking dream.”

Stephen King dreamed up the story of Misery:

“Like the ideas for some of my other novels, that came to me in a dream. In fact, it happened when I was on Concord, flying over here, to Brown’s. I fell asleep on the plane, and dreamt about a woman who held a writer prisoner and killed him, skinned him, fed the remains to her pig and bound his novel in human skin. His skin, the writer’s skin. I said to myself, ‘I have to write this story.’ Of course, the plot changed quite a bit in the telling. But I wrote the first forty or fifty pages right on the landing here, between the ground floor and the first floor of the hotel.”

The novelist Robert Louis Stevenson described dreams as occurring in “that small theater of the brain which we keep brightly lighted all night long.”

Stevenson conceived his classic novel The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, in a dream. It was “conceived, written, re-written, re-re-written, and printed inside ten weeks”.

I find this interesting as I often dream, not whole novels, but the solutions to problems which crop up during the writing of a novel.

Does anyone else have this extraordinary ability? Or theories on why it should be so?

4 Responses to “Dreaming for Writers”

  1. M.E Ellis says:

    While writing Quits 2 last week, I lived and dreamed the book. The night the dreams came, I wrote about them the next day. Got the book written in 8 days that way. Roll on the next time this happens!


    jb says: Hi Michelle, You should be able to order dreams like that.

  2. Brian Hadd says:

    I once was sleeping after trying brainstorming and dreamt word floors.

    I think this approximates dreaming about specific scenes. Not books–but King wrote a different story than his dream though I admit the idea of “Misery” is pregnant in the dream he describes.

    Just as you see the top line of the words–a man walking over them.

    jb says: Thanks for that, Brian. I suppose sometimes you just store up the necessity and the unconscious does the rest.

  3. Lee says:

    Maybe we should try running sleep seminars for writers? I could certainly use one about now.

    jb says: Yes, there’s certainly that, Lee, the nights I lie awake trying to sort the thing out through the conscious and conventional route. I suppose you have to do both.

  4. Jerry Prager says:

    Needless to say I have a theory about dream work, not wholly my own of course, like any good theory it stands on the shoulders of other people to reach the balcony-doors of perception.
    The mind is an iceberg, most of it submerged, all of it aware, however much our consciousness is only the tip of the iceberg. It’s not unlike body language, the 93% of human communication that we share with the great mammals, it goes on all the time, even when we’re not using the other 7% to talk.
    If awareness is agreed to be both distinguishable from but also indivisible from consciousness, then waking is a state-shift like water turning from liquid to vapour. If most of a writer’s awareness is focused on a story, then the story teller creates the story asleep or awake.
    Or at least that’s my theory and I’m sticking to it.

    jb says: Yes, do stick to it, Jerry. I’m sure it’s not too far out. I know I’m working when I’m involved in getting down a long narrative. I’m working when I’m putting one word after another, or when I’m crossing them both out. And I know I’m working when I’m lying awake trying to find a way through it or when I’m dreaming my way around it.