The walk from dreamed inspiration to story

Aug 08 2010

For the past two months in Atlanta the forecast has been more or less the same every day: low to mid nineties during the day with scattered or isolated thunderstorms in the evenings, usually little more than a five minute shower and few mumbles of distant thunder. During one of these episodic storms, I fell asleep early the other night, which has been an unfortunate rarity in recent weeks. I've been slow of late to give in to sleep, mulling over the constantly updated to-do list in my head which I imagine locks up and crashes eventually, tossing me into sleep. The early night, however, I laid down with explicit intentions, and in moments, I fell in.

I had an incredible dream. The sensations were palpable; there were only two players in the dream, me and another, but we had insight into other minds and feelings through a certain agent. There was an roiling intimacy in these connections that was thrilling, creating a layered experience threaded with a narrative that actually made sense. I'm being vague for a reason: the narrative was usable.

It was 12:40 a.m. when I rolled out of bed, only three hours after falling asleep. The dream had ended at what seemed to be a confounding crossroads, but as I paced to the bathroom, groggy, I was already working out what happened next. The story that my unconscious had crafted was now being filled out consciously.

I scribbled down some notes. The details would need work. Some of the images and situations made perfect sense in the context of my dream, but would not in the form of a story. Shifting sands morph to waves, the consequences of physical form dictate changes in appearance and movement through the environment, places become other places, people change roles, personalities. In reconfiguring the dream, my mind would not let me sleep. By four a.m., when I finally fell back asleep, most of the framework of the story was worked out.

The final test of dreamed story ideas, even if you have the presence of mind to write them down, is the morning after. Does it still make sense in the light of day? It sounds like a silly thing to ask, but I have thought through a few ideas I had from dreams the next day and sometimes they just don't pan out at all. What seems like inspiration during the night can turn out to be nonsensical (or, like the Seinfeld episode, uninterpretable).

I can say that this is the first time that I've had such a thorough experience of inspiration through a dream. The dream didn't hand me the entire story; as I said, it required a bit of transposition, but it's the most complete narrative idea I've ever had unconsciously.

All of this takes me back to the creative writing classes I've had, where early in the semester, we discussed where exactly story ideas come from. It was always interesting to hear the personal interpretations of the class and sometimes the professor. I had one lit professor call the part of us that we tap into when we write the "dream brain" because it's not altogether conscious. Revelation through spirit or God was a popular reason. Perhaps it's psychological, or as the Greeks believed, an altered state of unreason. I personally like to think that Locke had it more less correct, that ideas are gregarious in nature and tend to associate in unpredictable ways. We absorb so much sensory information passively during our lives; I wonder how much is stored unconsciously and how/when it's accessed. But, of course, the real answer to "Where does it come from?" is a resounding shrug. When it comes down to it, in practice, it doesn't really matter. I don't spend too much of my writing time trying to pinpoint a source when my conscious time is far better spent editing the large amounts of garbage exposition that keeps cropping up on the page.

I began work on the story today and I'm wondering how long it'll turn out to be. I've recently shifted my focus to short stories and away from longer works to actually get some work out there, but I don't want to constrain the narrative either. We'll see how it turns out.

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