Monday Motivation: Pluck from your dream the luminous image
I was recently given a Garmin watch which records, as well as your heartbeat and the number of steps you take every day, the patterns of your sleep. It gives you a full analysis within minutes of your waking.
So, for instance, on Sunday night I slept for a total of seven hours and 22 minutes. Of this, five hours and 34 minutes consisted of “light sleep”; 53 minutes of deep sleep; and 55 minutes of REM, or dream sleep.
I emerge sometimes with fragmentary recall of my dreams. On other occasions, I wake, reach across to Trish, and give her a full account of a complex or perplexing dream. (While our own dreams are of consuming interest to us, other people’s dreams are less so, she reminds me.)
On one occasion, I sat up in bed and proclaimed loudly: “Come, let us hear the sudden thundering horses.”
On another occasion, suffering from a slight fever, I dozed off and in that twilight zone between wakefulness and full sleep an entire horror story came to me which, over the next few days I turned into a screenplay. (Needless to say the bloody thing was never produced. Ah well…)
Last night, emerging at dawn from a dream about sunlit meadows and distant mountains, I wondered to what degree dreams are useful to writers. I’m not talking about the way in which we attribute dreams to characters (I rather suspect this is an overused trope), but whether our dreams can be woven into plot or character.
So I consulted Mr G and reminded myself of some singular instances in which dreams gave rise to memorable works.
We’re probably all familiar with Coleridge’s opium-inspired dream. He emerged from that and immediately scribbled down Kubla Khan, a poem which he insisted he didn’t really compose himself; it had, he said, been “given to him”.
But do you recall that Robert Louise Stevenson dreamt three key sequences which he worked into his The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde? The scene in which the upright Dr Jekyll is first transformed into the hideous Mr Hyde, arguably the core of his novel, was one of them.
Peter Dickinson, long one of my favourite writers of children’s fiction, dreamt the central conceit of his wonderful The Changes Trilogy – that the people of England one day, and for no obvious reason, found themselves revolted by all things modern, and by the million returned to the technology and the practices of their medieval ancestors.
One final example: Stephen King, drifting off to sleep on a flight to London, dreamt of a story about an insane fan who captures, mutilates and ultimately kills her favourite writer. He adapted the idea for his novel, Misery. (It contains one of the most shocking scenes in fiction, by the way.)
So clearly, the factories within us that generate dreams have helped writers devise plots. They have helped them embody sometimes memorable characters. They have proposed problems that writers have used to drive their stories forward.
But the kind of dreams I’ve mentioned – and there are many more examples that I could have pointed to – don’t happen every night, or even every lifetime. So what use to us are dreams that don’t suggest wonderful story or character ideas?
I suspect that the images that dreams provide can certainly be used in our writing. That sunlit meadow is so vivid an image in my mind that I know that I’ll slip it in somewhere, sometime. A figure that I dreamt of decades ago – a gaunt, unshaven man in grey flannel trousers and hollow eyes – has haunted not only me, but at least some of my writing, ever since.
So while dreams might be boring to all but their dreamers, there’s no question in my mind that they contain flashes of inspiration, luminous images, that can furnish and enrich your stories.