Thursday, March 17, 2011

department of dubious dreamery

Recently, INTERN has been noticing a curious trend in YA author interviews: authors who attribute their inspiration for a character or an entire novel to a dream.

By now, everyone is (over-)familiar with the Stephenie Meyer Legend: had dream about sparkly vampire and unsparkly girl discussing the intricacies of sparkly/non-sparkly love, woke up, penned four-book series, laughed hysterically all the way to the blood bank. (Cue wannabe bestselling vampire authors everywhere popping Nyquil and repairing to their beds.)

When she first heard of this Legend, INTERN thought it was an unusual story. But since then, INTERN has stumbled upon tons of YA authors who claim to have discovered their novels in a dream.

Humph. *glares reproachfully at her decidedly non plot outline-producing or query letter-generating bed*.

While INTERN doesn't doubt that these YA ladies are telling the truth about their nocturnal inspiration, she can't help but smell some kind of culture-bound fish. INTERN wouldn't be surprised if, in five or ten years from now, dreams had passed out of vogue and authors were instead pointing to mescaline trips or divination as the source of their ideas for novels. Creativity is a mysterious thing, and the collective story we tell ourselves about it is as prone to shifting over time as the collective story we tell ourselves about diseases or gravity or gender or fruit flies.

So why dreams? Why now? Why not "my cat beamed the story to me telepathically" or "I've been working on this @$!#@ manuscript for so long I don't even remember how I originally thought of it"?

This dream thing has something innately glamorous and weirdly flattering about it, while managing to be humble at the same time. It says "I am subject to bursts of divine inspiration!" but also "I really can't take credit for this—twas the dream!" That's a pretty appealing story. Best of all, it's an acceptable explanation within our society—one that doesn't make you sound either calculating or insane.

Before she returns to boar hunting, INTERN wants to know: What do you make of this whole YA Novels Based on Dreams phenomenon? Do you get your inspiration from your REM cycle? Is this dream thing a convenient explanation or the gospel truth?


  1. How about someone else's dream? My WIP was inspired by my college roommate's boyfriend telling full tales of woe and adventure in his sleep. I kid you not.

  2. Just out of interest, the inspiration for Mary Shelley's FRANKENSTEIN was a dream so perhaps its not such a new concept after all? Apparently, Bram Stoker also had a dream that may have inspired DRACULA.

    Sadly, my nocturnal inspiration is lacking.

  3. I have had dreams that, upon awakening, I thought would make wonderful stories.

    Later, after further thought, I realized they'd make crappy stories.

    Dreams seem so real and magical while you're dreaming them. Later, they don't.

  4. So, let's say I'm a YA sort of person, and I'm looking at two vampirish books. One was inspired by a dream, and the characters came alive and told the author what to write. The other was the result of the author sitting for 6 hours a day at the computer, whether or not any words came out -- 90 percent perspiration, etc. Which book sounds better? Truer? More magical? More Romantic?

    Be careful with the boar hunting. My only (fictional) experience with that was Lord of the Flies, and that didn't work out so well for everyone.

  5. I have incredibly boring dreams where I file my taxes or do laundry. I don't think anyone wants to read a story about them.

  6. The subconcious is a great source of material for a novel. As is almost everything else around us. A seed for a story can come from everywhere, and as writers, it would do us well to listen and pick up on them, regardless of the source. Quite a few writing books will remind us of this too.

    Citing dreams as a source seems rather prevalent in the YA genre right now, but I am sure it is not limited to it. I think it just seems this way becaus YA is so popular right now.

  7. Part of my current WIP came from a dream. But this doesn't mean I'm tapping in to divine inspiration. It means I was thinking about my WIP and my subconscious helped out a bit. What's wrong with that?

  8. Jane: that's true! when you think about something a lot, it's more likely to come up in a dream. there's nothing *wrong* with getting inspiration from dreams—INTERN is just interested in how various explanations of creativity tend to fluctuate in popularity over time.

  9. WritersBlock: that's a great point re: Frankenstein! INTERN is hoping to find other famous examples of dream-inspired novels. please comment if you find any more!!!

  10. I tend to agree with Jane. The answers to plot snarls, blind corners and unruly characters are hidden in my subconscious. That said, dreaming and getting something on paper are different. Even Stephanie Meyer had to spend some time in front of the computer.

  11. There are a few listed here:

  12. well, um. the last novel i wrote was started from a dream about evil shadow people crawling out of walls. but, i didn't know the meyer story until now, seriously. I guess i never read how she created her puppies.

  13. What they said. I have dreamed about my characters, but only after working on them until I flirted with carpal tunnel syndrome.

    I think this sort of thing happens for real very rarely but gets so absorbed into the collective consciousness that people start to believe it happened to them, too. I can see a dream inspiring a scene; mine can be vivid, terrifying, and violent (I remember those best because they wake me up) but a whole novel is, erm, unlikely.

    In fact, I think the Meyer story states something to that effect. She dreamed the scene in the field and wanted to tell the rest of the story. That seems very plausible.

    For the most part, I find it more likely that people are co-opting the term "dream" for "daydream."

  14. My dreams and meditations do help with ideas and solutions to my novels. But my inspiration comes from real words and actions of my grown daughters. There's no way I could dream up what they really do... :D

  15. I'm pretty jealous of people who obtain inspiration from their unconsciously creative REM based adventures.

    My ideas come from a lot of hard work and arduous *thinking*, ugh. I tend to dream about things like Tom Hanks eating glass (if only that dream could have been about him talking to a volley ball. What's wrong with my brain?!).

  16. Sometimes while I'm having a dream I'll think would make the best story ever! Then I wake up and think no one wants to read about a post-apocalyptic world populated with people who live in the sky on monkeybar-like structures. :p

    I believe Katherine Kurtz's first Deryni fantasy was based on a dream, but I think it mainly provided a couple of images, not a whole plot. That seems more likely as inspiration.

    Nowadays we get inspiration from word verifications: mine was "UNBEAST," which would make a great title for a YA vampire story, I'm sure of it!

  17. Great point. This made me think of a couple things:
    1. YA is incredibly popular right now
    2. Despite the Franzenfreude, an overwhelming number of YA moneymaker authors are women (Meyer, Rowling, Cabot, Bray, Collins, etc)
    3. All the links you provided about authors and dreams were for women authors.
    4. As you said, a dream is a humble way of talking about inspiration
    5. Women are pwning YA despite still not getting respect in the Literary World. Maybe being humble is their way of minimizing the fact that they are making serious bank and kicking some literary butt!

  18. Uh, YA Ladies? Is that a Jackson Browne song?

  19. "Do you get your inspiration from your REM cycle?"

    I think this depends on your definition of REM cycle. Having been around to hear (and purchase) the first of REM's songs (on vinyl!) I see their first cycle as running from the Chronic Town EP through Life's Rich Pageant. (For me, Document started a harder-edged sound that constituted the start of their second cycle. Monster, the furthest extension of that second cycle was the first REM album/CD i didn't buy.)

    Unfortunately, the answer remains the same, regardless of which REM cycle you're referring to: No. While I love those early REM albums, I've experienced naught for story inspiration from them.

    "*glares reproachfully at her decidedly non plot outline-producing or query letter-generating bed*."

    until now i had only thought of my bed as a place of sleep and competition for space with our cats. i'll have to take another, hard look at the bed tonight and determine if i feel differently about it or not.

    i suspect that any plot outlining it produces either bypasses me and goes straight to the cats (thus partially explaining their apparent contempt at my writing) or, perhaps equally as bad, they come to me on those nights when i wake up, completely failing to remember a single moment of any dream.

    allow me, however, to offer a possible silver lining: whenever my wife now asks me "are you going to take (another) nap?" i can now answer, "i am offering my writing muse to commune directly with my subconscious. it's called research."

    feel free to adopt this healthy attitude towards naps as well.

    -- Tom

  20. I've had a couple of dreams that would have made awesome stories... I even managed to remember enough about some of them to outline a few. But then I just... didn't get inspired to keep going with them.
    My best inspirations are the ones that come from many different places. For example in my last novel, the setting was inspired by a trip to the MoMA, the character by a lack of characters like that in YA, and the plot came from watching too many movies with sketchy mafiosos... :D

  21. JenniferWriter: INTERN thinks you're onto something with the dreams being a humble way of talking about talent and success. INTERN did search around for male writers talking about dreams, but the only interviews she found was a male writer who said he "wasn't one of those writers who finds [his] stories in dreams"!

  22. About dudes dreaming: was going to mention Coleridge and Paul McCartney, but it seems the link up above has that covered. I can't think of any male authors off the top of my head that have done the same, though I can't shake the feeling that there's some great work of literature that we all know was inspired by a dream. Proust, or Nabokov?

    My own dreams tend to be illogical. One time I dreamt I was fighting with my fiance, and got so mad the dream that I woke myself up with angry. More recently, I dreamed all the (nonexistent) missing scenes from The Godfather and Arrested Development, one after the other. I would not mind having that particular dream again.

  23. Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak is also a dream-inspired book (possibly the creepiest one out there, because she dreamed Melinda SOBBING in the middle of the night.)

    It does seem curious that dreams seem to be a gendered source of inspiration. Then again, weirdly, a lot of men I know have absolutely tortured sleep. They're insomniacs or absolutely tortured by nightmares, most of them. Stupid tortured artist types.

    I almost never dream about characters, personally. Not sure why. Then again, I don't know if I'd want them showing up in my dreams, either.

  24. Yes! This is something I've been really thinking about lately since I'm revising my urban fantasy novel to be YA after much soul searching and feedback. YA seems to be very much about female writers and female protagonists coming of age, while male writers with male protags often continue to be considered adult literature. I can't help wondering if the Men of the publishing world are more comfortable with women writers so long as they're writing for children and now here is this new "genre" of YA which can be tucked away under "children" and safely away from Adult Literature.

  25. PS (I can't stop thinking about this)

    A lot of these women writers are moms, even stay-at-home moms. Saying their inspiration came from a dream is like saying, "I was never in any way LOOKING for a creative outlet beyond motherhood because I'm so happy to be a mom but then this dream FOUND me and I felt that I owed it to the characters to tell their story."

    It's an easy way of avoiding any suggestion that these women were looking for success. Almost like it was divine inspiration, not blood, sweat, and tears, which of course it was.

  26. thevillain: a-ha! INTERN knew there was some really really awesome book she was forgetting that was triggered by a dream, and SPEAK is the one.

    JenniferWriter: very interesting. there's so many layers here: on the one hand, if an author says she had a dream that inspired a story, INTERN is inclined to believe it at face value—sometimes a dream is just a dream and it's as simple as that.

    but another part of INTERN thinks "there has to be something else going on here" (which is why she had to write this post!) the further this conversation goes, the more intriguing the gender angle starts to look.

    another possible explanation is simply that while men and women may have equally striking dreams, more women go on to write stories/books based on them. or women are more likely to admit to basing books on dreams (rather than say, Genius). or it could be that we just haven't stumbled across all the examples of male dream-authors yet!

  27. I have a third-draft MG ms that was born of a start-to-finish, movie-style dream I had. I wrote a sequel to it shortly after, and the pair of them are waiting for the day that I re-re-re-revise and submit. Should I be so forunate as to sell them, I won't mind owning to their provenance.

    I also have a detailed plot for MG steampunk that came as a ridiculously enjoyable dream; I'll be starting on it once I finish the first draft of my current WIP, and again, I'll happily own up to its origins should I be so fortunate as to ever be in a position where somebody actually cares!

    So yes, dream-sourcing of plots definitely happens for me, and I especially enjoy how easy they make that whole initial plotting headache, but I also have plenty of dreams that I know far better than to make into stories and, of course, stories that did not start as dreams. The latter come from things I overhear my students say, from the weirdest moments of my stuck-in-traffic mental breakdowns, and many other flights of fancy that happen during my all-too-awake hours of the day. I love to write way too much to sit around waiting for ideas to pull a kind of reverse Athena-- springing, fully formed, into my head.

    Based on my own experience, I am ready to believe any author who says his/her idea came as a dream; I just don't advise that aspiring authors pop fistfuls of Lunesta in hopes that inspiration will follow.