creative writing

The Mad Man of Blank Hall: Dreams As A Writer’s Source Material

Sometimes our stories come from the strangest places. In this age of electronic gadgets and social media dependency, it’s no small wonder that many writers no longer look to dreams for inspiration. Instead, some writers would remain bogged down in following the latest trend or news story. This is not to say that there is no merit in such pursuits. But storytelling is art. All too often many writers are unwilling to stretch the boundaries. As a result, that unwillingness shows in their writing. And if they are willing to take true chances with their craft, they are met at every crossroads with publishing industry types who are, at least some of them, more jaded than a double-crossing mercenary.

Nearly two years ago I  had attended a panel discussion at a college that shall remain nameless. Among the panel members were two literary agents. Both of them offered sound advice when it came to how a writer should approach an agency. When pressed with the question from an audience member concerning what has been overplayed in the world of fiction, one of the lit agents answered, “Well, if I never see another novel about vampires or werewolves again it won’t be soon enough. Try witches, maybe.”

The discussion panel was not set up that night to entertain pitches from up and coming writers. It said as much on the program flyer; only in language more kind than mine. In this type of environment there rises almost always the lone genius who does not think some rules apply to him. Case in point: a rather grizzled outsider with a duffle bag beneath his chair. When it came time for the the Q&A portion of the discussion that night, the lone writer raised his hand. “Would you be kind enough to take a look at my story?” he addressed the panel that included the two aforementioned literary agents, a professor of writing, an editor at a Philadelphia publishing house (non-fiction works, mostly), and the gem of the college who had recently graduated and taken a job with a New York publishing house.

There followed a moment of silence among the panel members. The literary agents pointed at themselves with confused looks on their faces; as if to say “Do you mean me?” In that instant the grizzled author pulled from his duffle bag a manuscript of considerable thickness. “It’s actually a trilogy,” he said. “This is the first book. No vampires, no werewolves. I assure you.” He went on to describe the trilogy he had written as a science fantasy story influenced by his experiences growing up homeless…or maybe he had been to war. I can no longer remember. The situation was quickly sorted out, and the manuscript-toting writer fumed after he put his manuscript back into his duffle bag.

I make light of this scene I had witnessed for one reason: too often we pass judgment on the works of others. My impression of the writer with manuscript-laden duffle bag was no more kind that night than most of the others at the panel discussion. Of this, I am not proud. For all the audience knew, and the panel knew as well as they sipped white wine from clear plastic cups, we may have been in the presence of genius or, if not, at least a tale worth consideration. Here was a guy unwilling, at least that night, to play by the rules. I walked away from that experience thinking not about how out of place the writer’s request seemed, but what it must have been like to live inside his head.

Writers by nature are cerebral creatures. We get wrapped up in what’s going on inside our heads and often forget the world around us until our lives crash and burn. But not all the time. As cerebral creatures we tend to think about not only what we are currently working on but what’s next. In all of this it is important to remember dreams; both as a source of inspiration, no matter how dark or, and how I hate this word, surreal they may be, and as a pool of subject material.

Too often I meet realist writers who have no time for fantastical tales. Or I meet fantasy writers who are easily bored writing New Yorker style stories in which flawed people do flawed things and suffer a flawed outcome. I would encourage both ends of the writerly spectrum to remember the guy I mentioned earlier, the guy with the duffle bag crammed with three manuscripts, and I would encourage both realists and fantasists to look  to their dreams for source material.

For instance, a week ago I dreamed that people starting glowing at night and floated into the air like sky lanterns. There was no rhyme or reason to the dream. Just me and an open field where hundreds of people had gathered. So I took that image and ran with it. Sure, I am still working out some kinks in the story. And while I do I’ll be on the lookout for any other source to exploit.

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