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

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.

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.

The Dawn of Idiocracy

My son’s generation is poised to become perhaps the first that questions nothing at all…

“The reason they call it the American Dream is because you have to be asleep to believe it.”

~George Carlin

This week I read about the 900+ writers who signed a letter to Amazon asking the company to stop selective retaliation of authors published by Hachette who are in a dispute with Amazon over e-book pricing. You can read about the letter here. And for simple explanation of the dispute, you can view this LA Times article. In all of this a current runs much deeper than it appears on the surface, one aimed not at sticking it to writers who worked hard to be where they are now but at control.

What bothers me about Amazon and the alleged bullying is not that I feel sorry for successful authors in the thick of this debate. Ok, actually I do. I know a little about what it takes to start writing a novel and finishing it. The success part? I am still waiting, but that’s a separate issue. What bothers me is that Amazon has gone from selling books to everything under the sun. Need a lawn mower? Check out Amazon prices. Need body wax? Look no further than Amazon. Can’t find that doo-hickey that does the thinga-mah-bob? My guess is Amazon has it.

Amazon has obliterated brick and mortar bookstores, both chain stores and independent operators, and with no other competition around it is attempting to fix prices namely because there’s no other game in town. In other words, control is the law of the land.

Don’t get me wrong. I am an Amazon Prime member. I also have a couple of books for sale on Amazon. Shameless self-promotion here. And over the years I have purchased plenty of items from Amazon; mostly books, but a few videos and perhaps a video game or two for my son.

So, O’Brien, why are you so hung up on the control issue? For the last thirty years or so there has been a systematic drive to create less critical thinkers in our society. A good many corporations, Amazon, while relatively new, can be counted among them, contribute to this drive by steering attention away from books and learning. In Amazon’s case, at least in my humble opinion, by offering all kinds of crap readers do not need. If you don’t believe me, go over to the Amazon web site. If you’re already signed in, then sign out. And then look at the home page. Right now, as I write this, there are ads for men’s fashion, solid state drives (not that I would know what a solid state drive is if you dropped one on my head), videos, and digital cameras. Did I leave out the Bluetooth Audio Receiver? How about the ad from Xfinity Triple Play? Never mind. Moving on.

Call me crazy. Laugh if you want. Go ahead. I’m thick-skinned that way so I don’t mind. Then ask yourself this: how does critical thinking help me get what I want? In the question I pose there are two operative words that sum up our culture: get and want.

Someone smarter than me once wrote that Americans, despite whatever label they self-apply—mother, father, CEO, postal employee, teacher, factory worker, carpenter, philosopher, are first and foremost consumers. This word ‘consumer’ need not be applied to those of us who feel compelled to buy things. A consumer can also be someone like me consuming electricity to write these words. As such, we are more concerned with wanting and getting than we are with thinking.

But O’Brien, you say, I’m finished college. Why do I need to think critically now? Or to put it more bluntly, in the words of one of my former professors, the late great John C. Berkey: “Oh fuck that, man.” Why? Because I am a member of the society in which you live. Because year in and year out many of us accumulate worthless crap that we just don’t need. Because no matter what side of the political fence you fall on we all vote for the same people who, when you get right down to it, don’t give a rat’s ass about their constituency. Sure you can vote for the person whom you think will end the deficit, eradicate war, bolster big business, lower taxes, etc.; but ultimately we do not matter to them.

The eradication of critical thinkers in any society is bad. We weep for other countries or at least feel uneasy when we see in the news that teachers, humanitarian aid workers, religious figures, or what have you are rounded up and summarily executed in the name of a system ‘wanting’ to gain power. Ironically, we cruise through our own lives in what David Foster Wallace referred to as the ‘default setting,’ not questioning things, not caring about anyone else but ourselves (and what we want to get), and generally not interested in bettering ourselves. We eschew radical thinking, but we will not think twice about gaining benefit from such radical thinking if it somehow becomes mainstream (penicillin, electricity, the telephone, equal rights, the list goes on and on). And we appear, as Americans, to be quite comfortable with the continued dumbing down of our population.

Case in point: my son’s high school summer reading list. It is peppered with books on a middle school reading level. Dumbing down gone wild. Was it a dream? Or do I remember when teachers attempted to challenge students with reading assignments? For my son, and his contemporaries, it’s a brave new world; one in which corporations have the last say in education (or what they loosely define as education).

It is the dawning of the age of idiocracy. My son’s generation is poised to become perhaps the first that questions nothing at all, that knows not how to offer resistance to detrimental conditions, that will not understand what all the fuss was about in the Sixties with Vietnam protests or even the Eighties with protests against nuclear proliferation, that closer to home none in his generation will stand up against police brutality, genetically modified foods, etc. Worse, my son’s generation will no longer understand why it is important to nurture their own ideas with the ideas of those who came before them. In short, they will lack critical thinking. As a parent, a writer, an educator, and a human being, I find that troubling.