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.

Five Books of Influence, or How I Became a Writer

This summer I gave some serious thought to some of the books that made me want to become a writer.

There were many books I had read over my life that moved toward writing stories of my own; admittedly, I still read some books that move me in this way. The more I write, however, the more I find myself analyzing novels I read.

Recently, I told my fiancée that I could remember the last time I had read a book for the sole purpose of enjoying a story. It comes with the territory, I suppose. But this past year I read in no particular order these books that I enjoyed:

The Great House by Nicole Krauss, Heir to the Glimmering World by Cynthia Ozick, and The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt. Each of these novels were outstanding, and each of these novels are worth reading. I encourage everyone to read them.

Where was I? That’s right. Books that made me want to become a writer. Every writer has them. The following titles in no particular order taught me many things, but most importantly they taught me the value of story for story’s sake.

1. Wuthering Heights: The only novel Emily Bronte published, and in its time perhaps more modern than most in its depiction of characters the reader may not necessarily feel sympathy toward; but it was also a novel that in its time, written in the mid 1840s, that in my humble estimation pushed the boundaries of imagination. I learned from this novel, as I suppose I did from all the novels that influenced me most, that a writer must write from the heart.

2. Catcher In the Rye: Yes, undoubtedly popular. Yes, greater minds have written about this book since its publication. But for me the tale of Holden Caulfield written by J.D. Salinger showed me that the great human comedy is fraught with downward spirals, often occurring repeatedly through a person’s life. When I was in the army I was reading this book for perhaps the fifth time, flying home on a flight from Nashville to Philadelphia, and laughing like a hyena. A flight attendant made her way down the aisle and asked, “Are you reading Cather in the Rye?” I told her yes. “I could hear you laughing in first class,” she said. “I just had to come and see what was so funny and then I saw the cover. I said to myself there’s only one book with that color on its cover.” We talked about poor Holden for a few minutes and eventually my flight landed. Salinger was one of those writers who taught me that there is humor in tragedy.

3. The Sun Also Rises: Say what you want about Ernest Hemingway, but I loved this book. Hemingway was one of the great stylists of any age. He was another one who taught me about pace within a story, and that a novel doesn’t have to be wrapped up neatly at the end to be considered a good story.

4. To Kill A Mockingbird: Harper Lee’s only novel taught me an important lesson about rhythm in prose, how words are like musical notes, how sentences contained their own musicality, and how all good prose should read as if someone is telling you a story. A few years back, a friend who emigrated to the U.S. was at his wit’s end with his 14-year-old daughter. His daughter had to read To Kill A Mockingbird for her English class. My friend asked me to instant message his daughter. What’s the problem? I asked. I can’t get it into this book, my friend’s daughter said. I have nothing in common with the characters. Do you know what a southern accent sounds like? I asked. Even in the movies? Sure, she wrote. Why? Put that southern voice in your head, I suggested. Just imagine it. Don’t tell anyone about it. A few weeks later, my friend’s daughter messaged me to say that she fell in love with the book. Good fiction should be that way, I think. It knows no boundaries.

5. The Outsiders: This book by S.E. Hinton was one of those novels forced on me in school. What my English teacher failed to teach my class was that Ms. Hinton was in her teens when she started writing it, and that she was 18 years old when it was published. Had I known this when I was in middle school I would have sat up straighter and paid more attention. The Outsiders was a simple, straight-forward story. This novel taught me that as long as there’s truth in what you are doing your work will find an audience.

So, that’s it. These are five novels that come to mind that helped shaped me into becoming a writer. There are many other novels and story collections that have influenced me as well, but these are the ones I was exposed when I was young. The beauty in reading, for me, is that now I’m pushing the underside of 50 years old, and some novels continue to shape me. With any luck, I’ll be telling this same story when I am 60, 70 or 80s years old…