I dreamed last night that I was accompanying a woman around, who needed my help, who was, indeed, in the grip of a severe emotional crisis. This wasn’t surprising, since she was composed of slices of chicken breast that needed to be reassembled. I spent a little time pondering this after I woke up, but it didn’t solve any of my current plot problems.
You might well say that it wouldn’t, but it’s odd how often solutions do come out of dreams. In many cases (like the chicken-slice woman) I’d find the solution by reflecting on the symbolism. In her case it could signify some sense of inner fragmentation, perhaps, but this doesn’t ring any bells with me. Leave her aside, however, and I can often jump from a dream about a tidal wave full of horrible fish to realising that my character’s repressed feelings about something or other must now leap out and grab her (or him) round the throat. Sometimes there’s no apparent connection at all, but thinking about the dream gives my imagination a nudge nonetheless, the dream has geared me up, maybe?
On at least one occasion, a major plot component was given me by a dream. This was years ago, when I was working on a novel for adults The Mountain of Immoderate Desires, and I took a nap in the afternoon because I wasn’t feeling very well. I woke up with a start, with my heart thumping, and a sense of terror, while a voice spoke to me: ‘You have come a long way to end outside a Chinese city wall.’ When I’d recovered from my fright, I thought: That’s it, Lily, the character in my novel has been abandoned outside the walls of a Chinese city, and she almost dies there. Of course I wasn’t taking exact dictation from the dream, but it was pretty apposite, and I was very pleased with the nudge from my subconscious.
I have other, less helpful dreams, in which I am writing a novel which, I know, is the same as one already written, and have this moment of horror when it gets through to me. Or else I’m just writing a different novel from the one I’m actually working on, and I know it’s rubbish. Then there are the strange published novels that pop up in my dreams, books I’ve written that I don’t recognise – and usually they’re not up to much, either. I have no hesitation in ascribing these dreams to the insecurity of the writer’s life, and I wonder if other writers have them?
Some dreams come, recognisably, out of a particular writer’s plot-bag. I dreamed the night before last that I was Death’s granddaughter (though not at all like Miss Susan) and subsequent to the End of the World – which was, however, only temporary, for reasons perhaps known to Terry Pratchett – I had to tidy up all the mess people had left behind them. I remember making beds – literally, I had to staple ticking onto divan covers and assemble mattresses (such is the quaint verbal literalness of the dreamer’s mind) clearing up kitchens, weeding gardens – for as long as the world stayed ended, the beds stayed tidy – and then the Last Trumpeter appeared again and played, presumably, the Reveille. And everyone got up and the world un-ended. The interesting thing about this dream was its close attention to plot and thematic consistency, whereas most dreams jump from one plot to another like a grasshopper making its way across the field. I also woke at the trumpet, and heard my alarm going off.
And not so long ago, I dreamed I was watching the hobbits arrive at the Bridge in Rivendell. They came there, not on ponies, but in an old VW dormobile, the kind that was painted all over with flowers and CND symbols. They had to leave it in the car park (National Trust, of course) and run up the marked trail to the river, and when the Black Riders arrived in pursuit they came in a stretch limo and got out, all dressed in dark suits and dark glasses like Mafiosi. This surely indicates a distinct cultural connection between The Lord of the Rings and The Godfather.
Quite a while ago, there was a quote on an ABBA blog from a writer who said that one is only a writer while sitting at one’s desk and actually doing the job. But I am a writer at loads of other times as well, including, as I’ve said above, in my dreams.