It’s a fascinating topic, as for one thing, while the body rests during sleep, the brain remains active, getting recharged, but monitoring functions such as breathing, cramp and how full your bladder is! It also thinks.
It’s said that sleep has two phases: shallow non-REM and a deeper REM period, when dreams occur. In the last couple of years, I’ve been trying to gain useful meaning from lucid dreaming. I mainly do so in the hour before getting up, when my grey cells are tussling between a desire to stay asleep in dreamland and getting up to do essential writerly tasks.
I haven’t done much creative writing for four months, after deciding to devote my energies to self-promotion, including blogging and querying literary agents. I feel the lack. To me, writing a story is like creating a garden, while editing is more of a weeding chore, but querying is as unrewarding as unloading a lorry full of paving slabs—tiring, repetitive and with no visible improvement—but, which might lead somewhere someday.
Thus frustrated, my noddle has seemingly been rummaging through European encyclopedias, which I didn’t know were shelved somewhere, as I’ve recently woke with some improbable names on my lips. I don’t know quite know who Terenjé Sesterciné will become in a future story, but I’ve added his name to a folder of character names on my desktop. Last week, I got out of bed thinking about Tezzarini’s Scorchers—who could be an elite squadron of space-age attack ships—or maybe, a red-hot chilli pastry devised by a sadistic Italian cook!
Wondering if I’d read these names somewhere online and forgotten them, I ran a search which confirmed it’s my sleeping imagination that invented them. I shouldn’t be surprised, as the brain is an astonishing thinking machine; that it’s not entirely under our control is intimidating.
Some famous stories were inspired by dreams, such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, E. B. White’s Stuart Little and Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Stephen King stepped into a nightmare on a flight to London, which became Misery.
Have you had any peculiar dreams, which proved useful for your writing?
I like to think that I’m quite a capable director of my dreams. I alter the angle from which I view the action, zooming in for close-ups and panning across the scene. I’ve become adept at recognising when a dream is straying into nightmare territory, waking myself up and consciously thinking of something else as I re-enter sleep.
In the summer of 2013, I began to dream of imaginary scenarios that were plainly meant to be sections of a story or poetry. I’d been through a long and debilitating period of depression, during which I didn’t do very much at all, although my waking hours had become enlivened by titles for stories, phrases and characters’ names popping into my consciousness. That this creativity intruded into my sleep gave me hope, and I was compelled to record some of the ideas. These rapidly expanded into the plots for short stories and novellas. I also began to write poetry, with some verses arriving unbidden while I slept. I can honestly say that writing has been my salvation.
It wasn’t all joy and light, however. In researching the events that went into the back story of a serial killer in my first novel The Perfect Murderer, I read lots on the atrocities committed in Serbia in the 1990s. My villain’s attitudes towards relationships and the taking of lives were formed then, for he was a boy soldier when he first killed. The war crimes that happened then, reawoke my memories of what the Nazis had done. I’d learnt about the Holocaust as a young child, my first realisation of man’s inhumanity to man.
My serial killer is called The Watcher, a nickname that was awarded to him by his fellow soldiers for his patience and observation skills as a sniper. He’s transferred his stalking and camouflage expertise to the fields of Cornwall, and is tracking down and killing victims as part of a bizarre role-playing game. I guess that we’re all a bit paranoid about being watched these days, as we’re all under surveillance of some sort or other. I became even more nervous as The Watcher started to watch me, his creator, as I slept.
I was vaguely aware of his shadowy presence while I dreamed about sections of the novel, my work in progress, but on three occasions he intruded into dreams that were nothing to do with his story. Possibly because I never gave an accurate description of him while writing, he appeared as a silvery wraith form—but he was of menace and about to attack me! I’m a peace-loving man, but can be combative if confronted—so I attacked him back!
This would have been fine, had my belligerence been confined to the dream, but I acted physically. The first time I rolled out of bed, strangling a cushion that I’d been cuddling. Round two, a couple of weeks later, could have damaged my precious laptop, for I head-butted the coffee table that it rests on – I woke as it slid to the floor, just catching it. The worst incident of nocturnal fighting, prompted by my creative mind, involved me kicking The Watcher – or rather the wall next to my bed.
I was rather pleased with my aggression as I drifted back to sleep, though I thought that my big toe would be sore in the morning, as I’d given my assailant a full-blooded punt in the privates. When I went to get up in the morning, I couldn’t put any weight on that foot and the toe was double the size that it should be. Initially, I thought that I’d damaged some tendons or ligaments, but realised after a few days that I’d probably broken a bone. There was a half-inch deep divot in the wall plaster, so this was quite likely. There’s not a lot to be done with such a break, so I rested up for a couple of weeks while limping around pathetically.
The Nightmare by Henri Fuseli, 1781.
Thankfully, the nightmares never came back, though after recently returning to creative writing following seven months of submitting to agents and publishers, I have had pleasant moments of inspiration while sleeping.
I suppose that at the very least, I could use my night-time fighting as part of the blurb for The Perfect Murderer—“Writing this book scared the author so much that he broke his big toe!”
Have any of you found inspiration in sleep? Various famous authors have been inspired by what they saw in their dreams, including Stephenie Meyer with Twilight, Stephen King with Misery, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Richard Bach and his Jonathan Livingston Seagull.
King, in particular, uses dreams as inspiration. He’s been quoted as saying, “I’ve always used dreams the way you’d use mirrors to look at something you couldn’t see head-on, the way that you use a mirror to look at your hair in the back.” He credits his dreams with giving him the concepts for several of his novels and for helping him to solve troublesome moments in the writing of his novel It as well.