Friday, October 8, 2010

Do writers dream of poignant metaphors?

I just started reading "Brightness Reef" by David Brin. It's a great book thus far; Brin has a style that was difficult to penetrate initially, but it's paying off in some seriously engaging depth (the kind of depth you suspect monsters lurk under).

Anyway, this isn't a specific criticism of Brin (since it's something I think just about every writer does), but I realized he commits one particular felonious bit of literary skullduggery over and over again: let us call it, The Highly Significant Dream.

I've done it. I've read it elsewhere. And it's alluring: it's hard not to perceive dreams as meaningful, possibly portentous, and perhaps even as pseudo-lifeforms in possession of wisdom our conscious minds can't access. But what's funny is, dreams in books seem to bear no resemblance to real dreams--my real dreams, anyway.

The book-dream--The Highly Significant Dream--is usually riven with imagery: fires, deluges, bright lights, etc. Real dreams, as I understand from a little research/experimentation in the field of lucidity a few years ago and simply from the observation of my own sleep-visions, are mostly about people, not things; and I, for one, have never had a dream about a blankly malevolent force--the kind you read about in books.

Real dreams, I suspect, are much more intensely personal than the literary kind. Case in point? The other night I dreamed I was drinking with my friends. I don't think this is a subconscious metaphor for a lurking drinking problem or the more-distantedly-envisionable "washing away" of artistic hopes and dreams. I'm pretty sure my subconscious was just thinking: "Hey, man, you haven't hung out with your friends in a while. Why don't you go drinking with them tonight? In your dreams?"

The funny thing is that this dream is more revealing about my actual character than were I to be, say, drowning in a pool of lava, calling for help to a ghostly figure on a distant, storm-lashed cliff. But if I were writing a story about myself, I would probably metaphorize the subconscious/emotional reacton to absent friends with this lava-storm-ghost-story, and not the more visceral simplicity of an actual dream.

Anyway, from now on I'm going to try and write dreams for my characters that aren't, y'know, total bullshit.



  1. Of course, there is the fact that when you're in a high-anxiety situation (as the characters in such books often are) your dreams often reflect that as either a way to try to work on the problem or to just work out some stress. If you were feeling totally overwhelmed and isolated by work, and just happened to see a documentary about volcanos before going to bed, then perhaps you would find yourself trapped in a lava flow calling to your friends for help, as a way for your subconscious to say "you need your friends! Go hang out with them!"

    But yes, dreams in books (and TV, movies, any media) are seldom "real." Although they make excellent devices for fiction!

  2. I think I'm going to strive to always use short, offhand narrative summary to describe any dreams in my fiction. Showing implies realism, and 9 out of 10 people (editors) will feel either confused or cheated when they realize that what they're visualizing is actually just a dream.

  3. As someone who has lucid batshit insane dreams, I take a different approach. I assume that dreams are equally insignificant to the insignificance that is life. But I do agree that dreams are mostly about people (et al) doing stuff, as opposed to being cliche in a fake seance manner.

    In fiction, though, I like to think of dreams as more interesting shorthand for The Thinking Scene, esp. when the character doesn't have a Watson to think out loud at. Magical Realism, and all that jazz.