When I was younger, I suffered from nightmares.
Not unusual, you might think, but this was Every Night. At first I escaped by the simple method of forcing my eyelids to open. Of course, it was only a matter of time before my subconscious caught on to this, and I ‘woke’ into another layer of dream which rapidly became nightmare.
So I came up with a new, sure-fire way of waking myself up: screaming. Of course, this had the side-effect of waking up everyone else in the house (and, at peak lung capacity, neighbouring houses) but at least I wasn’t trapped in my nightmare any more.
But as they say:
what has been seen cannot be unseen.
And once I was past the age where my screams would summon a soothing parent (i.e. into double digits), I would spend what seemed like the rest of the night either too scared to close my eyes or too scared to get my head out from under the bedding. Or both.
But then I had an epiphany. (Or it could have been the lack of oxygen under the blankets. Hard to tell.)
What terrified me could be useful fodder for writing – after all, how much more primal and high-stakes could you get?
It still took forever to get back to sleep, but at least now I woke screaming “pen and paper!!!” and not just “aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarrrgggggghh!!!” Sometimes I even tried to get back into the dream if I couldn’t figure out what happened next.
I haven’t gone as far as Sheridan Le Fanu, mind you – he used to intentionally eat foods that would make for disturbed sleep and then weave his nightmare into his draft on waking. (This may be partly because my nightmares aren’t due to eating lobster: they are due to going to sleep.)
Admittedly, this also works for dreams that do not qualify as nightmares, but they are harder to harvest as they are less likely to wake you up suddenly – and I have yet to acquire the talent of taking notes while still dreaming. Even the notes I have taken shortly after waking are mostly illegible, except possibly as a pigeon tap-dancing sequence.
Some of the dream-nuggets I’ve mined over the years include alien royalty being abducted from a fashionable restaurant, a Questing Aunt getting stuck on an enchanted stone bed, and the gut-dropping moment before the ‘reveal’ when you realise the ‘stunt’ lava tank the apprentice has been lowered into is real – and the stage magician knows.
Eventually it dawned on me that my sub-conscious is actually a much better writer than I am, and after a while I got over being jealous and came to terms with it.
Now I will even go to sleep thinking about my story problems in the hope that my sub-conscious will sort it out for me while I sleep. It used to work (Form Three?) but once again my sub-conscious has wised up to me and will derail my train of thought with the sudden appearance of a gytrash to swallow me whole.
I’d be interested to know if anyone else finds inspiration in their sleep – and what they pull up on the long-line of their dreams.
But one word of caution: when falling, always wake up before you hit earth.
If necessary, scream.