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Inside the Writer’s Dreamworld


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49218952147_b93fb4ce5d_c-1.jpgDays before my paperback launch, my publisher called me in a panic. “Where are your blurbs? You were supposed to submit all new blurbs for the paperback release!”

“No one told me,” I sputtered. Apparently, I wasn’t allowed to reuse the blurbs from my hardcover edition, but I didn’t know. I didn’t know! My pulse quickened and I tried to catch my breath.

“Well, it’s too late now.” Her voice dripped with rage and, even worse, disappointment in me. “It’s going to press with nothing on the cover.”

I tried to speak, but the words would not form. Sweat poured down my face and back. My paperback would surely flop. Who would buy a book with nothing on the cover? My writing career was doomed.

Then I woke up, shaken and sweaty, but oh, so relieved.

It was just a dream.

A wave of relief washed over me as I remembered my paperback doesn’t launch for nine months. I buried my head in my pillow and tried, without success, to go back to sleep.

My writer brain has been in high gear these last few months as I launched my debut novel Waiting for the Night Song. Bookstore events, interviews, Q&As. I’m also working on deadline for my second book. These are good problems to have, but I constantly feel like I’m about to forget something big. That fear manifested into my blurbless paperback dream, which may sound silly, but it really rattled me.

The morning after, I shared my dream with writer friend Sarah Penner (The Lost Apothecary,) who then told me about her dream from the night before. She dreamed that our mutual friend Nancy Johnson (The Kindest Lie) had sent her a new manuscript to beta read. Sarah panicked because she didn’t have time to read Nancy’s book, but Sarah didn’t want to let Nancy down. Sarah, who is working on her own new manuscript, enviously wondered how Nancy could have possibly finished writing a book that she just started working on.

I don’t have any credentials in dream interpretation, but I’m guessing Sarah, like me, was feeling crunched for time, worried about forgetting something, and guilty for not being able to get to everything in a timely manner. And, of course, we always have our eyes on someone else’s paper.

I checked in with some other writer friends and have developed a theory that our brains keep writing (or at least think about writing) when we go to sleep. The resulting dreams usually fall into one of three categories: The Stress Dream, The Flash-of-Brilliance Dream, or the Living-in-Your-Book Dream.

The Stress Dream

Based on my very unscientific poll of some writer friends, the Stress Dream seems to be the most common, which doesn’t surprise me. Writers tend to be high-strung, deep thinkers. We internalize fears and anxieties and stew on them, even while we sleep.

Alison Hammer (Little Pieces of Me, coming April 13) said she doesn’t usually remember her dreams, but when plans were being drawn up for the cover of her debut novel, You and Me and Us, her anxiety over the cover design crept into her dream world. “I woke up in a panic from a dream that I’d found a cover for my book on Amazon that I hadn’t seen and didn’t like. I grabbed my phone and checked, relieved there was still a ‘coming soon’ where the cover would be.” Alison added that she was very happy with the cover she ended up with.

Alison’s dream seems pretty straightforward. She was worried about her book cover. But sometimes Stress Dreams are more metaphorical – and a lot more painful – as in the case of Keisha Bush.

Keisha had her first writing-related dream while working on an early draft of her debut novel No Heaven For Good Boys, which launched in January. “I dreamed I had slammed all ten of my fingers in a door repeatedly. Sometimes I would get stuck there, fingers flattened in the closed door.”  For a writer (or anyone, really) the idea of having your fingers flattened is terrifying and paralyzing.

“I assumed it was anxiety and fear of my ability to write the story I was seeking to produce. It was recurring for a while, went away, then came back during later drafts.”

Ouch!

The Flash-of-Brilliance Dream

Our writer brains can torture us as we sleep, but dreams can also tap into our creative minds. A few weeks ago I dreamed up a brand new novel. I woke up with a fully formed, compelling plot and a complicated, mysterious main character. Months later, I’m still obsessed with this story and plan to pitch it as a future book.

I heard from writers who have solved plot problems in their sleep and who have rewritten entire sections of their books from dreamland. Filmmaker Desmond Hall, whose debut novel Your Corner Dark came out in January, used to work in advertising. He once fell asleep dreaming about Pepsi, which was one of his clients at the time. “I was stressed about having too much to work on and too little time. I fell asleep and when I woke I had a perfectly formed thirty-second commercial that ended up running in the Superbowl. It’s the only dream I ever had that made sense after I woke,” Desmond says.

We should all be so lucky to dream that kind of magic!

Author Julia Claiborne Johnson (Better Luck Next Time and Be Frank with Me) is a big believer in the power nap – and sometimes those naps have huge payoffs for her. When working on Be Frank With Me, Julia was struggling to revise the end of her book, which her editor was not happy with. So Julia did what she often does: she closed her eyes and went to sleep. “My brain would dream up answers to narrative problems I was having. It was a wonderful, miraculous thing. It’s how I came up with the final chapter of that book.”

I also have dreamed up seemingly brilliant answers to plot problems. On several occasions, I’ve woken up with the perfect idea only to start writing it down and realize that, no, my contemporary novel set in the wilderness of New Hampshire does not need dragons.

At least I’m not alone. Like me, Leslie Teele, who is currently querying a humorous, heartfelt YA novel knows something about those false flashes of brilliance. “A common dream is that I’m looking at my printed out manuscript, in a classroom, maybe, or at a conference, and have an amazing idea that unlocks the whole story. It’s so fresh and strong I wake up excited to get to a notebook or laptop, but after about two and a half seconds of thought, I realize it was either complete nonsense or the plot of a Friends episode.”

The Living-in-Your-Book Dream

I’m particularly jealous of speculative fiction writer Cara Wood, who often dreams from inside her own stories.

“Most memorable was waking up after fighting with my father, and realizing it was, in fact, my character’s father she’d been so upset with, and I was just dreaming from her point of view,” Cara says. “Another epiphany I had was dreaming from the POV of a secondary character and realizing they had a really valuable perspective and I needed to give them more dialogue and autonomy throughout the novel.”

While some dreams about writing can scare us, make us laugh, even fix a plot problem, others can be painful, particularly for authors whose work is personal and difficult. Ava Homa, the author of Daughters of Smoke and Fire, the first book written in English by a Kurdish woman, says the frightening reality of the Kurdish people she writes about often follows her when she sleeps.

“I write in exile, knowing that my writing puts me and my loved ones in danger,” Ava says. “I dreamed I was deported. The Iranian government had made some sort of deal with the US government in return for my repatriation. I walked down the dark and terrifying hallways of Evin prison, like my fictional characters and so many people who I interviewed for my novel have done.”

Having read about Evin prison in Ava’s gorgeous novel, I get chills just thinking about her dream, imagining how she must have felt. As her dream progressed, Ava says, “I was thrown into a solitary cell and the next thing I knew, I was being executed. I felt the noose around my neck, struggled for breath but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t breathe. I was choking when I woke up to my little dog sleeping on my neck.”

The creative brain of the writer constantly tries to make meaning, process fears, find connections, and understand human nature. When we go to sleep, we can’t always turn that drive off, no matter how terrifying, frustrating, or wonderful those dreams are.

My relief at waking up and not having to worry about getting new blurbs for my paperback can’t compare to the relief Ava must have felt when she woke up, but I suspect we both share the inability to control where our minds go when we sleep.

Cara has some tips for writers who hope to dream from the POV of their characters. She recommends right before bed rereading pages from the POV character whose eyes you’d like to see through in your dreams, or journaling from their perspective. Then close your eyes and imagine the setting of your book as you fall asleep.

I know what I’ll be doing tonight. Sweet dreams, everyone!

 I’d love to hear about your writing-related dreams. Were they scary? Helpful? Fantastical? Did they reflect the world of your book? Do you know why you dreamed those particular dreams? Please share them in the comments so we can help you interpret your dreams in an entirely unscientific way.

 

 

 

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About Julie Carrick Dalton

Julie Carrick Dalton’s debut novel WAITING FOR THE NIGHT SONG has been named to Most Anticipated 2021 book lists by numerous platforms including CNN, Newsweek, USA Today, Parade, and Buzzfeed, and was an Amazon Editor’s Pick for Best Books of the Month in January. As a journalist, Julie has published more than a thousand articles in publications including The Boston Globe, BusinessWeek, The Hollywood Reporter, and The Chicago Review of Books. A Tin House alum, 2021 Bread Loaf Environmental Writers Conference fellow, and graduate of GrubStreet’s Novel Incubator, Julie holds a master’s in literature and creative writing from Harvard Extension School. She is the winner of the William Faulkner Literary Competition and a finalist for the Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Literature and the Caledonia Novel Award. Julie is a member of the Climate Fiction Writers League and is a frequent speaker and workshop leader on the topic of Fiction in the Age of Climate Crisis. Mom to four kids and two dogs, Julie also owns a small farm in rural New Hampshire. You can connect with Julie on Twitter @juliecardalt, on Instagram @juliecdalton, or at juliecarrickdalton.com

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