Many times I’ve read the nugget of writing advice: “keep a notepad by your bed, so you can jot down the ideas that come to you in your dreams!” Which is the sort of nebulous, tree-hugging crap that sounds good at first. We don’t know where inspiration comes from, and we don’t know where dreams come from, so obviously they must come from the same place, right??
I’ve tried it. My results are less than stellar. Less than atmospheric, really. The trajectory of my success with this method is more like a Greyhound ride to Denton: disappointing, a little smelly, and at the end of the day, you’re in fargoing Denton.
But my best ideas come from my dreams! I hear you cry. If I hadn’t kept that little notebook next to my bed, I wouldn’t have ever remembered the idea that became the seed for my 7-part fantasy saga based on my life, The Rainbow Riders of Regulon 7. (btw, you can’t have that title; I made it up as a joke but I’M KEEPING IT.)
Sure. Maybe. But dreams are boring as hell to anybody who isn’t you and who isn’t bound by genetics or marriage vows to listen to you. And dreams aren’t compelled to make sense or be coherent at all.
Here, I’ll show you. (Feel free to skip this next paragraph, because it’s absolute garbage.)
I dreamed early this morning of a sort of Titanic-esque love story. Two people from different worlds collide on this boat that’s going away forever. Romance. Goofy frippery. Elaborate costumes. But the dude is found out as a fraud by a snooty guy who goads him into a fistfight and gets him thrown off the boat. Dude is losing his mind with love and the thought that he’ll never see his girl again. He tries desperately to get back on board, and ends up swimming out into a shipping lane in hopes of getting scooped back up. He does — by the Coast Guard, and his persecutor takes great pleasure in locking him up for international crimes or something. But our dude manages to win over the persecutor’s grandmother with the power of his love, and she convinces her grandson to stage an elaborate shenanigan (shenanigans can be singular, can’t they?) to stop the boat and allow the dude back on board, where he is tearfully reunited with his love.
Terrible. And that’s a salvageable dream, with a beginning, middle, and end, kind of. Never mind how the guy got out into open ocean to swim into a shipping lane, although that’s arguably the best part — maybe he could get mauled by the propellers of a cargo freighter hauling prosthetic limbs. As dreams go, this is a masterpiece of continuity.
It’s awful, but it’s vivid, and because it’s vivid, and because that little turdlet of writing wisdom is still kicking around in my brain, I wrote it down. So, now, I can ignore it as I flip past it when I go plumbing the depths of my drivel looking for inspiration for my next work.
But here’s the real problem with waiting for inspiration from your dreams (though it’s more of a skeptical hangup than a problem). If it’s kicking around in your dreams, that means it’s already banging around in your subconscious, which means on some level it’s something you’re already thinking about. The dream just brought it to front-of-mind for a fleeting moment while you were unconscious.
With that in mind, it’s hard to say that just because I dreamed something, it’s automatically worth writing down. Like most of the thoughts that pass through my head, anything I dream is actually probably not worth writing down or remembering at all.
Dreams shouldn’t get preferential treatment over any other old crusty idea that drops into your brain. If anything, they deserve more skeptical treatment by dint of being disjointed incoherent heaps of hot garbage. Dreams, just like any other idea I have, go through a rigorous screening process. Just like I don’t pick up the phone for phone numbers I don’t recognize, I don’t write down an idea as worth keeping just because it popped in there.
Most ideas are crap; dreams, doubly so. But you’ll know the good ones when you see them: The good ones will stick around, call back, or even show up on your doorstep to make sure you pay attention to them. The good ones will stick in memory whether you write them down or not.