Dreams — and nightmares — have offered an intimate wellspring of inspiration for generations of authors. From the ancient Greeks to contemporary surrealists, our subconscious meanderings have been regarded as perennially profound by the literati. Whether to celebrate their absurdity, candid insight, or liberation of repressed sentiments, these oblique visions have become inextricably woven into the collective dreaming of our cultural mythology. It’s clear that our slumbers liberate far more than just monsters from the id. Margaret Atwood revealed the inner workings of her own “psychic carburetor” in a New York Review article she penned earlier this week. We’ve shared her thoughts on dreams as inspiration past the break, along with a selection of other remarkable works that have been pollinated by their creators’ nighttime reverie.
“The best writing dream I ever had was in the mid-Sixties. I dreamt I’d written an opera about a nineteenth-century English emigrant called Susanna Moodie, whose account of her awful experiences, Roughing It In The Bush, was among my parents’ books. It was a very emphatic dream, so I researched Mrs. Moodie, and eventually wrote a poem sequence, a television play, and a novel — Alias Grace — all based on material found in her work. But that sort of dream experience is rare.”
Stephen King finds a deep connection between the creative process and dreams. “[They’re] just so similar that they’ve got to be related,” King said in the book Writers Dreaming. “Part of my function as a writer is to dream awake. And that usually happens,” he explained. “If I sit down to write in the morning, in the beginning of that writing session and the ending of that session, I’m aware that I’m writing. I’m aware of my surroundings. It’s like shallow sleep on both ends, when you go to bed and when you wake up. But in the middle, the world is gone and I’m able to see better.”
A childhood nightmare inspired the author’s 1975 novel Salem’s Lot:
“It was a dream where I came up a hill and there was a gallows on top of this hill with birds all flying around it. There was a hang man there. He had died, not by having his neck broken, but by strangulation. I could tell because his face was all puffy and purple. And as I came close to him he opened his eyes, reached his hands out and grabbed me.”
He returned to the dream for inspiration as an adult:
“Years later I began to work on Salem’s Lot. Now, I knew that the story was going to be about a vampire that came from abroad to the United States and I wanted to put him in a spooky old house. I got about that far in my thinking and, by whatever way it is that your mind connects things, as I was looking around for a spooky house, a guy who works in the creative department of my brain said, ‘Well what about this nightmare you had when you were eight or nine years old? Will that work?’ And I remembered the nightmare, and I thought, yes, it’s perfect.”
“My grandmother is the model for Clara in The House of the Spirits. My grandmother was just like her. Or maybe she wasn’t and I have made up everything. But I based the character on the stories I heard about my grandmother, who was a funny, wonderful, clairvoyant character. She died when I was very little but I remember her very well. Sometimes in my dreams she is doing things. Sometimes she is writing and I read what she’s writing over her shoulder. She’s always young in the dream although I never met her when she was young… I don’t remember the words she is writing in these dreams. Sometimes I remember that she’s writing with colored ink or I remember that she’s writing in a notebook or at the bottom of a photograph. That kind of thing. But I don’t remember what she’s writing. It’s a very soothing dream. When she comes in the dreams it’s because I’m really doing well. I’m writing, I’m happy. She always represents, for me, protection.”
“Dreams don’t ever directly influence my work in terms of plot, movement, or even idea. Never. What dreams do is raise the emotional level of what I’m doing at the moment. They add color or counterpoint to the work, acting as an almost symphonic accompaniment to what I’m doing,” King of Dreams scribe Maurice Sendak once shared. The Where the Wild Things Are author revealed his creative process in an interview with Hank Nuwer, citing the power of dreams:
“I don’t get a great many ideas. I don’t work in terms of plot like other writers do. Something else must turn me on. Like I was listening to a tape of a never-before-translated play by Heinrich von Kleist broadcast on BBC that some friends from England sent me. That kind of thing stimulates me tremendously, tremendously, and I want to write. I want to write just like he wrote: in this case, where a dream has this incredible penetrating action, where a dream becomes insanity. It obviously touches something that is dormant in me that is totally unconscious. It’s like throwing a picture up to the top of my brain where it triggers consciousness; then I begin to write.”
“I do believe dreams have a function. I don’t see anything that has no function, not anything that has been created. I may not understand its function or be able to even use it, make it utile, but I believe it has a reason. The brain is so strange and wondrous in its mystery. I think it creates a number of things for itself — it creates launching pads and resting places — and it lets steam off and it reworks itself.”
Anne Rice wrote Interview with a Vampire while in the depths of despair over the loss of her five-year-old daughter, who died from leukemia. Reviewers eventually drew connections between the character of Claudia — a child vampire with golden curls who becomes a surrogate daughter for characters Lestat and Louis — and the author’s grief. According to the scribe, however, a link between her offspring, blood, and death was initially forged in a dream. “I dreamed my daughter, Michelle, was dying — that there was something wrong with her blood. It was horrifying. Several months afterward, she was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia,” Rice told People in 1988. The chain of events further demonstrates the sometimes eerie prescience of dreams, and the way in which they synthesize with fact to generate compelling and deeply personal narratives.
Mary Shelley spent the summer of 1816 at Lord Byron’s Villa Diodati near Lake Geneva in Switzerland, accompanied by Percy Bysshe Shelley. During the evenings, their conversations turned to morbid and supernatural subjects, which haunted 18-year-old Mary in her dreams one portentous night. “I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion,” she wrote. “Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavor to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.” And thus her first novel, Frankenstein, was conceived.
H. P. Lovecraft
We’d be remiss not to include H. P. Lovecraft on our list, since a number of his menacing characters and strange storylines first appeared in dreams. Lovecraft’s Dream Cycle tales are the most obvious example, set in dreamlike outer realms inhabited by strange creatures. One particular yarn from this series, short story The Statement of Randolph Carter, was based on a dream Lovecraft transcribed, and to which he only added a preface for clarity. Similarly, his prose poem “Nyarlathotep” was inspired by a recurring nightmare Lovecraft had experienced since the age of ten — an inconceivable, terrible nightmare, no doubt.
Aviator Richard Bach heard a disembodied voice that gave him the title of what would become his 1970 book, Jonathan Livingston Seagull. It also revealed the plot, but vanished before Bach could learn of the ending. Eight years later, Bach had a dream about a seagull and completed the story about a philosophical bird, which grew to popularity during an era of self-help and New Thought movements. Bach believed that “you’re never given a dream without also being given the power to make it true,” so it’s a good thing that the eponymous bird knew what it was talking about. Jonathan Livingston Seagull became a major best seller.
E. B. White
Of course the idea of a talking mouse came to E.B. White in a dream:
“Where did I get the idea for Stuart Little and for Charlotte’s Web? Well, many years ago I went to bed one night in a railway sleeping car, and during the night I dreamed about a tiny boy who acted rather like a mouse. That’s how the story of Stuart Little got started.”
As children, the Brontë sisters developed stories and plays from their imaginations, creating complex and emotional relationships between their fantasy characters. Dreams also played a part in their fictional universe. In 1837, Charlotte Brontë wrote to English Poet Laureate Robert Southey asking for a critique of her writing. “You will not seek in imagination for excitement,” he told the 21-year-old author. In her reply, Brontë basically told him, “Thanks, but no thanks,” and somewhat refuted the idea that her dream world was wasteful. A few years later, she wrote again, relenting slightly to Southey’s suggestions, but the importance of dreams and her “inmates” returned to the author when she wrote Jane Eyre:
“It is not easy to dismiss from my imagination the images which have filled it for so long; they were my friends and my intimate acquaintances, and I could with little labour describe to you the faces, the voices, the actions, of those who peopled my thoughts by day, and not seldom stole strangely even into my dreams at night. When I depart from these I feel almost as if I stood on the threshold of a home and were bidding farewell to its inmates. When I try to conjure up new inmates I feel as if I had got into a distant country where every face was unknown and the character of all the population an enigma.”