Please don’t write about dreams — it’s a cop out. That's what I’ve been telling my creative writing students at the University of East Anglia for years. Do they listen? Not often.
Even when we discuss the literary merits — or, as I have it, non-merits — of incorporating dreams into fiction, they still don’t get the simple fact that dreams, by their nature, are unreliable. Of what possible purpose could they serve a story? My students, and they're most certainly not alone, seem to insist that dreams hold keys to a character’s state of mind — often sexual.
This is all very Freudian, and may or may not have some grounding. However, it’s also a massive literary contrivance. Many of my students, and numerous established writers, incorporate dreams into their fictions to aid both momentum and plot. Invariably, dreams in fiction contain key pointers or, if you like, signifiers, which don’t just reverberate for the rest of the story, but reveal the very point of the story. This is especially true of shorter fiction.
And what I tell my students, what I really try and impress upon them, is that if you are in the process of creating a short story, don’t stick in a dream because it’s the easy way out. But do they listen? Does anyone?
The thing about dreams is that half the time, upon waking, I can only remember fragments, and these are usually pretty ludicrous. And if anything is clear, then invariably it doesn't really make any sense. Or at least it’s so implausible that it’s laughable. I have dreamt, over the years, that I’ve played right back for Manchester United, that Bill Clinton has come for dinner and that I’ve survived a plane crash. I’ve also surfed impossibly large waves, run the country and had a relationship with the wife of a well-known celebrity.
It would appear, or so my wife tells me when I occasionally reveal my dreams, that I must be some sort of extreme fantasist. That my who knows no bounds. But it’s not my fault, I tell her, what I happen to dream about — I have absolutely no control over it.
Perhaps most troubling are dreams that seem almost too real. Years ago I had a spate of dreams about having relationships with people who I was certain that I’d never had relationships with. So real-seeming were these dreams, that on waking I seriously questioned whether, in fact, I’d had these relationships — yet knowing, I most definitely hadn’t.
Question them too hard and dreams will drive you nuts. By their very nature they are just too baffling, too inconsistent, too unreliable. Which is why I tell my students not to incorporate them into their fledgling fictions. Because, if they were to attempt to describe anything that truly resembled a dream, with all its associated inconsistencies, they would be left with a very woolly and ultimately worthless chunk of prose that had no possible place in a story that ultimately has to rely on authorial control.
And yet the appeal goes on — perhaps for some eternal anchor on the subconscious? I even found myself, just the other day, writing a dream scene in my new novel — me of all people. Yet, of course it was impossible to achieve any sense of real ambiguity, real absurdity. I’d stuck it in out of pure contrivance, because I wanted to illustrate something integral to a particular character’s past.
Real dreams, of course, don’t adhere to logic, let alone narrative and plot lines. In real life they don’t come when you want them to either. Trying to get all that across, naturally, in a piece of realist fiction, has to be almost impossible. And yet, the temptation is never far away.
Originally in The Times, September 27th, 2010