Where do they come from? (or, some things remain ineffable)
I woke up Tuesday morning in an extremely dark room with the feeling that something was wrong. I rolled over to squint at the red large print display of the alarm clock to see that it was after 10. I exclaimed a swear word or three and scrambled to get out of bed, since I have a 9:30am meeting every day at work which I was now quite late for.
I wondered why my alarm hadn’t gone off and glanced down at my wrist. I was still wearing my Apple Watch, so I hadn’t remembered to put it on the charger. I could see the hands on the face stopped at about 3am and realized that the battery must have run down. I turned on the light so I could find the charger, and was a little confused because the furniture in the room appeared to have been moved around. And I had no idea where my phone was.
I left the room, having to pass through the small master bathroom with the large whirlpool bath, through the big storage room with all the creepy furniture under dusty sheets, through the cramped kitchen with the weird stove and the red and white cabinets until I reached the living room, where the large dark brown shelves were stuffed with old photos and knick knacks, the coffee table with the book shelves built in sat in front of the turquoise couch, where I finally found my phone, which I needed to use to call my boss.
That was about the point when a corner of my brain that had been pointing out all the incongruities managed to be heard over the total panic I was having to point out that none of the things I just described actually exist in my house…
And I opened my eyes again, finding myself curled up in my recliner (I sleep the first part of most nights in the recliner because of the chronic reflux and the subsequent bleeding ulcer that very nearly killed my 18 years ago). I could read the glowing display of the cable box (right next to the charger with my actual Apple Watch—you know, a device that if the battery was dead you wouldn’t be able to see the hands since they are just pixels on its screen—was charging). It was 6 am, not 10-something.
Since I don’t normally remember more than a few snippets of dreams, I got up and checked around the house, figuring that I had been in the middle of a deep sleep and an unexpected noise had interrupted. But I couldn’t find any obvious problem. My husband had already left for work (as is usual for that time). It was just a weird dream, I guess.
I double-checked that the watch was charging and that the alarms were still set to go off at the usual time, then crawled into bed hoping to get another hour sleep.
And I got thinking about some of those details in the dream, because many of them have appeared in many of my dreams over the years. The crowded master suite bathroom with the whirlpool, for example. The kitchen with the weird stove. The enormous dark creepy store room. And so on.
Some of the details of those rooms I understand. The red large print alarm clock belonged to my first husband, Ray, when we first started dating. I kept it for many years after he died in 1997, even though most of its functions (the actual alarm, the radio, and the battery backup) had stopped working long before. The dark book shelves crammed with knick-knacks and photos used to actually exist in my great-grandmother’s den. The coffee table with bookshelves (holding an encyclopedia set) and the turquoise couch were both in my evil grandmother’s living room. One of the places my nice grandmother lived for a few years when I was in grade school had those red and white cabinets (but not the weird stove). But I have no idea where many of the other details come from. I’ve never lived in nor do I remember visiting a home that had that big whirlpool bath, for instance. Yet it appears in my dreams again and again and has been for decades.
I don’t remember any house with a huge store room full o furniture under dust cloths, though such rooms appear so often in movies—particularly horror movies of a certain era—that we can probably assume it’s just lifted from those movies.
And this is not by any means the first time I have tried to figure out where the weird stove comes from. It sort of looks like it was designed by Escher? It’s so hard to describe. There are burners where you couldn’t possible expect a pan to sit on them, for instance. And it has a bewildering array of levers and control knobs.
The truth is that our subconscious has more than a few ineffable processes. So while we can try to figure out where some of those images and notions come from and what they mean, there is no objective way of verifying the validity of those conjectures.
Which is something I find myself saying in a different way again and again to some friends and acquaintances who bemoan their inability to come up with “good ideas” for writing. There is almost no such thing as a bad idea for a story. I mean, you can build stories on bigoted or hateful premises, and that isn’t exactly a good thing, but generally speaking, any idea, no matter how mundane or surreal, could be turned into an interesting story with enough work.
The truth is that almost any story that you can name that you think of as great, was almost certainly a mess and barely readable in the first draft.
It’s okay if the idea doesn’t feel great when you start. Get the first draft done, no matter what those voices of doubt say. Set the story aside for a while. Then pick it up and start editing.