Writing Advice From My Dream Brain

I don’t dream about writing. I don’t dream about my books, my career, about storytelling.

I dream about stories but not storytelling, I guess you’d say — frequently really weird stories, to boot. My wife has those awkward-but-normal dreams that express anxiety or excitement over mundane life (“I was at the bank and someone said something about me and…”) whereas my dreams are like David Lynch-directed video games (“And then I jumped out of the helicopter and the helicopter was also a god? And then I took the ham sandwich and…”).

This was last night’s dream, though:

I was walking. New York City street. Manhattan. Very busy. Bright. Summer.

(Summer? Wishful thinking, I guess.)

I was going from — well, I don’t know where. I had intention. Walking from one building, going to another across town. I was walking with some purpose as one does in the city and as I passed by a doorway, Amy Sherman-Palladino stepped out. Black dress. Dark sunglasses.

She is the creator of Gilmore Girls and Bunheads.

(Have you seriously not watched Gilmore Girls? You are dead to me. One of my top ten favorite shows. Smart, snappy, sweet. Like Buffy but without all the vampire-slaying. Like Veronica Mars without all the… detecting? Whatever, shut up, just go watch it.)

I have not thought of Amy Sherman-Palladino in a long time and I do not know what possessed me to dream of her, but there she was, looking like herself but taller, and occasionally transforming into Lauren Graham. She was hurrying somewhere.

I hurried after, hoping to catch up.

(It was like that scene in The Matrix where Neo and Morpheus walk against the crowd.)

I finally caught up and said, “Can I ask you some writing questions?”

And she said, “I walk fast so you’ll have to talk fast.”

I said, “Do you have any advice for me?”

“Write from the rails,” she said. As if I was supposed to understand that.

Then suddenly she was outpacing me again and I had to struggle against the crowd — finally I matched her speedy pace and said, “I don’t know what that means.”

She answered as she walked, and said, “Write like you’re up high and going fast. The story is a ride for you as much as it is for them.” And I tried to ask her more but she interrupted me, sounding irritated: “Write like you’re hanging from a rail.”

I tried tell her again that I didn’t know what she meant.

Riding from rails? Hanging from rails? What?

Finally, we were crossing the middle of an intersection. Cars screeching brakes. Honking at us. She stopped, and whirled me around and lifted her sunglasses and said:

“You gotta write stuff that scares the shit out of you.”

And then she was gone, moving faster than I could.

41 responses to “Writing Advice From My Dream Brain”

  1. “DON’T write from the rails, then,” Ray Bradbury said. “You’ve got to jump off cliffs all the time and build your wings on the way down. Happy now?”

    • Sam Waterston has appeared in my dreams at least three times to kick it and share a drink with me. I don’t know why, but he’s there.

  2. “You gotta write stuff that scares the shit out of you.”

    This one deserves a lengthier blog post of its own.

  3. Nice way to impart writerly wisdom on us mortals. I wish I could remember my dreams, I close my eyes, and two hours too soon I open them again. Don’t know what this says of me, but hey, it is what it is.

  4. Sounds like one hell of a dream! Wish I had dreams like that. Or maybe I have and I just forget about them.

  5. Yes. Have to write the scary stuff, that’s where the best story lies. I’m getting there. I’ve subdued the inner editor for the duration of the draft. Shutting up the inner psychologist is proving harder.

  6. I have weird dreams too! No helicopter gods, but once I met personified versions of the Days of Creation. They were hanging out in Hawaii by the pool in a luxury hotel with an ocean view. I remember that Day was very tall with platinum blonde hair. I don’t think I’ve ever had a visitation from an author, but I have had dream conversations with my parents, both of whom died around 20 years ago.

  7. Awesome! I think I’ll also be putting this on my bulletin board. I have way too much of a tendency to go back and quietly kick dirt over the scary parts of my writing until it stops scaring me. Big mistake, I know…fighting that urge every story every day!!

  8. Well, that hit me like a punch in the gut. Excellent dream.

    Mine tend to make for good story fodder, in a slightly different way.
    As in, more often than not I’m struggling desperately not to be mutant-monster-HOLYFUCKINGTERRORBATMAN chowder…

    I think I need help.

  9. What wonderfully great advice!

    I received great advice from a writer once – and had to wait 2 hours and get through his bitch of an agent to get it! It was from Wilbur Smith (a great writer… I must say!) He was patient, generous and has a incredible sense of humour to boot! Actually, as his agent and I were locking horns (and she was trying to get me to assault her to get me kicked out of Garden City here in Brisbane – a real nutty kinda person), he sat back and started doing a character sketch of one of us! Oh… he loved it that we were fighting too. 😛

    When I did finally get in and see him, I asked him if he wrote from the mind or the heart… he said both, but never at the same time. 😀 Wilbur told me: ‘In the first draft, write from the heart; but in the re-write, and editing drafts, always write from your mind. If you write from your mind inthe first draft, it’ll ask you too many quesitons you can’t answer.’

    Now, that was the best advice I’d ever received. 😀 Oh, and he told me who he was character sketching – and it wasn’t his agent. 😛 he said I was worth putting into a book. 🙂 That was in 2004! I found my character in a book published just last year! How cool is that! 😀

  10. That’s some deep shummfer-muffins. I feel like I should be getting some philosophical realization out of that, some life-changing, writing-guru epiphany.

    But I’m not. Does that make me a waste of space? An imbecile, a singular-dimensionised shallow fool?


    Anyways, reminds me of my dreams sometimes. Often characters from shows like Heroes (Have you seriously not watched Heroes? You are dead to me. One of my top ten favorite shows. Epic, confusing, cover. Like Lost but without all the non-making-denseness…? Whatever, shut up, just go watch it.) show up and convince me I’m crazy and go all Matrix on me. But no deep, writing philosophies are yet to be revealed to me via-dream Sylar.

    Oh well….

  11. Okay, first of all, I’ve been binging on GG this entire weekend. Watched 11 episodes so far and today is not over.
    Second, I feel like everyone and everything has been about GG lately, which makes me think this is a sign.
    Third, that is some seriously kick ss advice. Not that I’d expect anything less from you.

  12. Wow, Chuck – even your dreams give great writing advice! And something I’ve been trying to do with my current w-i-p… although I imagine looking for a publisher for it once it’s done will probably also do that too 😉

    I’m impressed that the famous people in your dreams are so insightful. I had this dream about Jean-Luc Picard from the Starship Enterprise once… but the only things he did left me with a deeply wrong-feeling weird crush on him for about a week afterwards – and no, I’m NOT going into details..!

  13. I like that. I was going to post on your next post I was working backwards!) that the more I write, the more I think I’m doing it wrong. Here you have given me the answer – just write fast. Get it out and stop thinking about it!

  14. So she’s your spirit animal and gave you dream-writing advice? That’s cool. Some people need to take peyote and stagger around in the desert looking for a coyote for three days for shit like that.

    I never watched Gilmore Girls, apologies. I think something else was on at the same time? Or that was the dark days in which I finally got a job.

  15. I too love the Gilmore Girls. The writing is so good. I have similar James Bondlike dreams fairly frequently, but its a rare thing that I can remember enough for it to be coherent for a story.

  16. Best.Dream.Ever. And brilliant advice.
    I’d like to get that into school classes somehow. “Now, remember kids, Write From the Rails.”
    Being the studious student that I was, I’d have applied myself to the study of it like it was a dying art.

  17. The last scene in your dream is like the cover of The Cormorant. Amy Sherman-Palladino even looks like Miriam Black too. Sweet Freudian dreamage.

  18. The only time I ever had a writing dream was actually a few weeks ago, I saw a deck of Tarot cards in my dream, with some crystals *sticking out* of them (it’s some kind of pagan thing, I’m a pagan myself and even I don’t know–maybe I’ll consult my cards about it.) A woman’s voice shouted, “Write, Kate, write!” And that was all. Been feeling very writerly since.

  19. I am often wonderstruck with what happens inside our minds while dreaming. I like to think that it is busy figuring out a lot of things for us that we are struggling with. As others have mentioned, they are often inspired by their dream ideas and use them as writing material, while others finally break through something they haven’t figured out yet. Maybe on some level you knew this all along, but needed that extra push from someone (Amy Sherman-Palladino) you admired and respected. Good luck in your writing and thanks for sharing.

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