Joel Kelly's Blog

Joel Kelly's updates about his latest writing, his process, and his life as a Halifax-based author and marketer.

Nightmares as writing fuel

I get a lot of nightmares. Sometimes, night terrors — waking up screaming, moaning something incomprehensible, sweating and thrashing. Fun stuff to wake up beside, my fiancée informs me.

I don't like having nightmares. But I find them useful. They're unpleasant, but I can turn them into something interesting, something that can help my writing and help my stories. "The Obstacle is the Way," and all that.

Last night's nightmare involved a gas leak in my hotel room, which I became convinced was not something physical — making me sick and clouding my thoughts — but a demon attempting to possess and control me. In that moment I knew that God was real, and that there was still a chance for me to gain salvation, because if a demon was attacking me, it meant I was a threat.

After sorting that out (I switched rooms), I went into the elevator, which began to plummet. The other people in the elevator were panicking, but we knew there was nothing we could do. By the time we hit the ground, we were at peace. We had become a family, tied together by our deaths, somewhere halfway down. We managed to survive, but none of us would be the same, after that. 

Are those dreams worth including in a short story? No, not as they are. But perhaps there are pieces worth hanging onto. Perhaps the meaning my subconscious mind found, in the strangest events, could be used as metaphors, or could be used to uncover some of the pieces of my characters that would be impossible to simply spell out. Show, don't tell, etc.

For instance, in my latest short story, I'm including this part of a nightmare I once had: 

The wind had pushed the barbeque a foot or so from the wet, slatted patio wall. The rain had filled the heavy glass ashtray until it had spilled over the side. It had dripped the grayish water down onto the rusting metal bistro table.

Down onto the pine two-by-four floor.

Down onto the neighbors’ patio.

Down onto the ground and grass.

Water had come in through the slightly open window in the living room. The wind had blown it against the screen until it made its way down onto the windowsill.

Down against the wall.

Down onto the old wooden chest on the floor, painted green a year ago. It had been a child’s coffin, once. But never used. The coffin was a gift from a family friend who was a woodworker. The order for the coffin had been canceled.

Riley slept on the couch in the living room with the coffin. Her feet were tucked under the corner of a heavy wool blanket, but the rest of the blanket draped off of the brown leather couch into a pile on the dusty hardwood floor.

She enjoyed the sound of the rain against the window, against the roof and walls. It helped her sleep, and reminded her of camping with her mother and father when she was eight or nine. They camped every year on Prince Edward Island, in an old canvas tent that would leak if you touched the sides.

So she slept deeply, now, as the water seeped in, more and more.

And it rained in her dream. She was walking toward her office, early in the morning. Too early, too dark. Her auburn hair was getting much too wet. But there was nothing to do about it. She had forgotten her umbrella. Forgotten her coat. But her feet were warm, and dry.

The coffee shop she usually stopped into wasn’t there anymore, in her dream. It had never been very good. They served coffee out of those giant thermoses, some off-brand generic roast, poured half-heartedly into a white styrofoam cup. But it was on the way.

Now, though, it was replaced with something else she couldn’t see, and didn’t want to. A part of her, something deep, and hurting.

She tried to walk away, but every step brought her closer. She tried to run, but her feet wouldn’t hold the ground. She bent over, tried to pry at the sidewalk with her fingers, to propel her forward but she only went back. Back and back. Toward something like a shard she couldn’t see but feel.

She felt something pierce her back, carve slowly through her skin. She felt it slide through muscle, wedging in between her vertebrae, and sending pain to every corner of her body. The shiv moved so slowly and so deep she could almost hear it.

She listened to herself die.

And then she fell. Down to the ground. Down past the sidewalk and through it. Down into the earth.

Down and down.

She fell until her she was traveling upward again through the earth. Toward the sky, toward heaven.

Up and up.

And then she woke.

So is that exactly the same nightmare I'd had? No, but the important pieces are there. The inability to run, the impotence of her escape. The inevitability of death, and a painful one. The worries she wrestles with every day, manifested in a dream about nothing. But at the same time everything: life, death, God, heaven, hell.

My point is really this: everything you experience can help your writing. Even if it's painful, even if you'd rather not think about it. It's going to happen to you anyway, so you might as well get some use out of it.

Love you,