Dreams: "Creative writing instructors hate that shit."

What shouldn’t you write about [1]?

I’ve most often heard about this topic in the context of creative writing class syllabi [2]. My favorite rule comes from a buddy’s class: “No losing-your-virginity stories. They all end the same way” [3].

Almost all of the teachers outlawed genre fiction. I see the point, I suppose. . . their claim was that genre fiction relies on certain conventions. Straight fiction [4] does too, of course, but those conventions are the ones covered in an introductory creative writing class [5].

After a year or two of teaching creative writing classes [6], I started telling students to avoid writing surprise endings. The trick works only once per reader. More to the point, students would typically end up telegraphing [7] the ending via accidental slip, or worse, they’d spend so much time and energy not telegraphing the ending that their prose would get really awkward, and then they’d telegraph the ending anyway, and after all of that, the surprise would be really shitty [8].

But the strongest injunction I’ve seen and heard about and read about and been told repeatedly is against writing about one’s dreams.

Creative writing instructors hate that shit. Everybody does, maybe [9]. Again, I can see the point. Nothing is less interesting than someone else’s dream. The main problem is that nothing’s at stake. A dream is a series of images one’s brain produces while idling. Dreams are kind of like fuel-rich driveway exhaust: other people can huff it while you have fun revving [10] the engine, but they’ll just end up with headaches [11].

But [12].

That sort of injunction makes me cranky, because it dodges the real problem. Student dream-writing usually involves shaky narrative, autoauthorial filling-in of critical-but-absent details, emotional distance (or emotional overload [13]), and pointlessness. That sort of thing.

But those qualities show up in all amateur writing. Think about the first stuff you wrote [14].

I might as well explain my surprise-ending injunction here [15], by way of opposition to the injunction against writing about dreams: I don’t have any objection to surprise endings, but a surprise ending can take over a story — it becomes the writer’s primary concern. The ending takes precedence over narration and description and joy in language and whatever the hell else students are supposed to be learning in a creative writing class [16].

O Henry is cool (the author more so than the candy bar, which is spelled differently, now that I think about it), whining about M. Night Shyamalan movies is overwrought (if maybe accurately overwrought), and there is a joy in reading something and being surprised by what happens (viz. people getting mad, so mad, so terribly mad, when they learn before watching a show or movie what’s going to happen in that show or movie [17]). But for a beginner, it’s more important to work on elements other than not revealing what’s going to happen.

I don’t mind teachers putting a stop to topics that bore them because they show up too often [18], and I can understand the purpose of keeping students from writing about wizards [19]. But dreams are chunks of a life, and a life overall — someone’s life, your life, most particularly my life — is pretty boring [20]. Even the exciting bits. Dreams can be fine material, maybe particularly so now that magical realism is reasonably repandu, as long as they’re treated as any other probably dangerously boring topic. Choose carefully and edit heavily. Usually, that means wholesale excision, but so it is for everything.


1. About what should one not write?

2. Given the crowd I hang out with, this fact isn’t surprising.

3. I, however, would have welcomed that sort of story, but never got one.

4. Man, I don’t even know.

5. I like to talk about Poe when the subject comes up, but really I’m just being a contrarian.

6. What an odd damn job.

7. The technology is hideously outmoded, but the metaphor lives on. I wondered for a bit if the obselete quality of the technology is part of what keeps it alive, but I suppose that this sort of metaphor just gets fossilized into currency. People still phone things in (which is a current tech) and people still sound like a broken record (technically a current tech in re turntablism, but not really otherwise).

8. It turns out that the love poem was addressed to a bra that was being thrown out! Oh, snap! As it were! But I’d somehow suspected, given the reference to an underwire early on in the poem. (Don’t worry, I’m not this rude, or at all rude, to anybody in my classes.) But the real twist here was that I got a really violently dumb online rating from an anonymous student in that class, clearly from her, since everybody was was pretty thoroughly gruntled. I emailed her, agreeing with her assessments of my major character flaws, telling her that my friends and family would agree, but quibbling gently with a minor criticism she’d made. Alas, she did not respond to my email.

9. As I was writing this, I came across a thing that Michael Chabon has to say about dreams, in re Finnegan’s Wake, the which (and/or the other which) I will discuss later, perhaps maybe: “Dreams are the Sea-Monkeys of consciousness; in the back pages of sleep they promise us teeming submarine palaces but leave us, on waking, with a hermetic residue of freeze-dried dust. At the breakfast table in my house, an inflexible law compels all recountings of dreams to be compressed into a sentence or, better still, half a sentence, like the paraphrasing of epic films listed in TV Guide: ‘Rogue samurai saves peasant village.'” The full piece is here: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2012/jul/12/what-make-finnegans-wake/

10. Rev is one of the very few English words that ends with -v.

11. (. . .)


13. Listlessness or maudlinity. Sydney or the bush.

14. If you don’t think it’s bad, you probably have not been writing very long.

15. I wanted to do all of this as a footnote, but one has one’s limits.

16. My classes were rather open-ended, at times. (In this description, I am being uncharacteristically charitable towards myself.)

17. “Hecubus, have you seen the movie Presumed Innocent?”
“Yes I have, Master, and his wife killed her!”

18. I told my freshman comp students to stop writing about abortion (though that injunction wasn’t just about fatigue on my end: the topic’s irresolvable, since the different sides are arguing from different stases, to put it in frosh-comp terms).

19. A student would have to burn a lot of time and space establishing what a wizard is. Alternately, a student would have to crib what a wizard is. Either way, again, the time’s better spent on more traditional fundamentals.

20. If you have an exciting life, I hope it’s the pleasant kind.

  • Joel Patton

    Many of those people, or many of the ones who are still teaching, no longer get much by way of creative writing courses, due to stupid budget things and stupid handling of stupid budget things. #hashtagjoke