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I Had a Dream

The dark side of divine inspiration: one writer’s cautionary tale

Shalom Auslander
November 04, 2010
(Illustration: Len Small/Tablet Magazine; photo: Flickr/Marquette LaForest)
(Illustration: Len Small/Tablet Magazine; photo: Flickr/Marquette LaForest)

The history of genius—and let’s face it, I am a genius—is a long and storied one. Some of the most beloved stories are of seemingly divine revelation: ideas, plots, concepts, and music that came to one genius or another in his dreams. That is because unlike you, we geniuses have a deep, underground, tumultuous river of thought and ideas, so deep, in fact, that only our subconscious will ever dare to plumb its murky, brilliant depths. “In our dreams the fetters of civilizations are loosened,” wrote Havelock Ellis, who was no slouch himself.

Paul McCartney, who might be a genius but definitely isn’t really a genius-genius, claimed that the song “Yesterday” came to him in a dream. Handel, who was a genius-genius, said the last movement of his Messiah arrived in the form of a dream, and Wagner, also a genius-genius, dreamt the opera Tristan and Isolde. Robert Louis Stevenson (genius), Poe (crazy genius), Charlotte Brontë (genius), and D.H. Lawrence (genius-genius) all claimed that dreams fueled the inspiration for their work. Goethe (genius-genius) said he was guided by his dreams, as was Samuel Taylor Coleridge—the story goes that he dreamt the poem “Kubla Khan,” sat up to write it down, and was interrupted by a knock on the door. When he attempted to finish transcribing it, it was gone. The poem remained unfinished.

Two years ago, roughly speaking, I had a dream.

I was at a book festival—somewhere impressive, like Paris or The New Yorker Festival—in this dream, and I was seated behind a long table, signing my books. I recognized the covers of my previous books, which were stacked on the table in front of me, but there was a book propped up whose cover I couldn’t see—it was my next book, the one I hadn’t written yet. It was thick and black, and it looked very serious. Eight hundred pages, at least—it had to be good. A pound and a half of genius. Maybe two.

It was quite a lucid dream, the type of dream where you are aware you are dreaming, and the Actual Me watching Dream Me wondered, desperately, “What is the title? What is the title?” I had been struggling with my work at the time, uncertain what to do or which way to go. At last a man approached the table, and he picked up the book—“Is this your most recent book?” he asked; “Yes, yes,” I said, reaching for it—and he handed it to me, and I took hold of the book and turned it over and there it was: the title.

The title of my next book.

It was a good one.

A really good one.

Actual Me forced myself to awake, fumbled in the dark for a pen and piece of paper, and hurriedly scribbled it down.

It was great.

It was genius.

It had to be.

I fell back on my pillow, a smile on my face, and drifted off into a deep, genius sleep.

I have now wasted, roughly speaking, two fucking years on that stupid dream. Twenty-four months of my miserable life, gone.

Why we have this need to make writing somehow mystical, spiritual, beyond our understanding is more interesting to me than why the dream title never worked. We are all, I suppose, like the biblical Pharaoh, dreaming of seven cows and seven ears of corn and insisting there must be something to it.

“It was a prophecy,” said Joseph.

“Of course it was!” said Pharaoh.


Or maybe it was just the chimichangas Pharaoh scarfed down before bed.

It’s interesting to me, too, that the book in my dream was a thick one. I suspect the two details are related. Writing is lonely, difficult, uncertain work. There’s a lot of sitting involved, hours and days filled with failure, punctuated by occasional moments of masturbation, and even less occasional moments of success. Nobody who has done it can honestly say how they did it, which is why the next book is never any easier than the last. So, lost at sea, we look for land. For markings. Something we can judge it by. Size is a good one. If it’s 800 pages, it must be good. If it’s a thousand, it’s even better—a whole quarter better than the 800-page book, so there. Somehow, though, Voltaire (genius-genius) fit everything there is to know about life and love and the world into Candide, and that barely breaks 200 pages. (A well-known American lit crit once declared that Candide couldn’t be considered a great book because it wasn’t long enough; perhaps a link here to penis pumps would be appropriate.)

Time is another common marker. Eight years seems to be the standard genius claim these days. I can’t remember the last book that didn’t take eight years for the author to write. Some say they worked for 10 years, some say more. You have to be careful, though—if you claim you worked on it for too long, you go right over the genius cliff into weirdo/obsessive/failure territory.

Inspiration is the other marker. God. Visions. Prophecy. It doesn’t really matter what the idea is; if it came in a dream, it’s a pretty damn good one. It might even be genius.

Or it might just be chimichangas.

The book I’m working on now didn’t come to me in a dream. It came to me at my desk, while typing on a laptop computer. “Well,” you might say, “that doesn’t sound very genius to me.” That’s because you don’t know two things I do: it’s going to be 4,000 pages, and I’m telling everyone it took me 11 years. No, 12. No, wait—11.

Shalom Auslander is the author of Foreskin’s Lament and the novel Hope: A Tragedy. He is also a frequent contributor to This American Life.

Shalom Auslander is the author of Foreskin’s Lament, Hope: A Tragedy, and most recently Mother for Dinner. His new memoir, Fehwill be published this July. He writes The Fetal Position on Substack, so make that seven Nazis.

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