Of all the books in all the world that have been inspired by dreams, Frankenstein remains the most famous. (Though Twilight did what it could to oust that.)
In the introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, Shelley goes into detail about the inspiration behind the novel: her nightmare.
“When I placed my head on my pillow I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think. My imagination, unbidden, possess and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie. I saw — with shut eyes but acute mental vision — I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion. Frightful must it be, for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world. His success would terrify the artist; he would rush away from his odious handiwork, horror-stricken. He would hope that, left to itself, the slight spark of life which he had communicated would fade, that this thing which had received such imperfect animation would subside into dead matter, and he might sleep in the belief that the silence of the grave would quench forever the transient existence of the hideous corpse which he had looked upon as the cradle of life. He sleeps; but he is awakened; he opens his eyes; behold, the horrid thing stands at his bedside, opening his curtains and looking on him with yellowy, watery, but speculative eyes.
I opened mine in terror. The idea so possessed my mind that a thrill of fear ran through me, and I wished to exchange the ghastly image of my fancy for the realities around. I see them still: the very room, the dark parquet, the closed shutters with the moonlight struggling through, and the sense that I had that the glassy lake and white high Alps beyond.”
This vivid image — the one Shelley was so eager to erase by looking around her bedroom — became the “powerful engine” driving her story. Everyone who has been exposed to the story of Frankenstein — whether through children’s cartoons (thank you, Scooby-Doo), any of the film versions or — please Heaven — the novel itself — can attest to the visceral nature of Shelley’s initial dream.
And I think the vivid, visceral nature of dreams is what makes them so enticing to write about and so tricky.
Generally, lucid dreams are emotionally charged too — so not only do you have an image that’s striking (like a stitched-together corpse) but that image is tied to a strong emotion. Like terror, in Shelley’s case.
Writers should be highly encouraged to follow their dreams…literally. As a writer, you should see where those sharp imaged and super-emotional emotions take you.
But — and this is the tricky part which makes Mary Shelley a legend among hundreds of novelists for hundreds of years — the emotion/image combo should somehow feed the engine of narrative. Mary Shelley didn’t only write the scene where Frankenstein’s monster is created. All in all, that would not make a legendary story, as terrifying and visceral as it is.
Instead, Shelley creates Frankenstein as a man with deep ambitions that drive him to create this creature. So her main character’s want — his objective — is tied to the dream image.
Then she takes it a step further. She gives the other character in her dream wants — objectives — too. Objectives which are diametrically opposed to her main character. So the scene of student-doing-something-he-shouldn’t turns into a meeting of protagonist and antagonist. (Which is which? Who knows? Another stroke of genius!)
With some divine comparisons thrown in on both sides:
Frankenstein: “I had gazed on him while unfinished, he was ugly then, but when those muscles and joints were rendered capable of motion, it became such a thing as even Dante could not have conceived.”
…And Frankenstein’s monster: “Many times I considered Satan as the fitter emblem of my condition, for often, like him, when I viewed the bliss of my protectors, the bitter gall of envy rose within me.”
Everything in the story spins out from that central image of Shelley’s nightmare — the disgust, the envy.
And that’s the important thing to take away: don’t write only your dream. Because then you’re just writing images and emotions. Use those images and emotions to create conflict and drive the story.
In the spirit of last week’s Write Expecting to be Read: Mary Shelley’s Journals — the prompt for today is to riff on “write what you mean, mean what you write.” And we’re going to do that by following the advice of another author: Ernest Hemingway.
No, we’re not writing drunk and editing sober.
But we are going to “write one true sentence” — which was Hemingway’s way of getting started on a piece when he wasn’t sure what else to do. Just write one true sentence. Whatever that means to you. Just make sure you mean it. You can put it on your own blog and link back in the comments if it leads to something longer, or just put it in the comments if you’re sticking to a sentence.
For my Goodreads reading challenge this year, I decided that I would read 50 books. And, rather than write a traditional review — which I do all the time for Criminal Element — I thought I would create art from art.
You see, after a while it’s hard to critique other people’s work. They’ve spent a lot of time on their piece.
And I like to think that art leads to art.
So I just finished Carrie LaSeur’s The Weight of an Infinite Sky, which will be released on Tuesday. I wrote this in response to a line in the novel: “It only reflected him in unflattering angles.”
When I was younger – maybe eleven or twelve – my mother told me never to write down anything I didn’t want someone else to read. If I kept a diary or a journal, I needed to make sure I meant what I said. And I should never write down anything I would not say to someone’s face.
She told me this after I wrote something particularly hurtful about my grandmother – who I was quite angry with at the time. So, I got that advice perhaps a little late…but the lesson stuck.
As I was reading through Mary Shelley’s journals, this advice – write like someone will read it – kept repeating in my mind. Partly because I was reading someone else’s private thoughts two hundred years after she’d written them…and partly because I realized she was writing like someone would read these journals.
My first clue (I’m a little slow sometimes) was that it’s not Mary who starts the journal. Her husband Percy does. At first I was distracted by this fact: who the hell shares a journal? I get territorial about my spot on the couch. Letting someone else share pages, even a husband, seems like a weird mind-meld I want no part of.
Most of Mary’s journal remains her own. And, my guess is, a lot of it is to communicate with her husband – to tell him how her days went, when her heart broke, or when she was happy or angry.
For example, Mary was left behind quite often because she was pregnant and unmarried. (Pregnant, unmarried women weren’t really welcome in public places.) Her condition didn’t stop Percy and Claire (Mary’s stepsister) from going out. To which Mary left repeated entries along the lines of: “P and C walk” and then, after this entry occurs several times – “P and C walk as usual.”
If it was a scold, it seems to have worked for a little bit. Those entries slow down.
At no point does Mary ever call Claire a name or outright mention specific jealousies…but anyone who is familiar with ‘vaguebooking’ on Facebook will recognize the communication style. And her entries seem (to me) to have the same motivations as vaguebooking. Namely saying:
So she was always aware of her audience.
Years later, knowing that her writing would be read, Mary tore out and burned a large amount of journal pages and letters to preserve reputations…so maybe Mary didn’t do quite as well at following my mother’s advice as she should have.
I think the lesson from all this is to write with a certain level of honesty in your writings. Facebook. Letters. Blog posts. Texts. Journals. At the end of the day you have to answer for what you put into the world, so make sure you’re willing to back your words up – doesn’t matter whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, personal or public. Mary knew that her journals and letters would color opinions of her work and her husband’s work. (And, by extension, a lot their literary circle.)
Write what you mean. Mean what you write.