Nightmares and Muses

By Jennie Jarvis

When I was in my middle school years, I started having a recurring nightmare. There were black catwalks and pillars of flame. There was suffocating heat, and the rubber from the souls of my sneakers would melt, leaving strings of plastic on the grid below me as I walked. Occasionally, the world would shake under the power of a monstrous earthquake, forcing me to grasp hold of the scorching black bars around me. And there were screams. Everywhere, I heard screams.

The people who ventured with me each evening were different depending on what my subconscious needed to purge that night. But it was almost always people my age, usually those kids in my class that I wish I could be friends with, but that I didn’t have the nerve to approach. They were the nice kids who minded their own business and didn’t pick on me because of my thick glasses and my bad fashion sense. They were the ones who would have been kind to me.

But all of them died horrific and painful deaths in my nightmares.

Some of them would get caught in a pillar of flame that would unexpectedly shoot up, baking them to a black crisp. Some of them would lose their balance during an earthquake. Sometimes, a trap door would open beneath us, and they would fall into the black unknown below.

I never died. I just had to watch them all.

Twenty years later, and that horrific scene that burned the retina of my mind made it into my newest screenplay. It wasn’t exactly like my nightmares (my protagonist and her brother weren’t even born in the nursery of my mind yet), but it was close.

Other images from my sleep have popped into my writing from time to time or helped to sprout the ideas of a full story.

A tree that serves as a passageway to another realm.
A car racing through a cow pasture.
A basketball flattened.
A naked body crawling through ash.
Children on a school bus.

Being a visual writer, it makes sense that my muses often live in the realm of images. When I was growing up and had no real idea of how the world worked (but oh, I thought I did!), my dreams provided those images. I grew up in suburban North Eastern Florida, and the most experience that I had with life was volunteering at a local community theater. My parents weren’t abusive. I got all A’s. Where else was I going to get inspiration? So I relied on sleep to give me the ideas that I needed to create my stories. Some of them were heartwarming; some of them were terrifying. But all of them helped to put me into a world that was different than my own.

Overtime, however, as life taught me more and more about living, I started to pull from the images around me. Moments that held emotional resonance for me were suddenly able to occupy my thoughts and breed in my mind, growing into characters and scenes and even into entire narratives.

A pair of blue eyes starring at me while lying on my couch.
A dog hiding under a bed.
The face of a dancer as she leaps through the air.
A scathing look from across a library.
The spinning lights on a drunken dance floor.
Someone’s feet in my sink.
A smiling face at my wedding.
Easing my ex-husband into a bathtub to pull him out of shock.
A water-damaged styrofoam ceiling.
My dog biting a man who had gotten too close.
The look of flesh falling off a pet’s face.
Finding my father dead.
Running in boots. Running. Running.

I don’t have a very good memory, but these moments are burned into my mind like acid. They hold with them not just the sight but also the feel and the smell of those moments. I see them in my mind’s eye, and I feel the heartache and happiness. I feel the agony and the ecstasy. They aren’t just visuals. They are small pieces of life, wrapped up and ready to be delivered to whichever story needs them most.

For many years, I wasn’t aware that this was how I worked – that I took moments and images and then broke them down before I reclaimed, molded and refashioned them. I took the world around me and broke it into pieces so that I could pull them back together in a mosaic of fantasy and words, hung on a clothesline of structure and genre. I didn’t know that I did all this. I just wrote. Because that’s what I had to do in order to not go mad.

Today, however, I’m grateful to be self-aware enough to know that this is my methodology. I’m currently working on the first draft of a YA novel, and I used this knowledge of how I work to create a world-building notebook. I had an entire composition book filled with images that I pulled from magazines and Internet sites as well as hand drawings of maps and outlines. It’s a visual world of inspiration, of dreams and memories, all pasted in a book that I can carry around in my larger than necessary purse. And while the majority of these images don’t contain the emotional resonance of my life inspired memory hits, they still have the power to remind me what I am writing. If I forget the core of my characters, or I get lost in my to-do lists (buy more oatmeal, clean underwear, find passport), then I can flip it open and just look. I can allow myself to sink back into my fantastical world and forget the world around me.

“You know that place between sleep and awake? That place where you still remembering dream? That’s where I’ll always love you… that’s where I’ll be waiting.” – Hook

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  1. #1 by wordimprovisor177 on April 2, 2012 - 1:52 pm

    So true, Jennie. I’m often inspired by images, as well. And when one haunts you, it’s begging for you to tell its story. Thanks for sharing.

  2. #2 by priceswrite on April 12, 2012 - 3:58 pm

    I can’t tell you how cool it was to read your list of images and realize I know what scripts they are from. Your imagery – the worlds you create – are so vivid and distinct I was drawn right back into each story. I also love the tangibleness of carrying around something that draws you back into your story. In his book Misery, Stephen King talks about falling into “the hole in the page”. I love that feeling. And I hate the days when I can’t get there because I allow all the to-do lists of life get in the way. Your post has inspired me to try to find a way to carry the “other world” around with me.

    • #3 by jpgirl27 on April 16, 2012 - 1:33 pm

      Linda, it’s funny but I thought about Stephen King’s using his nightmares as inspiration while I was writing my blog post. Great minds, you and me. Great minds!

  3. #4 by priceswrite on April 17, 2012 - 9:59 pm

    But your great mind is not as creepy as Stephen King’s. I would never want to be his next-door neighbor – you, on the other hand, would be great fun to live next door to!

    • #5 by jpgirl27 on April 18, 2012 - 3:48 pm

      Well thank you Linda. I do always have extra food or compliments for my neighbors. You’d be great to have next door as well, as long as you keep those crazy actor-type off my lawn. 😉

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