Art and culture inspired by a dream or vision, a la Coleridge's Kubla Khan?
September 25, 2009 11:27 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for examples of creative works which seem to have come from a place outside the artist's deliberate, conscious effort (be it the collective unconscious, drug-induced, the subconscious of the author finally culminating, whatever).

Famously, Coleridge "received" his poem Kubla Khan while in the grip of an opium high, and wrote it all down upon awakening (or so he claimed, but for the purposes of this question, assume it's true). I can think of a couple of other examples where an author had a waking dream which inspired their work (Mary Shelley and Frankenstein) or where the contents of their work appeared to them fully formed (Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the town of Macondo in One Hundred Years of Solitude). Stephen King also wrote that he wrote Cujo while under the influence, and doesn't actually remember writing any of it.

Do you know of more examples of similar and tangential events, in any medium and for any creative person? Thanks in advance. (And sources for these stories are greatly appreciated if you have them handy!)
posted by lhall to Media & Arts (29 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
William Burroughs said he had no memory of writing Naked Lunch.
posted by Joe Beese at 11:35 AM on September 25, 2009

That's in his preface to the book.
posted by Joe Beese at 11:35 AM on September 25, 2009

I believe Paul McCartney has said in numerous interviews that he woke up with "Yesterday" complete in his head.
posted by Joe Beese at 11:36 AM on September 25, 2009

Sartre was experimenting with mescaline during his writing of Nausea.

Um...the late Beatles, generally. Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, etc etc.

You also might want to check out Walter Benjamin's On Hashish - as they are sort of philosophical ruminations written while under the influence of hashish.

Bernstein was also famous for laying down on the floor during a writer's block and smoking a joint.

Carl Sagan was a pothead, generally.

Alice in Wonderland...

so many, many, many more.
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:39 AM on September 25, 2009

This seems like 50th time I've linked Radio Lab in AskMe, but their account of how Robert Lewis Stevenson got his stories from his dreams is exactly what you're looking for. You can find it on this page, under the heading "The Story of Me," and the segment starts at about 27 1/2 minutes into the full episode.
posted by martens at 11:43 AM on September 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Most, or at least much, of Philip K Dick, some of which he claims came to him while in various states of psychosis, drug-induced and otherwise. The rest... well the content suggests it.
posted by rokusan at 11:43 AM on September 25, 2009

Quoting from John Saprrow's introduction to The Penguin Poetry Library's Collected Poems of AE Housman:

"In a lecture delivered not long before he died, Housman told how his poems came into existence. Poetry was for him, he said, a 'morbid secretion', as the pearl is for the oyster. The desire, or the need, to write it did not come upon him often, and it came usually when he was feeling ill or depressed; then, whole lines and stanzas would present themselves to him without any effort, or any consciousness of composition, on his part."

About the final poem in A Shropshire Lad: "Of its four stanzas, Housman tells us that two of them were 'given' him ready-made; one was coaxed forth from his subconsciousness an hour or two later; the remaining one took months of conscious composition. No-one can tell for certain which was which."
posted by raspberry-ripple at 11:46 AM on September 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure if this is what you're thinking of, but Burroughs also used the cut-up technique in his writing. Although the process itself is deliberate, it is a deliberate way of circumventing conscious thought to create a text.
posted by snofoam at 11:54 AM on September 25, 2009

The first novel in this fabulous YA series was dreamed by the author on a bus on the way back from a conference on Freud, if I recall correctly.

That might be why I loved them so much when I was 12.
posted by WidgetAlley at 11:58 AM on September 25, 2009

This seems like 50th time I've linked Radio Lab in AskMe

You and me both, martens - and that is an incredible story.
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:59 AM on September 25, 2009

Seconding the story about McCartney waking up one morning with "Yesterday" in his head. In the interview with him I saw (I think it's on the DVD of Beatles Anthology), he said that the melody seened so complete and so familiar to him that he initially assumed that it was an old music hall song he must have heard as a kid, but had forgotten all these years. So he played it on the piano for someone (George Martin, I think) and asked if he remembered what the song was. And probably-George-Martin said he'd never heard it before, at which point Paul finally realized it was his composition that had sprung into his head fully formed. (The lyrics actually came a bit later; for awhile, as he was working on the song, he inserted the phrase "scrambled eggs, oh my baby I love your scrambled eggs..." as a place-marker for what eventually became "yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away...")

In another vein (heh), there's also the late, lamented Jim Carroll, who produced much of his early poetry while "nodding" on heroin -- which is even acknowledged in the title of one of his poetry collections, The Book of Nods.
posted by scody at 12:00 PM on September 25, 2009

The originals of Russian icons were said to be visions from God (or Mary or whoever). The endless copies of those originals not so much.
posted by small_ruminant at 12:05 PM on September 25, 2009

In On Writing, Stephen King says he can't remember writing a lot of his work in the early 80s because he was so coked up.
posted by sugarfish at 12:06 PM on September 25, 2009

Much of the Bible fits your criteria.

At minimum, the books of Ezekiel and Revelations/Apocalypse. At maximum, all of it.
posted by rokusan at 12:20 PM on September 25, 2009

Regarding the song (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction by the Rolling Stones, here is the Wikipedia version of Keith Richards' account:

Keith Richards states that he came up with the guitar riff for the song in his sleep, waking up in the middle of the night, recording the riff and the words "I can't get no satisfaction" on a cassette recorder and promptly falling back to sleep. He would later describe the tape as: "two minutes of 'Satisfaction' and 40 minutes of me snoring."
posted by The World Famous at 12:31 PM on September 25, 2009

Take a Look at the website of the Museum of Visionary Art.
posted by effluvia at 12:39 PM on September 25, 2009

Top 10 Drunk American Writers
posted by torquemaniac at 1:18 PM on September 25, 2009

Somewhat related, you may be interested in the terma tradition in Tibetan Buddhism, which would include texts and practices discovered or revealed through dreams.
posted by dixie flatline at 1:49 PM on September 25, 2009

There are several relevant anecdotes in science, such as Mendeleev's dream of the completed periodic table, Loewi's dream that lead to the discovery of acetycholine.

You may like this article in the journal Dreaming.
posted by James Scott-Brown at 2:43 PM on September 25, 2009

Aleister Crowley claimed Liber AL vel Legis (The Book of The Law) was narrated to him by an outside force.

A number of other religious books share comparable origin stories, but I'm short on names at the moment.
posted by Matt Oneiros at 2:50 PM on September 25, 2009

William Blake had visions all his life.
Henri Michaux did a bunch of mescaline drawings.
Skip Spence's album Oar is probably in this category.

I read somewhere Dali would sit in front of a canvas, fall asleep with a spoon in his hand, and when he dropped the spoon would wake up and immediately start painting.
posted by minkll at 4:38 PM on September 25, 2009

1) Absinthe.
2) Famous People and Their Drug Use.
posted by R. Mutt at 5:01 PM on September 25, 2009

According to this, Nike co-founder Jeff Johnson was inspired to name the shoe company by a dream.

- AJ
posted by Alaska Jack at 6:16 PM on September 25, 2009

Carl Jung, according to this, developed much of his thought by entering " ...a liminal place, as full of creative abundance as it was of potential ruin, believing it to be the same borderlands traveled by both lunatics and great artists."
posted by sethbabo at 6:38 PM on September 25, 2009

W.B. Yeats got into automatic writing in his later years. The poetry produced from this directly is supposed to be shite, but it may have influenced the imagery in "The Second Coming."
posted by Diablevert at 6:41 PM on September 25, 2009

Hildegard of Bingen is said to have experienced debilitating migraine headaches. Some people think this image looks like a migraine aura. I think it looks like something else, and wonder what the gals at the convent were up to.

Friedrich August Kekule said that the ring structure of benzene came to him in a waking dream about a snake biting its own tail, although there is some debate about how serious and accurate he was about that statement
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 9:07 PM on September 25, 2009

Peg Kerr says that part of the inspiration for her book The Wild Swans came from a dream she had about a mute woman in a park:

I knew she had something heartbreaking to tell me if she would only speak. Yet I knew she never would.
posted by creepygirl at 9:38 PM on September 25, 2009

I was beaten to the mention of Crowley, but I have this to add:

If I recall correctly, and it wasn't a different book, it was dictated to him by Ra when he visited Egypt.
posted by cmoj at 2:58 PM on September 26, 2009

Thank you, everyone! These are brilliant :)

I thought I'd add an additional one to the list, as I just discovered it today (and am going to look for the source):

"Dante is supposed to have died with the location of the final portions of the Divine Comedy unknown. His ghost is said to have appeared to his son letting him know where the manuscript was."

posted by lhall at 12:38 PM on October 1, 2009

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