The Fictive Dream versus The Leaf Blower

Today, I’m going to swipe an idea of the late John Gardner’s. I had the pleasure of meeting him once when I was but a callow college lad. He was a fine writing teacher and I’m proud to spread his wisdom in this space.

Mr. Gardner had a notion he call “the fictive dream.” In The Art of Fiction, he writes, “In the writing state—the state of inspiration–the fictive dream springs up fully alive: the writer forgets the words he has written on the page and sees, instead, his characters moving around their rooms, hunting through cupboards, glancing irritably through their mail, setting mousetraps, loading pistols.”

If the writer is true to his dream, his words will provide his readers the same experience. They will fall into a sort of dream state in which they are living the story along with the characters. If you’ve ever been engrossed in a work of fiction, you know what I mean.

Now, what if you’re asleep, and you’re having a great dream, and your neighbor starts his freakin’ leaf blower about two feet from your window? You’re jolted out of it, right? The experience is ruined.

Something similar happens when a writer screws up grammar, at least if the reader is aware of the problem, which isn’t always the case, I realize.

I’ve been reading a couple of very talented self-published Kindle authors lately, with genuine enjoyment, but they keep shocking me out of the dream state with their inability to use the verb “lie,” as in “lie down,” correctly.

I’m dreaming along and I run into something like, “He was exhausted after the chase and decided to lay down.”

Aiiee! Leaf blower! It should be “decided to lie down.” A person does not lay down. My dream is interrupted by the error. I’m jolted awake and forced to acknowledge I’m just reading a story. The sense of reality is gone. The writer has defeated his or her purpose. (For the complete poop on this verb, just go to or someplace similar.)

Perfect grammar isn’t always desirable for a writer. In fact, bending or outright breaking the rules can be a great way to achieve effects.

The problem comes about when a writer makes an unintended error out of carelessness or ignorance and it’s egregious enough for the reader to notice.

“To lie” might not really be a problem for much longer. It’s getting increasingly common to mix it up with “to lay.” Many people don’t even notice the error, I’m sure. After a while, we might see a change in usage that makes “I’m going to lay down” perfectly acceptable outside southern Mississippi.

Until then, I hope writers everywhere, especially the self-published ones who rely on their own resources, will proofread carefully and continually upgrade their vocabularies. Keep those readers dreaming, folks–please.

That’s all. I have done lied down the law.

Oh, and let me lay this smackerel of Thin Spots (totally unedited rough draft) on you: smackerel 12-14-11

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