Daydreaming, by Louise DeSalvo

June 29, 2010

Today’s New York Times had an article about daydreaming.  It reported on several studies indicating that people daydream more than they think they do.  It described for example, how, when we read, we often “zone out” for pages at a time; how, when we drive, we aren’t truly present for much of the time; how when we’re bored, our thoughts take us someplace else.  The article spoke, too, about the significant relationship between daydreaming and creativity.  And that’s important for us writers to understand.

Creative people, it seems, daydream more than others.  (I don’t like dividing people up in that way…creative people and people who aren’t….but the article does.)  Daydreaming performs many functions for us all.  It’s important, for example that we use daydreaming to remove ourselves from a boring lecture or to entertain ourselves while we do some repetitive task.  Studies indicate that many tasks we undertake would be far less palatable without daydreaming.  There are practices, like Buddhism, for example, that emphasize being working toward being completely present, on focusing on what you’re doing when you’re doing it.  Even so, such practices do concede that daydreaming is an important habit of mind and some meditation practices invite us to, say, notice where the mind wanders and then return to our breathing or to focusing upon the task we’re doing.

But, to me, daydreaming for writers is an especially important part of the process because, as I see it, it’s not a distraction from, but rather an essential component of a writer’s work life.  I’ve daydreamed every book I’ve written; I’ve daydreamed every chapter of every book; I’ve daydreamed every connection I’ve made in every book I’ve written.  In this sense, daydreaming is not an idle enterprise; it’s essential.

What writer ever sat down at the desk, opened up the computer, and started writing a book without first having daydreamed what that book would be?

I’ve thought about this for much of the day.  Or rather, I’ve daydreamed about the function of daydreaming today as I’ve done laundry, cleared off my desk, downloaded some software.  And here I am, writing about it.  That daydreaming was, in fact, preparation.  It suggested to me that I write about it.

And how could I characterize a writer’s daydreaming?  Thoughts about writing something come and go throughout the day.  They come unbidden.  They come in no special order.  They repeat themselves.  They circle round themselves.  The worst thing a writer can do is to ignore them.  The best thing a writer can do is record them in some way.  Most of us won’t get to act on our writing daydreams the day we have them.  Many of us may find that we get to something we’ve daydreamed about days, weeks, months or even years after.  But it’s essential, I believe, to grab those random thoughts and write them down.

So how has daydreaming helped my work?  Quite obviously, I daydreamed writing about daydreaming.  And aren’t many of our projects planned in this way?  We walk around; we do one routine task and then another.  And quite often, an idea for an essay, a book, a line, a scene, a moment springs to consciousness.

I’ve learned, though, that many beginning writers leave it at that – they don’t act on their daydreams.  They don’t capture them by writing them down.  They don’t honor them.  They treat them as ephemera rather than as rock solid knowledge of what we need to do in our work.

Some writers, I know, haven’t trained themselves to grab these notions and to record them.  They let them come; they let them go.  But the most productive writers I know realize that daydreaming is an important part of how a writer works.  We might not know, now, what to do with what our daydreams suggest, but I believe that one day we will. We might not know how a phrase will fit into their narrative-in-progress, but if we write it down, it won’t be lost; it will be there for us when we need it.

An article in the July 5th issue of Time magazine about Thomas Alva Edison describes how he used daydreaming to further the work on his inventions.  Edison had scores of notebooks – 3,500 in fact – where he daydreamed on paper.   Some of his entries develop ways of advancing his work-in-progress.  Others record what others might regard as idle fancies.  It seems that Edison didn’t have a daydream about something to invent that he didn’t record.  His notebooks were “idea books” in the best sense of the word.  One would need several lifetimes to develop all his ideas into workable models.  Still, Edison developed a remarkable number of them.

Some of his entries took the form of “to-do” lists like the one that was reproduced in that issue.

Jany 3, 1888

“Things doing and to be done

Cotton Picker

New Standard Phonograph

Hand Turning Phonograph

New Slow Speed Cheap Dynamo

. . .

Deaf Apparatus

Electrical Piano

Artificial Cable”

The page contains 26 ideas in all.  You can watch Edison dreaming on the page, his fertile mind reeling through one thing and then another while his pen records whatever comes into his mind.

So there’s the daydreaming we do while we’re doing other things that we write down as soon after as possible.  (We can subvert our creative process by dismissing these thoughts as idle thoughts rather than taking them seriously by understanding that this is the way creative we get at our material.  Not writing these ideas down may mean they’re lost.  And that’s not good, because they’re presents that might not be given to us again.)

And then there’s the kind of daydreaming Edison does in his notebooks – daydreaming with pen in hand.  On this single page in one of those 3,500 notebooks, Edison is making a hugely important list of how to improve phonographs, electric lighting, the cotton picker as well as jotting down his ideas for developing ink for the blind.

Make no mistake about his: Edison was daydreaming, not planning.  Planning is when you write down what to do about something you’re already doing.  Daydreaming is imagining what you one day might do.

Some of the writers I work with refuse to keep notes like this.  Some say it’s too overwhelming for them to write down all their ideas.  Some use their notebooks for writing at works-in-progress, or for writing about works-in-progress, or for thinking about the order, say, of a work-in-progress.  But they don’t record the kinds of notions that Edison did habitually.  And that’s too bad.  If Edison wasn’t overwhelmed by what had to be hundreds of thousands of ideas in thousands of notebooks, isn’t that proof that writing so many ideas down leads to invention, not detracts from it?

I think that we writers should think about using our notebooks as Edison did – as idea books where we daydream with pen in hand.  Like Edison, we can make lists.  We can daydream about, say, scenes we want to write in our work-in-progress; words we want to play with; books we want to write at some future time.  We can daydream about potential titles for our chapters or for our books.  We can make lists of all the hundreds of books we’d like to write in our lives.  And why not?  If we only get to the tiniest fraction of them, that’s fine.  We’ll be doing more than if we let our daydreams about writing pass unrecorded into the ether.  There’s no one out there who can do anything with them.


2 Responses to “Daydreaming, by Louise DeSalvo”

  1. Julie Says:

    I agree with you, especially with:
    “(We can subvert our creative process by dismissing these thoughts as idle thoughts rather than taking them seriously by understanding that this is the way creative we get at our material. Not writing these ideas down may mean they’re lost. And that’s not good, because they’re presents that might not be given to us again.)”

  2. Michelle Cando Says:

    This post struck a chord with me because I have almost the opposite relationship to daydreaming than is described here. While I see how useful and important daydreams can be to the writing process, they can also be pretty distracting. For example, I tend to get so caught up in daydreaming to the extent that I will spend more time thinking about every little thing than actually getting those thoughts down. I suppose the obstacle for me is to get these daydreams to work for/with me rather than against me. Edison’s method of “daydreaming with pen in hand” might help..

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