Writing and the Importance of Daydreaming

“What no wife of a writer can ever understand is that a writer is working when he’s staring out of the window.”  ~Burton Rascoe

Sometimes, when you’re staring at the blank screen, asking the gods to deliver a solution to your latest writing dilemma, nothing comes. Other times, you’ll be going about your day, doing the dishes, walking the dog, or staring out the window, and the solution presents itself so nicely and prettily that you wonder how you didn’t think of it before.

“The best time for planning a book is while you’re doing the dishes.”  ~Agatha Christie

As writers, we spend a lot of time in our own heads, living in worlds that, at present, only we can see. Then, we jot down as much as possible of that experience, spinning the threads of those worlds and stories of the people we meet in them into a place our readers can visit.

I often feel that time spent “daydreaming” is frivolous, a wasted opportunity to meet a word count or be productive. Yet sometimes it’s in those spots of frivolity that a much-needed epiphany occurs.

I have a habit of scribbling notes on yellow legal pads.

I’ve been doing it for as long as I can remember. It might be story ideas, bits of description or dialogue that float by, or lists. I love lists: lists of stories I want to write, lists of places I want to visit, lists of things I need or want to do. These yellow legal pads allow me to get the clutter out of my head so that I can refocus on my writing. But every once in a while, in the course of scribbling, I discover a shiny bit of treasure.

That happened this week. I was thinking about which stories I wanted to focus on writing this year, and I began mulling over a novella I started last year. Now, I really loved that story—loved and felt drawn toward the characters, was intrigued by the concept, liked the world it was set in. It was a fantasy story about witches and magic gone tragically awry, a struggle to make peace with the past and forge a way forward. You know, one about being human.

But as a story, it had issues. I couldn’t figure out how to sustain it, much as I loved the characters. So I set it aside. And then, while I was doodling, daydreaming, letting my mind wander, it occurred to me that the story could be more powerful as a longer short story. If it couldn’t sustain 30K, surely these characters and their plight would make a fitting story of 15K. I jotted this idea down, finished my list, and went back to work.

I’m glad I made this discovery. I hated abandoning that story, but I couldn’t see a path forward, and now I do. For now, I’m focused on another WIP, but perhaps later this year, those characters will get their story told after all.

Has this ever happened to you?

ROW80 check-in

ROW80Logocopy1.)   Wrote 405 words in WIP, “Good, Old-Fashioned Magic.” I took Monday off from writing to finish some financial housekeeping matters—namely, my taxes. Ugh. At least that’s done. I’m a little behind for this week, but progress is progress.

2.)   Continued reading Julia Cameron’s “Walking in this World” and doing corresponding exercises. Still need to do the character exercises for Donald Maass’ “The Fire in Fiction.”

3.)   Blogging Wednesdays and Sundays: So far, so good.

4.)   Check in on Twitter: Accomplished for Tuesday, not Monday.

5.)   Comment on 5-6 blog posts per day: Done, both Monday and Tuesday.

6.)   Super-secret project: Nada. Zip. Zilch. Maybe I’ll have more time for this later in the week.

A Round of Words in 80 Days (ROW80) is the writing challenge that knows you have a life. Click here to cheer on fellow ROW80 participants.

How are your writing goals coming along? And do you find daydreaming to be a surprisingly productive part of your process?

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14 thoughts on “Writing and the Importance of Daydreaming

  1. Daydreaming is great, but I have to make sure to balance it out with actual writing. Using a kitchen timer helps me with this, because during my writing breaks, I end up daydreaming about my writing and often return to the keyboard with solutions my focused mind couldn’t quite figure out.

    • I’m the same way. I have so many thoughts in my head that I have to remember the importance of action, too. But I think we often overlook how vital daydreaming is to the practice of writing. Without it, our stories would never be born.

      I like your idea of using a kitchen timer. I might have to try that. Thanks for stopping by!

      • I like that. My hubby doesn’t understand how I can sit in silence (in other words, not watching TV). I try to explain that it’s not exactly “silent” to me–my mind is buzzing with dialogue, descriptions, plot points, and other assorted story material. Night is a good time to sort all of that stuff out. 🙂

  2. I think our subconscious works on stories long after we’ve set them aside. And yup, like you, I’ve had key pieces of the puzzle fall into frame when I wasn’t searching for them.

    So how many stories do you juggle at one time? Are they all in different phases of production (first draft, third draft, revision), or do you shift from one to the next when you hit a wall?

    • For the most part, I try to focus on one story at a time, but if I really hit a wall with my primary WIP or if I have an idea for another story that I don’t want to let pass me by, I’ll hit pause on the primary project to work on something else for an hour or a day. I try to go back and forth between drafting one story and revising another–that gives me time between drafts, so I’m coming to a work with fresh eyes. What about you?

      Thanks for stopping by, Joe!

      • I like to have one story in draft mode and one I’m revising. But life is seldom that tidy. At present, I’m editing a novel, drafting a few nonfiction pieces, and doing clean up on a set of cultural heritage interpretive panels. So, yeah, I’m all over the place…

  3. For me, it’s the long drive home after bringing my son to school (30 minutes). Or folding laundry or…

    In Ursula K. LeGuin’s Steering the Craft, she spoke about how doing laundry helped her write fiction (at least, I think it was there… It might have been her essay in Writers on Writing). And then there was Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic essay “An Apology for Idlers”.

    Daydreaming and those contemplative moments are incredibly powerful tools in any creative person’s “tool box”. Loved that you posted this the same day I was rereading Stevenson’s essay… Nothing like a little serendipity to complement the theme, right, Denise?

    • Laundry works just as well as doing the dishes. Any project that keeps your hands busy but lets your thoughts drift is good for the creative spirit, I believe. I had a professor in college who was a very gifted poet and carpenter. He used to whittle, and I wonder if he got the same feeling from whittling that I do from walking the dog or chopping vegetables.

      I’m glad to be part of any moment of serendipity. Thanks, Eden!

  4. Love that you figured out some possibilities. I am someone who scribbles down ideas, too, because they will hit me at the most inconvenient times (at my daughter’s Ortho apt, for example). But I have to also force myself into the chair to write–usually if I do, the words will eventually flow. I just have a hard time sitting… it’s always go, go, go. Wishing you all the best!

    • It seems like finding that balance between imagining and creating is a crucial part of the writing life. I find that keeping a notebook for new ideas gives me a place to jot them down without distracting me from my WIP. At the end of the day, though, we have to get those words out of our heads and onto the page–not always an easy task!

      You too, Tia! 🙂

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