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How Daydreaming Can Enhance Creativity for Fiction Writers

Daydreaming can help you be more creative in your fiction writing.

I remember, back in second grade, my teacher chastising me because I was daydreaming. She rapped a ruler on my desk and told me to come back to the world. I don't recall what sort of thing I was thinking about at that young age. Fantasies about animals or monsters? Thoughts about getting let out of class to play? Or perhaps something related to a book I had been reading recently?

From the youngest age, at school, we're forced to pay attention, we're told not to daydream because it's bad. If you spend too much time staring out a window and daydreaming at work, you'll be reprimanded by your boss. Yet it has been shown that daydreaming can enhance creativity, and help us maintain good mental health.

When we daydream, our minds wander, letting seemingly random thoughts take over from the rigid goal-based ideas that we have most of the time. Daydreaming is defined as "a pleasant visionary usually wishful creation of the imagination," "a series of pleasant thoughts, usually about things that you would like to happen," and "A series of thoughts or yearnings that distract one's attention (esp. pleasantly) from the present." Note the use of the word pleasant in all those definitions. Daydreaming is an enjoyable, satisfying event that takes us away from the present.

Daydreaming is a door opened, just a bit, to the part of the brain that imagines and creates. And it's not hard to start daydreaming. Often, looking out a window allows us to make a break with reality. Instead of looking at our computers or our desks, we relax our eyes as they no longer focus on things close at hand, and allow our minds to also relax.

Many studies have shown that daydreaming can help enhance creativity and problem solving. When we daydream, our brains slip into a state where we don't need to accomplish anything, but where the mind can wander from thought to thought. As we follow these trains of thought in daydreams, the brain makes connections that we might miss when thinking intentionally. This is why we often come up with ideas when in the shower, or when walking.

As Jerome L. Singer explains in his book Daydreaming and Fantasy, "daydreaming represents a shift of attention away from some primary physical or mental task we have set for ourselves, or away from directly looking at or listening to something in the external environment, toward an unfolding sequence of private responses made to some internal stimulus."

Daydreaming and writing fiction

When you write a novel, you make things up, you invent, you create worlds and characters and situations where they interact. You create a story out of thin air, out of your mind, your unconscious. The characters aren't real, the plot is made up, and the events of the story never happened. Yet when someone reads them, they can believe that they just might be real.

In Where do you get your ideas?, Neil Gaiman says, "You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we're doing it."

As you work on a novel, daydreaming can help you create those worlds and characters, and open us up to ideas that we wouldn't discover when we try to solve problems. When you get stuck and don't know which way to go, when you don't know what your characters should do, take a break and daydream.

How to daydream

It may seem like everyone knows how to daydream, but that may not be the case. We're so used to not daydreaming - because we're told not to at work and at school - that we may have lost the habit.

The biggest impediment to daydreaming is our smartphones. We used to have plenty of opportunities to daydream: on busses or trains, in waiting rooms, and when standing in line at banks. As Jenny Diski has pointed out, "Travelling alone on a train was no longer a space to read or daydream, but a boredom hole to be filled with phone conversations." She wrote this before the advent of the smartphone, and that boredom hole is now filled with social media and games. Instead of taking out your phone when you have nothing to do, why not try to daydream instead?

One of the classic ways to daydream is to look out a window. As a video from The School of Life explains, "The point of staring out of a window is, paradoxically, not to find out what is going on outside. It is, rather, an exercise in discovering the contents of our own minds." If you have a window whose view is uncluttered, this can be helpful. But even if you are in a city, and your only view is other buildings, looking out a window with the intention to not look at anything can spur daydreaming. You could do this on a bus or train, just watching the world go by. (Get the window seat if you can.)

Remember when you were a kid, you looked up in the sky and imagined what the clouds looked like? You can still do that as an adult. Clouds flowing slowly against a blue sky can help put you in a state of daydreaming.

You could sit on a park bench or in nature, and look out at the plants and trees, but without paying too much attention to them. If you can't do that, lie in bed or on the floor, relax, and think of a beautiful place you have been to or you would like to visit. Or find a beautiful painting or photograph and look at it for a few minutes, then look out a window or lie down.

Any of these methods can help you slip into that state where your mind conjures up new ideas, often ideas that have been lurking in your subconscious. When you are writing fiction, many of these ideas may be related to your novel, and you can use these to move ahead and send your characters in new directions. Try daydreaming when you've hit a wall in your writing; it could free you and open up new ideas.

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