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Writers and Guilt: Daydreaming

I have a lot of writer-friends.  This is probably no big surprise.  People in the same industry tend to band together, even when the profession in question is a very solitary one. 

How to describe it best? – writers are more or less Hobbits who keep to themselves until they finish their work for the day and then they want to stumble out of their little round-doored Hobbit-houses and want to go have a drink with some other Hobbits down at the local Shire pub. 

In any case, it’s good to know you’re not alone.  And I don’t just mean physically isolated, or even isolated within your own narrative.  I mean it’s good to know you’re not alone in terms of your neuroses. 

Lately I’ve noticed one glaring thing all my fellow writers and I have in common: Our brains are all equipped with very potent guilt-producing apparatuses.  In plain English: We spend a hell of a lot of time feeling guilty.

My friends are no slouches, either.  They are hardworking, prolific writers who have won literary prizes and lots of accolades.  So why all the guilt?

There’s so much to unpack in this writers-and-guilt topic, but I think right now I want to talk about daydreaming.  And I’m only calling it daydreaming for lack of a better word.  "Meditating" might also suffice, but tends to have that Eastern/yoga class affiliation.  Anyway... in terms of writing a novel, daydreaming is that thing you absolutely HAVE to do a lot of, especially in the beginning.  It is a necessary state of percolation wherein your brain gets a chance to step back and experience your as-yet-not-totally-formed narrative holistically.  I realize that doesn’t sound possible: How can you have a holistic glimpse of something that, at this early stage, your conscious brain can only see in bits and parts? 

There is an anecdote about how Faulkner came up with The Sound and the Fury.  He said he had a vision – a mental snapshot, really – of a girl climbing a tree in white bloomers that had been muddied.  His brain told him there was an entire novel – a great novel about the South – contained in that image, and he wrote TSATF pursuing with his conscious brain what his subconscious brain intuitively understood. 

Even when you are mid-novel – or even at the denouement for that matter – daydreaming still serves a crucial function.  It allows you to see and resolve plot holes, or better understand character motivations.  It is not merely your brain solving a jigsaw puzzle, it is your brain designing and reverse-engineering that jigsaw puzzle.  Daydreaming is the time you get those delicious AHA! moments in your life as a writer. 

So why can it also feel like crap?  Why do we feel so guilty when we spend hours daydreaming?  Easy answer: Because for every AHA! moment, you have ten moments wherein nothing is resolved, and wherein you are stymied.  These sensations are awful, because it feels like you are in the middle of thought you never got to finish.  You go out to dinner with your friends and feel distracted.  You’re cranky with your partner, and not really present. 

And the even more obvious answer: You have no output to show for your preoccupation.  Cinema has often captured this impotency all too vividly: The frustrated writer, staring at his silent typewriter.  Chewing his nails.  Repeatedly  and mindlessly bouncing a ball against a wall.  Frittering away the minutes, hours.  Downing a bottle of whiskey. (“Writer” almost always = a guy in the movie camera's eye.  In fact, it almost always equals Johnny Depp.)  There is a pathetic kind of comedy in these images, but who wants to relate to a deadbeat who is all intention and no output?

Whether we like it or not – whether we admit it or not – we writers are more or less slaves to word count.  There is a comfort in the quantifiable.  No matter how much we try to resist the dogma that surrounds us, we tend (unfortunately) to perceive the act of writing a novel as something akin to running a marathon, wherein every word amounts to one step. 

But (in my humble opinion) writing is not a linear process.  It is your brain trying to create a web of ideas, a 3D constellation that orders itself into cohesion, but that also invites the reader to participate in this act of organization (and allow for multiple re-orderings by multiple readers). 

Daydreaming serves a deeply important purpose in this latter model of the writing process.  And it’s a shame that so many writers I know – writers who regularly publish – will describe their day to me with an air of guilt, of shame, of impotency.  Personally, I feel the more “daydreaming” they do, the more I will enjoy their eventual book!

But then, who knows.  If daydreaming has been so systematically undervalued, maybe the guilt serves a purpose, too.

In any case, I’ve recently begun working on my third novel, and I spend several dogged hours each and every day, slowly putting words on the page.  But I also remind myself that it’s okay, too, to sometimes lie flat on my back on the carpet and stare up at the ceiling as I try to picture the shape of a character’s nose, or the turn of events in the next chapter, or a detail about the setting.  I remind myself to take my time, to get lost in this alternate reality – so I can sniff out what works and what doesn’t, but also so that when my reader finally picks up this book, hopefully he/she can get lost in it, too.  I remind myself to value the daydreaming as a tool to help my narrative reach a more organic state.

And then when I feel guilty enough, I get up and write some more words.