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Writing and the Creative Life: Mind Wandering

“What no [spouse] of a writer can ever understand is that a writer is working when he’s staring out of the window.”

– Burton Rascoe

Ah, staring out the window. Staring into space. Staring at… nothing. At least in this world. But as any writer knows, this activity and these moments can be where some of our most creative work gets done as we tap into our imagination in a special, even powerful way.

Some would call this ‘daydreaming’ which carries with it all sorts of baggage, much of it negative. The suggestion is that when we daydream, we are not working, we are slacking off, lost focus, caught up in mindlessness, instead of mindfulness.

After all, real work requires paying attention, bringing our entire consciousness and mental faculties to bear on the problem at hand, right?

For a writer… maybe not.

A recent article called “Ode to Positive Constructive Daydreaming” (published in Frontiers In Psychology), written by Rebecca L. McMillan (lead author), Scott Barry Kaufman (co-author) and Jerome L. Singer (honorary co-author), delves into a mental phenomenon that describes, I think, what writers do as we stare out the window.

The basic concept is positive constructive daydreaming. What is that? The concept derives from years of research and study by Singer and can be described as “characterized by playful, wishful imagery and planful, creative thought.” From the article:

Singer and colleagues report many of the costs associated with mind wandering, yet the central theme of Singer’s large body of work is the manifestly positive, adaptive role that daydreaming plays in our daily lives… Singer’s research produced evidence suggesting that daydreaming, imagination, and fantasy are essential elements of a healthy, satisfying mental life.

A writer would likely argue this type of daydreaming is essential to a healthy, satisfying creative life as well!

While the term ‘positive constructive daydreaming’ may be an apt description for scientists, I prefer another one that is often used about this phenomenon: mind wandering.

So much of what we, as writers, do is let our minds go wandering, detaching from this world in order to journey into that other realm, what I like to call the ‘story universe,’ the domain of our characters.

As it turns out, that concept of detachment actually has a name in psychological circles:

Individuals can choose to disengage from external tasks, decoupling attention, in order to pursue an internal stream of thought that they expect to pay off in some way… But some mind wandering occurs because we actively choose to decouple from external tasks and perceptions and focus instead on an internal stream of thought with full awareness both of the choice being made and the contents of consciousness.

When a writer goes mind wandering, we “decouple” from the “external” (tasks, perceptions, focus) and enter into an “internal stream of thought.” Most writers I know would likely refer to this as our subconscious.

However we typify it, this phenomenon of decoupling or detaching from this world and going into that world is something entirely common to the writing process. Check out how the article describes the positive benefits of mind wandering:

There is, however, another way of looking at mind wandering, a personal perspective, if you will. For the individual, mind wandering offers the possibility of very real, personal rewards, some immediate, some more distant. These rewards include self-awareness, creative incubation, improvisation and evaluation, memory consolidation, autobiographical planning, goal driven thought, future planning, retrieval of deeply personal memories, reflective consideration of the meaning of events and experiences, simulating the perspective of another person, evaluating the implications of self and others’ emotional reactions, moral reasoning and reflective compassion.

There is not one aspect in that laundry list of “personal rewards” that is not in some way tied to the writing process. We do all of that during the course of crafting a story, they are essential to what we do as writers.

The article goes on to suggest something fascinating: That while some mind wandering occurs “without permission or awareness” — how many times have you found yourself mysteriously pulled out of your state of conscious being and caught up in daydreams — we can also choose to engage in this type of mental activity. This is known as “volitional daydreaming” and if a writer ever needed an imprimatur to justify detaching from this world and going into that one, here you have it: We all know the benefits of this type of creative activity and we can be intentional about doing it. Can’t you see I’m engaged in volitional daydreaming here!

Consider this quote from author Carolyn Chute (NYT, September 27, 1999):

Writing is like meditation or going into an ESP trance, or prayer. Like dreaming. You are tapping into your unconscious. To be fully conscious and alert, with life banging and popping and cuckooing all around, you are not going to find your way to your subconscious, which is a place of complete submission. Complete submission.

Choosing to decouple from the external world and go into the story is for a writer an act of complete submission. While not denigrating the value of being in and of this world, when we engage in mind wandering, we commit an act of faith, trusting that what we will find in the story universe and whatever points between this world and that is the stuff of magic that ultimately translates onto the printed page as a novel, short story, poem or screenplay.

So circling back to Burton Rascoe as he stares out his window, his wife poking into his study, seeing him there, shaking her head — What in the world is he doing?

He is doing the stuff that all writers do: Whether by accident or intention, letting our mind wander from here to there and back again, communing with our imagination, ever seeking the inspiration of our inner muses.

To read a summary of the article “Ode to Positive Constructive Daydreaming,” go here for a piece penned by Scott Kaufman in Scientific America.

To download a PDF of the entire article, go here.

Note: The lead author of the article Rebecca McMillan is my wife who has wandered down this particular path of interest due to her own creative instincts and fascination with the subject, and the pursuits of her husband and two sons. Rebecca is Senior Editor of The Creativity Post, Director of Online Education for Gifted Homeschoolers Forum and founder of The Brain Cafe on Facebook.

Writing and the Creative Life is a weekly series in which we explore creativity from the practical to the psychological, the latest in brain science to a spiritual take on the subject. Hopefully the more we understand about our creative self, the better we will become as writers. If you have any good reading material in this vein, please post in comments. If you have a particular observation you think readers will benefit from and you would like to explore in a guest post, email me.