Writing and the Creative Life: Mind Wandering

We’re always surprised – make that shocked – when publications/websites that specialize in creativity carry articles that state the obvious. Especially when the tone of those articles is one of, well, surprise and shock that this should be the case.

Still, we’re grateful for this restatement of a Basic Truth of the Human Condition and plan to keep it in our file of Ways to Defend Ourself From Dull People Who Want Us to be More Like Them. Cuz the following is, indeed, a very big and wonderful defense of what keeps yours truly alive: Mind Wandering AKA Daydreaming.

daydreaming-man-tvwriter.comby Scott Myers

“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, satisfyingcreative 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 thisworld 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:

Read it all