By Brian Kaufman
In elementary school, each dreaded report card had a segment called “citizenship.” The section was designed to tell the parent how well the student behaved in class. One category was my nemesis—Uses Time Wisely. Back then, an S (Satisfactory) was hard to come by. I was an N kid (Needs Improvement).
My ongoing sin was daydreaming.
Springtime in Cleveland could be hot. I escaped by staring out of A classroom window, where a breeze might theoretically exist while busying my mind with happier circumstances. I imagined myself as the center fielder for the New York Yankees in one recurring daydream, giving that team an unbroken string of Hall-of-Fame play.
DiMaggio to Mantle to Kaufman. (Given my lack of skills, this alone should qualify me for the Hall of Fame of Imagination.) Hank Aaron hit 755 home runs in the major leagues. I am serious when I say that I’ve probably hit 10,000 home runs in my mind.
Once I entered the real world, I discovered that teachers failed to recognize that daydreaming had value. For example, I worked in the service industry. One particularly odious task involved peeling and deveining shrimp. Bending over a giant pan filled with the “cockroaches of the sea” was not intellectually stimulating. I let my mind go elsewhere, lest I lose that mind entirely.
The non-writerly benefits of daydreaming:
- Daydreaming helps solve problems. This one might seem counterintuitive, but when you overthink a situation, you can grind it into dust without coming up with an answer. Focus too often excludes possibilities. Letting your mind wander helps your brain come to a solution indirectly, allowing new information into the mix. Albert Einstein said, “I think 99 times and find nothing. I stop thinking, swim in silence, and the truth comes to me.” Daydreaming reduces stress. A Harvard University medical blog said, “Mind-wandering can help manage anxiety.” This has often worked for me.
- Daydreaming reinforces goals. Athletes do this all the time. By visualizing something repeatedly, the mind begins to believe it. When the going gets tough, the daydream can carry you forward.
- Daydreaming is creative. John Gardner, the novelist, warned against “television thinking”—the tendency to let your story fall into standard pop-culture tropes. Daydreaming, by contrast, doesn’t easily fit into templates. Instead, new connections are made, which can produce surprising outcomes.
- Daydreaming exercises the brain. When you daydream, the problem-solving part of your brain interacts with the creative part. This cooperative may not otherwise be formed. Daydreaming keeps those useful pathways active. Georgia Tech researchers found that daydreaming people have “more efficient brain systems.”
Fiction writers are, I think, more likely to acknowledge the value of daydreaming. After all, what is a novel but an extended daydream? A writer might ask, how exactly does one use daydreams as part of the toolbox?
- Daydreaming helps create believable dialog. I may playback the dialogue in a scene dozens of times before writing it down, listening for the beats and the comebacks. New phrases occur as I watch my scene play out like a movie. When I sit down to do the typing, I already have a good idea of where I am going. Better, I have a firm idea of what will and won’t work; what is and isn’t consistent with the character.
- Daydreaming facilitates your writer’s voice. Daydreams are personal, complex, and closer to the authentic you. To be truly original, you must write as only you can write. You can imitate Hemingway, but you can’t be Hemingway. And no one else can be you. Daydreaming helps you get in touch with who you are and how you sound.
- The really crazy (magic) stuff comes out of daydreams. I’m told that stories should be both surprising and inevitable, but how the hell do you do that? For me, the answer comes with daydreams. If a story catches me enough to play it out in my head, all sorts of layering and twists will occur to me. This has happened to me with every novel I’ve written.
- Daydreaming as problem-solving work for writers, too. I thought about ways to sell a character’s specific action in my current work-in-progress. While daydreaming, I suddenly realized that my sales job was phony—she would never act that way. The action in question was against her character. More, I knew exactly how she’d work. Instead of trying to justify a misstep, I changed the story and let her be herself. Problem solved.
Unfortunately, daydreaming has gotten a bad rap. From Walter Mitty (who lived in his dreamworld) to the Everly Brothers (“I’m dreaming my life away”), the value of daydreaming hasn’t always been acknowledged. A study quoted in Forbes Magazine noted, “When given the freedom, people do not spontaneously choose to think for pleasure.”
Worse, some people’s daydreams go overboard. Maladaptive Daydreaming Syndrome is an actual condition where patients cannot control the urge to daydream, even bailing out of conversations or essential tasks to slip into a dream.
I’ll risk the syndrome. The plusses are worth it.
I don’t peel shrimp anymore, nor do I sit in classrooms. But I do walk the roads around my mountain home. Though I spend a portion of that time listening to music or audiobooks, more than half my hiking time is spent on my stories—daydreaming.
Henceforth known as thinking with pleasure.