The Art of Daydreaming

Yesterday, Cathy and I decided to put our community vegetable garden plots to bed for the winter. We picked the last of the spinach from our cool weather planting and let the kale and the lettuce, which had been prolific, succumb to the frosty mornings we’ve been having. I’d read that the frost often made the carrots and the parsnips better. The tops had been outstanding through the late summer and into the fall, but the few times I pulled one I was disappointed by the carrot or the parsnip on the other end. Yesterday, we pulled them all and were surprised at the size of many of them. While I’d been worrying that they wouldn’t make anything, those carrots and parsnips were doing their thing underground. All they needed was time.

Similarly, the writing projects that we conceive can benefit from periods of incubation during which we trust the unconscious parts of our brains to do the work necessary to bring any piece to the page in a more fully formed state. Often, we do our best work when we’re not aware of doing any work at all. We go on with the business of our days, and seemingly out of nowhere some image, character, plot premise, memory, voice, or turn of phrase pokes up and asks us to pay attention to it. We don’t ask where it came from; we give thanks for its appearance. When we’re in the throes of conceiving a piece of writing, we somehow open ourselves to the world, and when we do that, the world has a way of giving us exactly what we need. The creative process is the result of talent, yes, but it’s also the product of patience, silence, instinct, and luck.

This matter of tapping into the unconscious doesn’t have to be mysterious or haphazard. We can hasten the process by practicing the art of daydreaming. We can set aside time to clear our minds and to let them wander wherever they want. Remember the joys of daydreaming when you were a child? Remember how imaginative those daydreams could become? That’s because in settings that could bore us to tears—school, church, long car rides—we learned to check out, to escape real time, and to enter the stream of memory, association, and invention.

Periods of silence are becoming rarer these days, but they’re still crucial to the creative process. That’s why I encourage us all to make a conscious effort to engage the unconscious. Find a quiet place. Note everything that’s threatening your solitude—obligations, worries, demands. Exorcise the noise by writing it all down. Then close your eyes, think of something you know about what you’re hoping to write. It might be an image, a line of dialogue, a memory. It might be anything at all. Start there and let your mind do whatever it wants to do. The goal is to enter something akin to a sleep state where the unconscious mind is free to create what it wants to create. All you have to do is take note of what it has to teach you about the piece you want to write.

At the end of your daydreaming session, jot down anything you want to be sure not to forget. Let your notes invite you to begin writing. Any time you feel stuck, go back to your notes. Flesh them out while also being open to new associations and inventions. Be patient. Be willing to go where you didn’t know you’d have to go. Let your unconscious mind surprise and delight you with all it knew from the moment you first began to conceive an idea. The shaping and the revising will come in due time. For now, open yourself to your daydreams and all they have to show you if you’ll only take the time to look.





  1. Joy Gaines-Friedler on November 17, 2021 at 9:09 am

    Perfect photo. Great advice. Printing this out to remind myself – making copies for my students.

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