Why Daydreaming is Good for the Creative Mind

daydreamingWhen I was at school you were told off for daydreaming.  To be caught staring out of the window during a lesson may well have resulted in a stern warning about not paying attention, or even laziness.  In fact, the practice of daydreaming has been seriously misunderstood, and perhaps still is to a large extent.

Research suggests that daydreaming can be essential for creative problem-solving.  The seemingly distracted state of mind, which may look (to stern teachers, bosses or parents) as if the person is not applying themselves to the issue at hand, may in fact be an essential part of the ability to work out an issue.  A recent study at Wisconsin University, showed that people whose mind wandered during a task had higher degrees of working memory.

Contrary to how most of us tend to approach problem-solving, we are more likely to come up with an idea or solve an issue when we are not actively thinking about that problem.  Our brains are incredibly complex, and do not stop working even if we do not feel like we are thinking of anything much.  In a similar way to when we are meditating or sleeping, our subconscious mind is still working away, and can be far more effective in bringing us wise insights, solutions to problems or creative ideas, than when we actively try to work on a problem.

This is good news for all creative people!

If you were to look in on me during one of my writing sessions, you might find that, rather than typing away on my keyboard, I am leaning back and staring out of the window.  It may well look as though I am taking a break but, for me, those moments are when I do most of my work.  The typing is just a way of getting the ideas that come onto the page.

But even if I am not working up an idea, or working out where my next scene should take place; even if I am thinking about something completely different, or just watching the dogs racing about on the green opposite my house (a very happy distraction!), or just staring into space thinking of nothing in particular, the act of giving the rational brain a brief holiday is extremely useful.

If we work the analytical, decision-making part of the brain too hard, without breaks, it is more likely to get tired and make mistakes, or leave us bereft of any ideas at all.  If we regularly switch over to the empathetic, visionary part of our brain, it gives the brain a chance to pick up on random bits of information, or memories and dreams, and so feed the other part of the brain.  In this way, the two parts of the brain are allowed to continually feed each other.

So, be a daydream believer!  Don’t drive your analytical brain so hard.  Give it a rest, and allow your creative, intuitive brain take over now and then.


How Do You Get an Idea for a Novel?

idea for a novelIn my experience, there are two or three distinct ways that you get an idea for a novel.   Firstly, you can sit down to write a novel, and decide what you want to write about until something comes together in your head, which I did with Out of Time.  The possible second way is to dream it. This has happened with a friend of mine who dreamt the idea for her current novel when she was staying at my house ( 🙂 ) I have never dreamt up the entire idea for a novel, but I did dream the setting for a chapter of my children’s novel, The Light of Drombar.

But while both of the above can produce great novels, I think that for most writers, the most exciting way is the one that is sparked off, quite spontaneously and unexpectedly, by an experience, or a discovery, or an overheard conversation, or a news item. It is that little ‘ping’ that goes off in your head, taking what you have heard or seen into a new realm of ideas.   I love that exciting little buzz when in one split second an idea is born. Sometimes, it immediately springs to mind into an idea for a novel, but more often it will sit in your head for months, swirling around, mixing itself up with the thoughts and themes that happen to be in your head at that particular time until characters start to present themselves and start demanding to be given life and a part to play.

With each spark of idea, whether it is through experience, a dream, or a conscious thought process, you have to add the question: ‘What if…?’  It is the ‘what if…?’ that every writer’s brain uses to take a single idea and expand it into an imagined narrative.

I am currently working on a novel based in early Victorian theatre. The idea for this novel came about many years ago when I was carrying out some research for a project in my Open University degree. I was writing a dissertation on local Victorian entertainments, and I came across a bundle of letters, held at the Northamptonshire Record Office, written from members of a traveling theatre company to a local solicitor in the early Victorian period. The letters gave a wonderful insight into the lives of the actors who played the theatre circuits of the 1830s and 40s. One actor in particular, Henry Hartley, wrote long and detailed letters in a friendly and jovial manner, whilst revealing his frustrations at not being able to find a career in the London theatres.

After I finished my degree, those letters continued to fascinate me, and gradually the idea for a novel came out of them. Henry Hartley and the company he played with would be a large part of the novel, but the main character was to be ficticious, a young naive woman, tired of her mundane life as a shoemaker’s daughter, would run away from home to join this theatre company, and have many adventures. Isobel Brite was born, and once she had appeared in my head, she would not let me go. Although the novel has been put on a back burner a couple of times, I am now determined to finish it this year, and I am aiming to have it out by autumn.

As a writer, you have to constantly be open to ideas, to have a kind of constant antennae that will pick up on something that could be the spark of a new story. We have to be constantly asking ‘what if…?’ to extend that idea into something that would be interesting to read, and mix it all up with our own interests, values and beliefs to create something that creates a strong theme or message within the story. In my example above, my first idea was to write something set in early Victorian theatre using the characters from the letters. It was in tune with my interests in theatre and history. My ‘what if…?’ was: ‘What if a young naive girl was thrown into that boisterous setting?’  And mixed with my beliefs around following instinct and doing what you love, no matter what the difficulties, the story gradually built itself to create a character who would grow from a naive girl into a strong woman determined to survive against all the odds.

Whatever your way of getting an idea for a novel, it has to be something that has meaning and interest for you personally, otherwise there is no point. You will not enjoy writing it, and people will probably not enjoy reading it!