Sparked by Words

Daydream, Writer

I wonder what you remember of being a kid in school. What was the most common remark you heard from your teachers? It might have been anything of the myriad activities that engage young children at the perimeter of studies. Don’t write on the desk. Stop running in the hall. Sit up straight. Throw out your gum. Turn to the right page. Stop talking to Sally (Henry, Willis, Coralee.) Sharpen your pencil before class. That’s not a word we use in school. We heard all those comments directed at kids who needed reminding about the purpose of school: practicing times tables, practicing spelling words, practicing cursive writing, practicing reading, practicing memorizing. School instruction was not interesting so much as required. School instruction was not creative at all. It was practice for something else.

None of those comments were directed at me, however. I heard another order – often – from every teacher through the elementary grades. “Sharon, stop daydreaming.” Because there I’d be, my head turned toward the huge windows along the back wall, staring out at the gray and yellow skies, the bare limbs of the trees, the steeple of the church across the street. Caught daydreaming again about all the possibilities of life outside our classroom, wondering what it would be like if. My teachers thought I was wasting time but I was imagining a different world. I turned back to the current lesson though not for long. I’d be daydreaming again before the end of the day.

I recently read Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli. The first chapter was about Albert Einstein and the fact that he spent a year doing nothing but daydreaming. Einstein’s daydreams led him to conceptualize some of the most revolutionary ideas about the nature of physics and the role of light, energy, and matter in the origin of the universe. After that daydream year he had a creative explosion that resulted in him writing four important papers that identified the connective nature of just about everything in the cosmos. Eventually he won the Noble Prize.

Everyone should daydream. Children should daydream, inventors should daydream, lovers, the aged, politicians, priests, and travelers should daydream. It isn’t enough to do the ordinary and expected, to take notes and photos, to make lists and plans. We writers should daydream. Inside the daydream is the inception of wonder, the place where everything begins.

Writers need a break from ordinary routine. We put too much emphasis into the strategy we think should result in brilliant writing. It’s like buying the most expensive computer system, adding an outstanding writing program, lining up research files, and then drawing a creative blank. The novel doesn’t emerge.  Great story writing doesn’t come from elaborate equipment. It comes from slow and careful observation about the world, thinking about the human experience until the artist has insight about life.

Once we start to write, we should not try to write well. We should just write. Let the words flow and don’t worry about whether or not it’s good. That’s not for us to judge anyway – that’s for readers to judge. And maybe what we should be doing is not writing at all for a while but continue the daydream until writing organically enters our stage.

Everybody knows Einstein did poorly in school, that he appeared to do nothing for a while. But it isn’t true that he didn’t do anything – he observed, he thought, he let ideas flourish in his brain. He wondered. That year of daydreaming was the catalyst for the extraordinary and continuing bursts of brilliance that allowed him to cultivate his curiosity and resulted in the synthesis of his ideas. That led him to develop one of the pillars of modern physics, the theory of relativity.

Maybe we don’t have everything yet.  Maybe we need time spent looking around the world, observing, thinking, wondering, the way Einstein spent that year looking at the universe. Because if we don’t find the world enchanting – the way the clouds gather around the moon, the way we can talk to a stranger who doesn’t speak our language, the way the horizon stretches to infinity yet never really exists at all – we might as well stick with writing shopping lists.

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 This article was adapted from a letter sent to a friend.

Photograph of Albert Einstein courtesy of Pixabay.com

 

Comments on: "Daydream, Writer" (42)

  1. I look back on my years of instruction at a Catholic school as the most useful training of my life. Nuns and priests are fantastic at teaching grammar (okay, a generalization), but more importantly, as a shy perfectionist, I spent those years observing others and looking out windows. Our middle school attracted kids from a working class town and an upper middle class one. Every day on the playground I learned about class politics, cruelty and kindness. I saw how religion was taught and who embraced it. I dreamed about Bethlehem at Christmas and escape most other days.

    Perfectionism can rob people of dreamy moments. Thank God for those years at Saint Joseph’s.

    As always, you give us so much to think about and admire in your writing.

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    • Thank you, Adrienne. You’re one of my few friends who has told me a detailed story about Catholic school. You attended one where affection for kids was the foundation. I get what you mean about some pedagogical systems being dependent on rules and structure. They provide the order you’ll need later. But what is learned on the playground, the energetic chaos and rule of the powerful, is just as significant. Those dreamy moments are essential. They are our escape from the now and show us what is possible.

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  2. The Unschooling movement might support this. They are all about pacing, self-discovery, and developing lifelong learners. Not a bad goal!

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    • Lifelong learning is essential and self pacing is usually more successful than forced schedules. I know a few people involved in the Unschooling movement who are doing a great job about opening every door for their kids to learn, but I’ve also seen it as an excuse for completely ignoring a kid’s education. Ask me how well those latter Unschooled kids are now functioning as adults. I’ve never believed that stringent philosophical approaches to education ought to trump practical applications. Years ago I read a book about one group of graduates of the Summerhill British education program. Most of the group was incapable of entering adult society in any way and a fair number of them committed suicide. Balance is key with plenty of room for imagination.

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  3. Sharon, I love this post of yours. It is deeply thought out – or daydreamed to fruition.😊
    I do agree with you in the importance of just daydreaming – drifting away and let thoughts and emotions just create whatever they want.
    I am still a daydreamer given half a chance.
    I am afraid I was obedient in class though but my mother often said I am daydreaming again.
    Loved to hear this vented after so long. Thank you.
    Miriam

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    • Thank you, Miriam, for understanding my need to go back, trying to find the wellsprings that made me who I am. All of us are both the child and the adult.

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    • Your post made me wonder if I daydream or not as my brain seems to be empty except when I’m writing, reading, listening to someone or talking. When you daydream is it in pictures, thoughts, whole sentences? I’m not being facetious – I actually am not sure.

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      • That’s an interesting question, Judy. As a kid it was definitely in images but also in ideas, so that would have involved words. I used to look out the window but see things other than what was there, like places I’d rather be. As an adult, I think it’s much the same but there’s much more language. It’s not hallucinogenic, but more like my imagination floating elsewhere. I’m perfectly capable of returning to the present and recognizing that I’d been daydreaming.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Jenna Barwin said:

    An inspiring post, Sharon. I don’t recall what my teachers used to say, but your description of daydreaming in school put me back into the fourth grade. I remember it well, because we had weekly assignments to write a story! Creative writing, they called it. I have this vague recollection I wrote about a squirrel and his friends. Couldn’t tell you the plot for love or money, but I can tell you I looked forward to doing my weekly assignment.

    At a recent writer’s conference, one of the instructors, when talking about plotting, said “Looking out the window counts!” You are so right that we have to let our minds daydream and drift wherever they’ll take us to discover the stories inside each on of us.

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    • That’s a great story, Jenna, about your fourth grade writing assignments. Kids are naturally drawn toward creative responses and encouraging this strength is something good teachers do. I like the line about looking out the window. All kinds of creativity are inside each of us.

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  5. Sharon, I really like this articulate article and heartily agree with you about the importance of daydreaming, of doing what appears to be “nothing” to others. How else can we develop our imaginations? And writers especially. Also I’m a big fan of Einstein’s work. (Did you happen to see the biographical series about him a couple of months ago? I forget what channel – possibly PBS. It was called “Genius” and was truly wonderful.)
    Thank you for this post. So much to consider!

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    • Thanks, Betty. All artists, and all people in general, need the space to develop. Yes, my husband and I watched Genius with interest. Our youngest son and his wife are both physicists, and our older son and his wife are interested in all things science. It takes great imagination to be scientists as well. Encouraging people to daydream, to wonder about possibilities, is key to creation.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I so agree! My older son was interested in all things science from the day he could hold a book in his hands. He was fortunate to get into a gifted program at school, but even that was regimented and he was frustrated at not being able to focus more on science and math. He spent much of his free time teaching himself astronomy, physics, meteorology, etc. His teachers couldn’t keep up with him so they criticized him for bad handwriting, “careless, sloppy” compositions, instead of encouraging his real interests. He survived though, but only because of his own perseverance and stubbornness and good humor.
        My younger son (the one we lost this year) was a gifted artist and inventor, who luckily had teachers who encouraged his creativeness.
        I gave both my boys the freedom of time and solitude where they could read, daydream, contemplate, create. Nowadays I worry about kids having too much structure in their lives with after school activities and schedules that fill every minute of their day. And whatever free time they have is spent on cellphones, Facebook, texting and on and on.
        Kids aren’t being exposed to nature much anymore either. Oh, I could go on and on….! But I’m preaching to the choir. 🙂 Thanks for this discussion, Sharon.

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      • The life of modern children has taken away a lot of their natural curiosity. Parents worry about lost opportunities and society can’t provide all the safeguards we’d like. Most of us, I believe, try to be strong, decent parents, but we don’t always have the models in our personal lives or our cultural heroes. It’s unfortunate that your older son’s teachers substituted criticism for teaching. Thankfully he persisted with his own dreams.

        I’m so sorry about the loss of your beloved son, Betty.

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      • Thank you for that, Sharon. It’s appreciated.

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      • I wish I could offer more.

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      • You give more than you know, just with your caring thoughts, Sharon.

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  6. Sharon, I’m nodding in agreement with every word of your post and shouting hurrah to day-dreaming! Without letting our thoughts wander and drift all creativity is stifled, the imagination reined in and yes, we might as well write shopping lists!! (I laughed out loud at this suggestion…but true.) When writing I start with an idea and am then held in awe as it takes me in on the most unexpected routes. Wonderful daydreaming!! Wishing you many more such moments…nowadays without rebuke! 😀❤️

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    • Thank you, Annika. I guess you have the same problems in education in Great Britain? It’s important that people have learned to follow their ambitions and I’m glad you did.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oh, Sharon…don’t get me started on the problems within education in the UK!!😀 Many of the teachers are superb but the governments never stop messing around with everything…creativity is encouraged in the art lessons otherwise strictly no daydreaming etc…

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      • There are so many education philosophies in the US, there’s little chance of developing an overall vision to educate the kids in this country. Maybe that’s for the best, allowing for diversity according to needs. The newest focus is on STEAM- science, technology, engineering, art, math. And what, you may ask, happened to English/language and history? I asked too and got what I expected – roundabout answers. At least the arts are included in the STEAM spectrum but they are minimal.

        Liked by 1 person

      • The same is happening more and more here too…languages are no longer compulsory to exam level so they have dropped in teaching by 40% in only a few years. My son’s school dropped A-level music this year -a last minute change! So yes, arts are definitely second to the STEAM courses…hope this imbalance is soon readdressed!

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      • Communicating with others is essential – too bad the powers that control the system have forgotten one of the purposes of education. IMHO, the most important thing we can do for our kids is invest in the best curriculum materials, including videos, field trips, lab opportunities, and workshops, as well as textbooks. Then we need to figure out how kids learn and make sure we meet each student’s needs. But this is a discussion for another forum.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. I do agree with you, Sharon. I remember those endless days at school, looking out the window, doodling, and reading paperbacks under the desk! The boredom…Yet something must have sunk in, by osmosis, I assume! And now as writers we’re always reading how we should take notes, plan, write something every day, etc. But ideas often come when you’re doing nothing, or cooking , or just waking up. I’m a great believer in letting things sit around, sleeping on it and so on.

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    • You mentioned something I don’t promote either – the rule about writing every day. I don’t do that because some days I can’t, for myriad reasons, and I don’t order others to do what I know can’t always be done. Besides, where’ the quality when writing, or any art form, is forced? Discipline is needed but each person has to define their own idea of discipline. For some, that means wandering through the woods. For others it’s doodling in the margins. Marina, I love that you find inspiration in cooking.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Daydreamer and forever a student of society. I watch and learn from the climate around me. I always have. I had an algebra teacher tell me on a daily basis, “Audrey. There’s no such thing as a “yeahbut” only rabbits.” Yeah but, Mr. S I don’t get it… I was a little too distracted, I guess.

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    • Mr. S made me laugh – yeahbut I didn’t get it either. And I am hopeless at trying to help my grandkids with their math homework. Still, they’re being taught multiple math strategies so when they get to algebra, they won’t be going “yeahbut.” Set me by the window and let me daydream instead.

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  9. Maybe there’s something wrong with me. I never have spent a lot of time daydreaming. I have certainly never thought up an entire story before starting to write it. I’ve tried. Boy, have I tried — even writing an outline. I never make it to the end of that phase. Is this something you can learn how to do?

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  10. Some things can’t be rushed. Sometimes I can grind out a story–make it happen due to sheer willpower–and other times I can’t. I need to fill up with something else–beauty, someone else’s great story, the simple joy of spending time with family and friends, going to mass.

    And it’s important to recognize when you can and can’t push yourself. A little daydreaming might be a necessity. 🙂

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  11. I did some research on boredom being an essential element of creativity. I prefer the idea of day dreaming being essential for creativity. Although perhaps day dreaming is the outcome of boredom.

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  12. I like it! We definitely shouldn’t stick to shopping lists. Imagination is essential for good writing, and daydreaming is when we practice…and then we have to write things down.

    By the way, you might be interested in our Writers Club. We offer free editing to members, and every member gets a copy of Ryan Lanz’s “The Idea Factory” book…a great story-prompt resource to get your daydreams started. 🙂

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  13. The world truly is enchanting and filled with enchanting people like you and the other wonderful daydreamers who make our lives wonder-filled.

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