The importance of staring out of the window

What does a writing day consist of? The image that comes to mind is of someone pounding away on a typewriter with a fixed, manic expression, surrounded by a mess of coffee and cigarettes and balled up sheets of paper. The reality, in my experience, is somewhat different.

First, here’s what Martin Amis had to say about it in a recent interview on Goodreads:

Being alone in my study is working, whatever I’m doing, even if I’m just throwing darts into the wall. It’s communing with your conscious mind and hoping that your unconscious mind is coming along and doing some of the work for you. A lot of the time is spent reading and scratching your ass and digging your nose, inching along with slow progress. It’s on the whole a happy process with occasional crisis.

Now I don’t have my own study and, of course, I never do anything disgusting like scratching my ass 😉 But  apart from that I agree with Amis’s description. As long as I’m at my appointed place for writing, and as long as I’m engaged with my writing in some way, I count that as time well spent. I don’t measure my productivity by word count, as some writers do. Some days I actually end up with less words than I started with, but the ones I have left are truer to what I want to say. Other days I pump out thousands of words, but realise later I’ve gone completely down the wrong track and have to delete most of them. I’ll take a hundred good words over a thousand mediocre ones any day.

daydreamingI’ve always found that a good way of ensuring that the words I produce are good is to spend some time daydreaming. If I’m too focused and rigid, I produce prose that is functional and sound, but that doesn’t contain any of the unexpected insights or beauty that readers expect from literature. My mind seems to need space to make associations by itself, and that’s where the gold comes from. To write well, I need to spend less time writing, and more time staring out of the window.

I came across an article in NewScientist magazine recently that gave me a way of justifying all the time I’ve spent over the years just dreaming. Essentially it explains in scientific terms what I’ve always felt intuitively from my own experience: that to think creatively, you need to let your mind wander, rather than trying to tame it.

As an example, the writer gives a puzzle: What single word can be added to “high”, “book” and “sour” to make another word or phrase? To solve it, he says, “you can’t simply apply an analytical approach since that would involve crunching through every word in your vocabulary… Instead, the answer often comes out of the blue.” (Try letting your mind wander, and leave a comment if you come up with the answer!)

The article lists various experiments that have been done over the years in which people are given problems which require some lateral thinking to solve. In each case, people who let their minds wander did better on the tasks than those who focused. (This was measured in some cases by monitoring brain activity, and in others by giving the people other mindless activities to distract them from the problem and allow their minds to wander). Of course, solving puzzles and word games is not a perfect proxy for creativity, but it’s the closest you can get in a lab. In another experiment, researchers studied people who’d written a published novel, patented an invention or had art shown in a gallery, and found they were less able than other people to focus on a given task, suggesting that they were more likely to be open to “left-field” ideas.

Very interesting, for me, was the observation that caffeine is bad for creativity. Again, it’s something I’ve often felt. When I drink coffee, I invariably write a lot more frenetically, but am often not so happy with the results. It’s good for word count, but bad for quality. Now I understand why – “since caffeine focuses your concentration, it’s likely to keep a lid on your creative thinking.”

And I’ve always wondered why I like to write in the early morning, when I’m really a night person and tend to feel groggy first thing. Again, the article provided the answer: it’s less easy to concentrate when you’re tired, so it’s more likely that your mind will wander and come up with interesting ideas. Counter-intuitive, yes, but it fits with my experience. Someone once said that creative writing is like dreaming onto the page, and so it makes sense that I do it better when I’m not fully awake.

daydreamingOf course, there needs to be a balance. It takes discipline and determination to write a hundred-thousand-word novel. The dreams need to be shaped into something intelligible to the world at large, and that’s where the rational mind comes in. But I think in our society we really revere things like reason and control and concentration, and dismiss daydreaming as a waste of time. That’s why in this post I’ve been advocating more daydreaming. It’s something many people don’t do at all, and those who do it probably feel guilty about it – I know I do. The NewScientist article helped me to understand the value of a wandering mind, and to feel less guilty about spending valuable writing time just staring into space. The link to the article is here, but I’m afraid you have to be a subscriber to read the whole thing.

Even if you’re not a writer, I think that a regimen of daily daydreaming would be extremely healthy and beneficial. The NewScientist article was about creativity, but it also said that general problems can often be solved by not focusing on them and letting the unconscious mind do its thing. How many times has the solution to a difficult problem in your life just “come to you” while you were brushing your teeth or walking the dog and thinking about nothing in particular?

So why not try it? Take fifteen minutes somewhere in each day, whenever you can work it in, and just sit with no inputs at all – no phone, no TV, no radio, no books, no newspapers or magazines, no Twitter and Facebook, no communication of any kind. Look at the clouds, stare at the river flowing by, or just gaze at nothing much. Don’t meditate, though – you’re not trying to empty your mind, but to let it wander and see where it takes you. Just an idea… Do you think you’ll try it? If so, let me know how it works out!

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There are 18 comments

  1. I definitely spend a lot of time daydreaming! For me, word count is important only when I’m drafting. After that, as I revise, I could care less. I just like a sort of measuring stick so I can see where I’m at. But … on the whole, I spend so much time daydreaming and thinking and staring at walls that I start to feel guilty, as if all that stewing isn’t getting me anywhere. In reality, that’s where the best writing happens, where I figure out twists and turns and depths. Thank you for helping me see again that writing is not just typing!

    1. Hi Michelle

      Thanks for adding your perspective! I agree that word count is a good measuring stick – I definitely like to know where I am in general, but I just feel that it’s useless (for me) on a day-to-day basis, because the days when I realise I’ve gone down a blind alley and delete a whole chapter are more worthwhile than the days when I happily type myself 2,000 words into that blind alley. I track it more over the long term.

      I feel guilty too – maybe it’s because as children we’re told so often by teachers, parents and general onlookers that daydreaming is bad. Snap out of it! Focus! So there’s a lot of residual guilt there. I was always a big daydreamer – my parents tell me that even as a baby, I never cried – just stared at the ceiling all day! I’m glad to realise it’s OK now, and happy if I could alleviate some of your guilt too 🙂

  2. I find that too – if I’m at my desk or nearby then I consider it working whether it’s for study or writing. During the educational year I tend to spend very little time not thinking about work anyway (and wish sometimes that I could relax more!) but at my desk I might solve a problem or come up with ideas and that is just as important in the long run than actually writing something. I like the idea of day-dreaming, which for me has to unfortunately remain an idea because I worry about it since I used to do it too much. But it does help.

    Coffee and sugar are both out of the question if I want to get work done to a good enough standard. Interesting that meditation is also out, I’ve been planning to give it a trial run to see if it’ll help with focusing. Very interesting post!

    1. Hi Charlie,

      Ah, interesting – sugar is out too! I’ve never felt that it has much effect on me, but maybe I’ll experiment. I have a bit of a sweet tooth – my favourite writing accompaniment is a pot of sweet Moroccan mint tea, which I think has more sugar than tea!

      I think meditation is great – I didn’t mean to say it was “out”, just wanted to distinguish daydreaming from it. To me it’s a question of knowing what you need at any particular time. Sometimes you do need more focus to complete a task – writing can’t all be done in the head! But I think it’s easy as writers to focus too much, to be too fixated on productivity at the expense of creativity, hence my defence of daydreaming. Sorry to hear it worries you! Hope my post makes you feel a little better about it. It’s based on science 🙂

  3. Ah, looks like I’m being remembered on iPad too, that’s great. I might comment more now!

    Interesting post Andrew … I am not a creative writer so haven’t pondered much about this issue but I would like my blogging to be a little less prosaic. I should try to chill out a bit I know … I loved your discussion of your groggy morning writing and why it might work!

    BTW I let my mind wander on those words and what popped into my head was “bookmate”. Nothing appeared for high or sour though.

    1. Good to hear that! If it’s any consolation, I always remembered you, even if my blog didn’t 🙂

      Bookmate is a good, creative answer, but I wouldn’t want a sour mate! I think it’s safe to give away the answer now since we’re deep in the comments. If you don’t want to hear it, look away now!

      It’s “note” – high note, sour note, notebook. Thanks for playing!

  4. Neither do I scratch my ass but the beginning statement from Amis strikes a chord with me – thus – Being alone in my study is working. Besides, I am myself a very slow writer and would have said this about me at any day just as you wrote that: To write well, I need to spend less time writing, and more time staring out of the window. I enjoyed reading this post.

  5. Oh I am getting my pompoms out to cheerlead for this post. Yes! We all need more time to process what we’ve experienced and felt, and to dream about what we might create. Studies show that creativity goes out the window in exam conditions, where you have to produce answers within time limits, and my favourite psychotherapist, D. W. Winnicott was brilliant on the relationship between creativity and play. It has to be aimless and pointless before the creative mind really gets going. Great post!

    1. My very own cheerleader – how exciting! I’ve never had one of those. Neither had I heard of D.W. Winnicott until now, so thanks for the introduction. I just read a bit about him on Wikipedia and his ideas sound interesting – about creativity and play, and also the true and false self. His book “Playing and Reality” looks worth a read. Thanks for putting me on to him!

  6. Daydreaming is great, I do that a lot, especially when stuck in traffic. Sometimes I imagine things about the people I see, their lives, what they do, where they are going, silly things but I enjoy it. It’s like my mind takes a little break and goes some place to relax. Then I snap out of it, usually right on time so I don’t miss my stop.
    Great article, Andrew. And what’s wrong with scratching one’s ass?

    1. I like that image of your mind taking a break and going some place to relax! I think we put too much emphasis on constant focus, and miss the point that the mind does need a break sometimes. In my view it’s better to give it a break by inventing stories about people in other cars than by slumping in front of the TV for hours. Certainly more useful for writers anyway.

      And yes, I suppose Amis’s habits are not so bad. Scratching his nose and digging his ass would have been much more disgusting…

  7. Beautiful post, Andrew! Loved, loved, loved it! I am totally a fan daydreaming! My favourite sentences from your post were – ‘Some days I actually end up with less words than I started with, but the ones I have left are truer to what I want to say’ – and – ‘Someone once said that creative writing is like dreaming onto the page, and so it makes sense that I do it better when I’m not fully awake’. If you don’t mind, I would like to share your post with friends in Facebook. The way I daydream is by watching squirrels chirping and moving around on the wall, watching birds go about their business in the morning (and sometimes I get to see some beautiful migratory birds) and let my mind wander.

    1. Hi Vishy
      For some reason I missed this comment – sorry for taking so long to reply! I love your examples of daydreaming. Animals are wonderful to watch, because they take us out of our own thoughts and they exist purely for the present moment. I was sitting by the window watching a horse grazing outside just now, and my mind was wandering! I saw that you already shared on Facebook – just so that you know, I never mind if people share my posts anywhere! In fact I really appreciate it. Thanks Vishy! Daydream on 🙂

  8. I really enjoyed this blog. Daydreaming is a writer’s “Twilight Zone” where anything is possible. I find it absolutely necessary as an artist to be able to conceptualize things outside the limitations of reality. However, I do need a rational mind to screen metaphysical tangents from pieces people actually want to read. I have a question though Andrew, do you feel it is important for artist to not only stare, but live a little bit outside the window?

    1. Hi Brandon
      Thanks for commenting! You’re right, a rational mind is necessary, but only later. The process that works for me is to dream onto the page with as little intervention as possible, and then to look at it with a cold eye later on and figure out how to make it intelligible. And yes, I think you do need to live a little bit outside the window too! There’s only so much you can see from the window of your home, and a good writer needs to observe so much more. I don’t think writers necessarily need to have larger-than-life existences, but they do need to go out into the world and observe the lives of others, even in simple, everyday details. Great question, Brandon!

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