The Writer and the Daydreamer

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In 1939, the New Yorker published a short story by journalist and cartoonist James Thurber about a mild-mannered man with an exceptional imagination. Entitled, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, the story described five heroic daydreams imagined by the protagonist while his wife was busy doing the shopping and attending a beauty parlour. The narratives of these daydreams were common to many excessive and occasional daydreamers alike: a US Navy pilot, a highly skilled surgeon, a deadly assassin and an RAF pilot volunteering for a dangerous mission. Film adaptations of the story were released in 1947 (starring Danny Kaye) and 2013, with Ben Stiller. So influential was the tale that the name Walter Mitty has become synonymous with people who tell tall tales. In the 2013 film version, there is certainly a nod towards the main character suffering from deeper psychological issues related to self-esteem and a view of an idealised self. The way in which Stiller’s interpretation of the character zones out and is often unable to follow even simple conversations certainly points towards a condition known as maladaptive daydreaming, where people can spend hours of every locked in their imaginary worlds.

The original character of Mitty was largely based on Thurber himself who, after losing the majority of his sight in a childhood accident, described his imaginative interpretation of partially seen shapes. Neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran has suggested that Thurber’s vivid imagination could be attributed to a condition known as Charles Bonnet syndrome, which leads to complex visual hallucinations in people with partial sight loss. Whatever the explanations for Thurber’s vivid and complex imagination, he was able to incorporate his propensity towards daydreaming into his writing.

Just over three decades before the publication of Thurber’s short story, Sigmund Freud delivered an informal talk on the topic of writing and daydreaming, publishing it as Der Dichter und das Phantasieren (Creative Writers and Daydreaming) a year later in 1908. In this short paper, Freud urges the reader to look back to the imaginative play of childhood to understand the creative activities of writers. In the same way, as the writer creates an imaginative world in the name of art, so the child does as play, each being an intensely emotional activity and the make-believe world one that is taken incredibly seriously. Nevertheless, both child and writer are able to distinguish between what is real and what is fantasy.

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Freud also reveals that the German language has successfully preserved the relationship between children’s play and poetic creation. The German word spiel, according to Freud, is related to forms of imaginative writing which requires it being linked to tangible objects and which are capable of representation. While in German (and in the Old English word spilian, meaning to revel or to play) the word spiel is generally associated with playing or performing, in English it is used to describe a lengthy speech or argument, as in the salesperson gave us the spiel about their new product. In addition, the German language further distinguishes between comedy (lustspiel) and tragedy (trauerspiel). Children at play or writers working on their latest novel employ all of these elements while at the same time remaining safe in the knowledge that the worlds they are creating belong firmly in the realm of fantasy.

Daydreamers (or der träumer am hellichten tag, translated as the dreamer in broad daylight) are the same, according to Freud, with one particular distinction. Those writers who adopt ready-made scenarios aren’t the same as those who create worlds and narratives from their own active imagination. The same can be said for daydreamers. I could daydream about being Odysseus (Freud was pretty much obsessed with Greek myths and legends so I’ll humour him here), heading home from the Trojan wars and chancing upon every manner of mythical being, all of whom appear to be hell-bent on preventing my return to my wife and son in Ithaca. Alternatively, I could imagine myself in the role of the hero of Star Wars, Luke Skywalker or the helper Han Solo (most likely the latter, even though daydreamers usually see themselves as the hero). The difference, however, is that I don’t think I’d place myself in the role of somebody else, I would add myself as an extra character. In Freudian language, this hero represents the ego and such narratives are described as egocentric. The narratives we create in our minds are certainly akin to some of the more simplistic storylines we see in novels; the hero saves the day and wins the affections of the primary female character. They’re also reminiscent of old folktales passed on orally from generation to generation where good overcomes evil and everybody lives happily ever after (at least, some of the time). In reality, of course, this rarely happens, even though we may wish to make it so. Certainly, there are some people who become so convinced of their own fantasies that they develop a para-social relationship with the object of their desire. We see this in circumstances where individuals have convinced themselves that they are in a relationship with a celebrity, often going to extreme lengths to be with them. Of course, such individuals are not representative of daydreamers in general, otherwise, the world would be populated by two groups of people: stalkers and those who are being stalked.

As Freud points out, the author of novels sits inside the mind of the protagonist or the hero just as the daydreamer views the world from within the mind of the character they have created. The difference being, that the egocentric nature of the daydream means that the character in whose mind we inhabit and our own mind, are one and the same. Certainly, there will no doubt be aspects of the author’s characters that mimic those of the writer, but more often than not they are not the same. The daydreamer, on the other hand, is always the protagonist; always the hero. I wonder where George Lucas (the mastermind behind Star Wars) would have placed himself into the narrative. Would he have been the dependable and slightly geeky Luke or the roguish and fiercely independent Han, Luke’s competitor for the affections of the Princess (until, that is, things became weird)?

The problem with much of Freud’s examination here is that there is an assumption that there is a stark distinction between hero and villain, like in the early westerns where the good guy wore the white hat and the bad guy wore the black. Such distinctions aren’t always so simple (as Luke’s father, Anakin, discovered). But do daydreamers ever place themselves in the role of the villain?

Certainly, most of us love an anti-hero. It’s Superman versus Wolverine, and the other deeply flawed or emotionally damaged characters such as Salinger’s Holden Caulfield or Chuck Palahniuk’s Tyler Durden in Fight Club. If we were to place ourselves in the role of the aggressor then Freud would no doubt suggest that the fantasy allows us to expel our innate unconscious violent tendencies, when our id exercises dominance over the ego. The Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung might take a different view, claiming that experimenting with our dark side (or shadow) is healthy for our personal development. But if Freud is correct in his assertion that creative writing and daydreaming are the manifestations of our early experiences and our recollection of them, do violent daydreamers require a traumatic, violent or abusive history?

Of course, Freud could never have anticipated that by the mid-twenty-first-century technology would allow us to view any manner of content, from the innocuous to the depraved, with very little effort. Personal histories become entwined with media consumption; even in the early 1980s, I was able to consume media content once reserved for dimly lit cinema’s where proof of age was insisted upon at the door.

For some, writing and daydreaming go hand in hand. This doesn’t mean that they both represent a medium that allows people to discharge the imaginings that dance around in their mind and tickle the synapses; but there was and is an element of embarrassment connected with both. Daydreaming and the construction of fantastical worlds is a behaviour that belongs in childhood, and when we become adults there is an unwritten law insisting that we do away with such infantile behaviours. The same is true with writing stories. When we are young we are encouraged to write imaginatively, to compile stories in English classes and exhibit the fruits of this imagination in drama lessons. But tell a teacher or a careers advisor that we want to write stories for a living and we receive a wry smile and a suggestion that perhaps we should consider becoming a journalist, an office worker or a salesperson in a bookshop.

The idea of being a writer isn’t something that is taken all that seriously, perhaps because it’s seen as a rather immature choice of career. Being a writer, therefore, becomes as embarrassing as being a daydreamer, the outcome of which is often to say nothing about either daydreams or literary aspirations.

It appears that our heads are filled with a cacophony of competing voices, the existence of which can have little to do with psychological illness. While individuals often form a commentary on events, future plans and past experiences, it’s not uncommon for us to hear the voices of others; of fictitious characters or long lost or parted friends and relatives. So how might we hear the voices of our imaginative creations? If our imaginings are encouraged by what we know and understand in the real world then these characters and the ways they interact must emerge from our own experiences, whether these are taken from events in our own lives or those borrowed from media or other sources. If we borrow characters wholesale then this is easier. What I mean by this is that our daydreams might be populated by either real people (for example, celebrities) or from established fictional characters (such as Princess Leia or Han Solo). Real life feeds our daydreams; the people we have met, books read and media consumed. It also impacts and influences writing, which in turn, provides content for wider paracosms (imaginative and often vast make-believe worlds).

Anxiety might turn us inwards as we attempt to work things out through writing and daydreaming. But we also know that daydreams are social, at least most of the time, even if the characters that populate them are fictitious. We might feel more connected to people who we meet in our real lives but this doesn’t exclude the possibility that we can become attached to the imagined ones as well, just as an author can begin to feel emotionally invested in the characters on a page.

Writers, like daydreamers, create alternative realities and many writers may well be excessive daydreamers, so it’s worth investigating how the worlds we can create in our mind can be seen as alternatives to the world we experience when our brains are disengaged from external stimuli and why confusing one for the other can become highly problematic.

Prolific and maladaptive daydreamers create a myriad of alternative realities, sometimes to relieve the boredom of their real lives or to escape a threatening situation. This might include imagining a future where things are different, yet might just as well involve re-writing history. In their 1990 novel The Difference Engine, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling did just that. Rather than imagining the future, Gibson and Sterling imagined an alternative past where Charles Babbage succeeded in building the first mechanical computer in 1855. In reality, Babbage never managed to create a working model of his analytical engine (the successor or his earlier difference engine). However, by imagining an alternative past, it becomes possible to recreate history itself, if only as a fiction.

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The concept of alternative histories is nothing new. The 1962 novel, The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick imagines an alternative world where German and Japanese forces succeeded in defeating the allies in World War II, dividing up the United States between the victors. But the Difference Engine was quite different in its view, imagining a Victorian world where steam-driven computers are in common use. Indeed, Gibson and Sterling inadvertently managed to create not only a distinct literally genre but also a new subculture that became known as Steampunk. Advocates of this curious subculture combine the aesthetics of the Victorian era with steam-powered computer technology, including clockwork robots and sophisticated types of airship. Steampunk conventions and events attract thousands of devotees each year and are often combined with themes borrowed from Goth subculture.

Creating these alternative pasts and futures is part of our cognitive architecture, we use our extensive episodic and semantic memories to project ourselves into alternative worlds. Many daydreamers often backtrack their narratives as a way of altering the course of events, perhaps to resurrect a past character or build more complex histories. It’s essentially the same process when we plan for the future and test out possible choices, such as the consequences of deciding to cancel that dental appointment or to apply for that job. We might also cast our minds back and imagine how life would have turned out if we had decided to make a different choice; if we hadn’t married, moved to Canada or lost a loved one.

It’s the mid-1990’s, perhaps ‘95 or ‘96, and Vanessa and I are sitting on a bench at Leeds railway station waiting for the train to arrive at platform 1B. In a decades time, I would be spending more time here, having run from another train that had brought me from a leafy Leeds suburb where I was working as a teacher. Vanessa and I are no doubt chatting; we’ve been shopping, browsing and wandering through the small shops that used to inhabit the gloom below the railway tracks. We knew them as the dark arches but I think they were officially known as Granary Wharf. They fell in to decline towards the end of the 1990s and the space is now used for car parking. As we waited for the train home to arrive, I young woman sat down beside me. I can only describe her as the art student type, her stripy tights emerging from a pair of custom Doctor Marten boots, the black leather adorned with tiny painted flowers, glimpsed momentarily before being covered with the hem of a long flowing skirt.

She took a large ring-bound sketchbook from her bag and opened it to reveal a collection of writings and drawings. I glanced down curiously and saw rough sketches of faces with descriptions beside each one; the homeless guy on The Headrow, Sarah frowning or the women waiting for the bus, a kind of pre-Instagram collection of visual memories, tagged for prosperity. In a blank space on the page, she began to write, he’s looking at my drawings. He thinks I don’t notice, but I do. I recall frantically looking away and turning my head towards Vanessa, I’d been caught and I felt embarrassed.

As we sat on the train, I couldn’t help thinking about the young woman on platform 1B and my mind began to drift. What if the words she wrote were creating my reality, what if she was, even now, committing my present to the pages in her sketchbook? The train rumbled across the viaduct where I could see across the Crimple Valley and the old stone building that housed Saint Michaels Hospice where, in a decade hence, Vanessa would take her final breath. Did the woman on platform 1B know all this? I sometimes wonder, did she predict my future amongst her sketches and her writing? It’s a curious thing, reality, sometimes you lose track of it; it momentarily disappears now and again and leaves you wondering where you are.

This losing touch is also an interesting side effect of excessive or maladaptive daydreaming. A young contributor to one of the online support forums describes how she has been known to lose touch with what day it is because of the narrative of a daydream. She admits to going to school thinking that it was, for example, Thursday, only to find that it was sometime earlier in the week. Her explanation was that the precious days had been daydreamed and the events of those days had become memories.

This isn’t as improbable as it might sound and it’s certainly possible for events that didn’t actually occur to be stored as a real episodic memory. This is just one way in which our memory can play tricks on us, and leave us questioning the difference between what is real and what is the result of a neurological glitch.

We can question every aspect of reality; every memory, every event of our lives. Once we become aware of the infinite fallibility of memory, we start to doubt everything. We can play some wondrous mind games here and drive ourselves to distraction attempting to reconcile such curiosities. If I had never met Vanessa and our lives forked off in different directions, would there be some recollection if we bumped into each other on the street? I know what you’re thinking: how would you recognise each other if you had never met? Oh, but we did, I would argue, we loved each other for more than a decade and had a son together. But that was on a different path.

Writers are highly skilled daydreamers who apply their skills to their unintended pastime. The writers I have known, with a few exceptions, can’t help creating imaginative narratives in their minds and then downloading them onto the page. I suspect that without the skill to transfer from one to the other, many would suffer in the same way as maladaptive daydreamers, whose fantasy worlds often appear more relevant than their real ones.

[This article is adapted from The Dreamer in Broad Daylight: Memory, Emotion and Our Imagined Lives by Marc Smith]

Chartered Psychologist. Behaviour Change. Becoming Buoyant — out July 2020

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