This essay was written by Elizabeth Simons.
My best ideas come through daydreams.
They come when I’m doing something else, and seldom appear when I’m sitting in front of my computer.
Don’t get me wrong. I write things down. Usually at sporting events. Or concerts. Or honky-tonk bars. But when I haul out the scraps of paper the words seem stale, as if the thoughts had run out of air. “Cute blond chick with fetching dimple sips margarita and flirts with handsome cowboy” becomes a puzzle. Where was that going? A tale about the young lady? The cowboy? The Margarita?
Great ideas come when I’m driving, washing dishes, or doing laundry. They float around in thought balloons as I do my daily tasks. I have every intention of writing them down. I even have a daydream about that: I’m in front of the computer as brilliant ideas bloom on the screen. I’m confident and productive, and my concentration is never broken by telemarketers.
Unfortunately, the daydreams and ideas dissolve the minute I sit down to write. The great idea that came while brushing my teeth turned out to be a very ordinary thought with no redeeming value.
So how does an organizationally challenged person like me bring these daydreams into existence?
In her book “Making a Literary Life,” Carolyn See exhorts me to write a thousand words daily—roughly three double-spaced pages five days a week, every week—without fail. Implying, I suppose, that the act of writing brings ideas to birth.
That’s all well and good, but what about if you’re a perfectionist? I shape every word in every sentence, fitting each syllable into a finely tuned matrix of prose that will reflect the brilliant thought I had several hours ago at the grocery store.
A thousand words? Impossible! A more facile writer could knock those out in less than two hours and still have time left over to play tennis with her agent. Me? I’d be slurping coffee at 4:00, eyes glazed, staring at four bedraggled paragraphs and wondering where the time went. A glance at the clock tells me I need to make dinner. Afterward, while loading the dishwasher, I’m flooded with creative ideas.
Ah, the burden of chores! How do successful authors write such vast quantities and still have a life? They have to eat and sleep and brush their teeth, too, but do they have to clean the house? Do laundry? Go to the grocery store?
As I dig through the freezer for pork chops I wonder if J. K. Rowling ever had to tear herself away from the computer to fix dinner.
Would I be more organized and productive if I had a cook and a maid and a laundry service? Or would I just spend more time walking around the house sharpening pencils and daydreaming about the novel I’m about to write featuring the dissolute cowboy who seduced the blond girl with frozen margaritas, no salt?
I see hours in the day as markers for things I need to accomplish. I’m unable to sort out the things I love to do from the things I don’t love to do, so I end up categorizing writing as another tick on my to-do list. When I finally do get around to it, I treat writing as if it was just another chore, hurrying through it so I can get to the next item on the list. The joy of creation dissolves like a daydream.
Why do I engage in this kind of literary self-sabotage? Some of it comes from an ingrained sense of duty that tells me I’m not worthy to breathe if I don’t finish the dishes. But most of it comes from fear. Fear of completion, because an unformed idea has potential. It can be anything. A finished work is . . . finished. It sits there, inviting criticism.
So there it is. I see I’ve now written myself into a corner. In the words of Lady Macbeth, it’s time to “screw my courage to the sticking place.” Prioritize that to-do list with “write 1,000 words” at the top. Take the risk of turning possibility into reality, then introduce that reality to a wider readership. If I don’t do anything I won’t fail. But I won’t succeed, either.
So I have to produce more work.
Which means I need to stop beating time to death and relax. There is time for everything.
It’s about time to invite the daydreams to stay.
Elizabeth Simons is a writer who lives in the heart of the Missouri Ozarks. She is the author of “Dancing With Words,” a creative writing course she wrote for the University of Missouri’s online curriculum for advanced middle school students. She also edits manuscripts for publication at Prosecraft. You can see samples of her writing at Words By Heart. Elizabeth is currently making peace with her muse and is working on her novel “To Die For.”