John Cleese told a funny story when we he was a guest recently on Marc Maron’s podcast. The screenwriters who wrote for Louis B. Mayer when he was running MGM worked in a building on the studio lot. The writer’s learned to keep a lookout by the window. Whenever he or she spotted Mayer headed their way, all the writers would jump on a typewriter and begin typing noisily. This pleased Mayer. The sound of typing meant his writers were working. Once he’d passed, the writers went back to what they had been doing, which is daydreaming, which is how writers actually work.
Of course, writers must eventually put words to page, but I thought Cleese was absolutely right that much of our work is done when we seem to be doing nothing. I also think Louis B. Mayer is not the only one who has mistaken daydreaming for shirking. In my experience, writers themselves make this mistake. I know I have. Perhaps it’s the old athlete in me who knew he only got faster when he was running. If all I ever did was dream of running, I’d have gotten slower and slower. Plus, the words-to-page part of writing does require a certain amount of practice, just as all artists must practice their craft.
My real problem with daydreaming, though, is that I often fall to it when I feel uncreative and unconnected. I can’t think of anything to say or do, and so I travel in my mind to some place more interesting. This always feels a little like giving up. I can’t do real work so I’ll just do pretend work as I did when I was a child. I’ll pretend I’m talking to someone about something interesting. However, if this goes well, an Actual Idea will emerge in all this pretend talking. I’ll write this idea down, filled with the excitement of tomorrow’s work, as well as relief that maybe I am not as lazy as I feared.
Perhaps someday I’ll learn to truly count this drifting as working, to see my daydreams as an extension of my time at the desk – but I doubt it. I still like to believe there is such a thing as time off from work. Meanwhile, I never stop looking for something interesting. I look for it whether I’m aware I’m looking for it or not. I couldn’t stop any more than I could stop my heart from beating, nor would I want to. My heartbeat keeps me alive, and what’s interesting is what makes that life worth living.
If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual coaching and group workshops.
Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write With Confidence.
You can find William at: williamkenower.com