Like most writers, I have a fantasy prone personality. This proves useful when I’m visualizing the layout of a haunted hotel, filling the art deco décor with pipe organ chandeliers, gargoyles, and mirrored elevators. It proves troublesome when I feel an urge to sit in total silence for several hours imagining what it would’ve been like had I become the rock star my high school self was certain I would, contemplating how I would’ve downplayed public breakups, circumvented beefs with other artists in the press, and teased out topical new material.
Some fantasies boost our imaginative powers while others just eat our hours. That brings us to one of the most insidious forms of writer’s block an aspiring author can face:Maladaptive Daydreaming.
What is Maladaptive Daydreaming?
Here’s the long answer.
When I was a security guard at an art museum people used to ask, “Isn’t it nice looking at all this wonderful art all day long?”
It was for the first week, but once I was familiar with all those impressionist wonders they turned into wallpaper. After that I was alone with my thoughts in a kind of wandering solitaire, pacing the galleries, barely paying attention to the patrons. For eight hours a day I was daydreaming.
I spent some of this time mapping out the expanded universe I’d later go on to write (the mysterious town of Pilgrim Valley with the mirror-faced monsters and the disappearing landmarks).
I spent four times that time dwelling on relationships: past, present, and future.
Every single day I visited ex girlfriends, women I was no longer in contact with, who were married with children. They’d moved on meanwhile I was still courting them in my head, making grand romantic gestures, orchestrating promposals, being emotionally available with just the right amount of restraint.
I had all these Groundhogs Day scenarios in my head. Times I’d failed to seize the moment and wanted desperately for a do over. I re-approached those rare opportunities with my heart on my sleeve, and in my head my fearless honesty was always well received. I came at encounters with jealousy with clever one-liners, newfound talents, and confidence. I came at breakup talks with newfound knowledge of relationship psychology.
Everyday I made my feelings known to people who would never known them. Everyday I reinforced connections that had long since broken. Everyday I overinflated my sense of romance just to pass the time.
These sentimental scenarios sustained me. I made them vivid, because they had to be. I had to hold my suspension of disbelief. I got painfully upset whenever I remembered there was no substance to any of them. I broke my own heart, visibly bummed myself out, and got short with anyone who dared to interrupt.
Psychologists call this maladaptive daydreaming. It’s a form of fantasizing that comes on without warning and often proves difficult to cast out of the mind, like intrusive thoughts without the nasty aftertaste. Maladaptive daydreams are welcome excursions. They’re a vat in the Matrix where we willfully hook ourselves in, oblivious to our robot overlords’ command over our emotions (pats self on back for the timely pop culture reference).
Where Maladaptive Daydreaming Goes Wrong
I’m no longer a security guard but I still deal with maladaptive daydreams whenever my mind has too much room to wander. They’re an escape, but in many ways they’re a hell of my own making.
Daydreaming about an upcoming appointment (a date, a job interview, or a speech) can make it all the more dramatic. Fleeting moments are given too much scrutiny. Emotional stakes are raised way too high, and unfortunate outcomes echo in the mind way too long.
What started as a tool for coping with bad situations now forestalls my healing time. I find myself returning to the same moment again and again, prolonging its effect. I find myself in little hell-loops when I try to fall asleep, fold laundry, or brush my teeth.
It’s A Great Way to Destroy Relationships Too
If you’re constantly daydreaming about an idyllic future then reality will always disappoint you. A skilled fantasist with a lifetime of experience can develop romantic expectations that dwarf the most charming Hugh Grant films. When our partners fail to live into their imagined roles we’re doubly disappointed. We expect them to psychically intuit the lines we’ve written for them. We fail to see them as individuals, but rather extensions of our own self esteem.
And when a partner simply isn’t a good fit our over active imaginations come up with excuses for why not. We end up staying in bad relationships because we’ve vividly imagined working versions of them. Our hope turns into something toxic.
Why Maladaptive Daydreams Can be Bad For Writing
When I was a security guard fantasizing about being a family man all of my daydreams had one thing in common: there wasn’t much conflict. They were my attempt to smooth conflict out of my life, but conflict is the heart of drama. It teaches us, forces us to change and grow. It’s why we tell stories and these fantasies just weren’t stories.
After an 8-hour shift of solid daydreaming I found it damn near impossible to switch hats and start writing. I’d spent my creative energy living in an alternate reality. I was working the wrong muscles.
When it came time to write my horror fantasy stories I lacked the will to explore the dark.
My First Attempts At Beating the Habit
When I was a security guard it took me years to realize how badly my romantic daydreams were actually bumming me out.
When I finally caught on I tried to preoccupy my mind by counting things. Yup, I was one of those people, counting superheroes (DCEU and Marvel), Star Wars characters (current cannon and legends), and Nine Inch Nails songs (including B-sides and remixes). If in the early 2000s you saw a guard at the Walker Art Center or the Minneapolis Institute of Art frantically counting on his finger, odds are, he was me.
These days when I feel my mind wandering I roll a coin down my knuckles. It takes more concentration but it inadvertently makes me look like a Bond villain, but hey, it’s something.
Breaking the Cycle
For those of us with fantasy prone personalities maladaptive daydreamers are encoded into our minds. It’s important for us to recognize when they’re coming on, how much time they eat up, and when they become destructive.
If my story sounds all too familiar to you there are some options you might want to look into. Right now I’m exploring cognitive behavioral therapy. This is a result driven system that helps individuals find practical coping methods. Everything from imagining big bold stop signs when we feel ourselves veering onto daydream detours to setting timers.
If you find your creative energy spent when you approach your writing consider structuring your story in advance. It’s harder to get stuck when you already know how one scene flows into the other. I know I prefer to write by the seat of my pants and discover things as I go along, but when I’m down in the dumps I find myself structuring a lot more.
We fulltime daydreamers need to ask ourselves what changes our escapes are preventing us from making, how fantasy substitutes our drive for real action, and how it warps our expectations. We need to launder our fantasies into reality. We need to learn how to act on things rather than leave them in our minds.
We need to get some skin in the game and allow ourselves to fail.
If we are certain our creative careers would take off if only we had the right emotional support, we need to do the work first and find the support second. If we are certain our drive to improve ourselves would be improved by a relationship, we need to start making changes without love. If we spend too much time regretting our pasts, we have to recognize that that’s how we’ll be looking upon this moment if we don’t get off our asses and do something.