One day last week, I woke up with the alarm, remembered a writing assignment I needed to work on that day, and then immediately rolled over and went back to sleep.

From the outside, it looks like I was avoiding the task, but in reality, I was hard at work, even as my mind lingered in the liminality between waking and sleeping. Recalling the assignment and a detail or two from earlier pre-planning was all my brain needed to begin making connections and outlining paragraphs. An hour later, the alarm went off again, and by the time I readied myself for the day and headed to the office, the article was practically written. I just needed to sit down at the laptop and hammer it out.

In The Art of Slow Writing, Louise DeSalvo says tapping into our subconscious is an important habit for writers. “Dreaming and daydreaming are essential features of the creative process,” DeSalvo writes. “They’re not distractions from our work but necessary to it. Don’t many of our projects … begin this way?” She goes on to describe how the idea for an essay or a book often comes to us while we are doing our chores or other routines tasks. Or how we sometimes wake in the middle of the night with the perfect scene for our novel. Or, like me, how we find an image or detail amid the haziness of trying to wake up.

The good news for our writing lives is that our brains are writing even when the rest of us is not. That worked out well for me last week on one particular essay, but it works out well for me often since I don’t always have the amount of time I’d like to sit down and write. Doesn’t matter. My brain is still coming up with ideas, formulating phrases, and weaving together bits of information into compelling theses and plots.

The bad news for our writing lives, however, is that often we don’t realize how actively engaged in writing our brain is even when we aren’t sitting down to write. We don’t jot down the ideas or the images. We don’t pay attention long enough to the thoughts we are having to let them really sink in. Instead, we move thoughtlessly through our days, and when we do actually find ourselves perched in front of the laptop, we bemoan the lack of ideas or inspiration.

So what do we do to make the most of the writing work our brain is already doing?

  1. Realize that the dreams and daydreams that come to you throughout the day are important to your creative process. Make time for this kind of distraction, and take notice when it’s happening. “Many writers treat these inspirational moments as ephemera rather than as rock solid knowledge for what we need,” DeSalvo writes. “We can subvert our creative process by dismissing these thoughts and visions as meaningless, rather than taking them seriously.”
  2. Create a system for capturing the thoughts, images, and ideas that come to you in this state. You could keep a journal, snap a photo, or record a video or voice memo. Or create some other mnemonic device, like a song or a limerick or a pattern of letters or shapes, to help jog your memory later. Sometimes I simply speak the idea aloud, describe it to my husband, or repeat it over and over to myself, and in the process, my brain forms a stronger memory than the subconscious impression does on its own.
  3. Don’t try to make every idea or image “fit.” The idea may not be for now, “… but if we write it down, it won’t be lost; it will be there for us when we need it,” DeSalvo says.

How do you use dreams and daydreams in your creative process?