The daydreaming thing was my brother’s fault. He went to Virginia Tech from 1970 to 1975. The fifth year wasn’t because he was dim; as an architecture major he was required to stay ten semesters. Sometime in that span, on one of our eight-hour family trips from New Jersey to drop him off or pick him up, my parents took me to Luray Caverns. I must’ve been about eleven years old.
God almighty! Who knew they kept all that stuff underground? I was agog! Great dripstone formations that looked like melting candles. Stalactites and mites the shades of fall vegetables and seashells. If Luray wasn’t exactly the hidden world I’d been looking for, it was something close: it was the key that freed my imagination from my own experience. (About three or four years earlier I’d sat straight up in bed one night, shaking from the sudden, unwished-for understanding that one day I would die and there would be no more me on earth. I understood this not only as a personal catastrophe but a tragedy for the world as well. What would it do without me? That moment, I think, paved the way for my imagination to gallop ahead of my life in the here and now. It prepared me for Luray.)
On the drive home I sat in the back seat of my parents’ Pontiac, staring out the window. But I wasn’t seeing the Blue Ridge. My mind’s eye was still underground, where the beautiful caverns had become my own personal stage set. I peopled them with a brave family whose home had been burned by the British. The American Revolution raged. (I’d been to Williamsburg the year before, and had a head full of eighteenth-century fashions.) My patriots took shelter in the caverns and the hero became a guerilla fighter. I regretfully report that my gender-bound childhood brain could only envision men taking daring action against the redcoats. The women grew mushrooms and crept out to trade them at market for food they brought home to cook in the cavern. I add this with extreme discomfort: I think my hero may have looked like the teen idol Bobby Sherman.
Had my “daydream characters,” as I called them, remained a diversion for the drive home, I wouldn’t be writing this essay. They didn’t. Instead they evolved, growing up alongside me and into the social upheavals of the 1970s. My imagination became an adolescent laboratory, grafting ideas from the books I read—especially Gothic-tinged romances on the order of Rebecca and Wuthering Heights—onto current events like the women’s movement. Feminism entered me by osmosis, and soon I was creating stories with heroines as well as heroes. Here’s a classic, circa age fifteen: orphaned young women meet at a school for governesses in the early nineteenth century; one dresses as a man and attends university to become a doctor, the other marries against her will to save her family from destitution; the doctor sets up a revolutionary clinic to treat the rural poor; the two meet again and fall in love, the married one not realizing her illicit beau is her former best friend.
At that point I’d generally kill off one or the other of my leads, weeping real tears as the tragedy unfolded in my head. And then I’d wait a few weeks and replay the whole thing.
These self-told tales came to exert an enormous gravitational pull on my life. One August day I was sitting cross-legged on my bed, struggling to write a summer term paper—I can feel the unjust sting of summertime homework even now—when the storyline I’d been messing around with the night before edged back into my mind. “Hmmm,” I thought. “All right, I’ll give it just ten minutes.”
Four hours later I realized, with shame but also a little thrill at the magnitude of my misbehavior, that it was dinnertime and I’d not written a word. The lure of daydreaming was too great, and I’d literally been unable to stop. That was the day I crossed the threshold into narrative addiction.
I began to look forward to every long car ride. I’d keep myself up at night or set the alarm to wake an hour early in the morning, so I could daydream. I’d borrow against whatever private moments a teenager has—there aren’t many; studying, mainly—in order to hone my craft. As far as I was concerned, my own stories were far better than anything on TV.
I hope I’ve made clear that my stories weren’t what we usually call “daydreams”—those momentary, wool-gathering fantasies about classmates or teachers or seeing yourself win the Olympics, the typical fodder of minds unmoored by French prepositions. (I used French class to learn important things, like how to write backwards with my left hand.) No, mine tended to be months- or years-long historical sagas starring characters with intricate family relationships. The heroes and heroines were almost always beautiful and brilliant but deeply flawed, either physically or emotionally. I’d create a situational framework, like my tale of the plucky governesses, and then pick and choose scenes to tell myself whenever I had the chance.
I narrated these scenes to myself in past tense, third person, with a good deal of conversation (often including “he saids” and “she saids,” of which I was fond). I should also say that I wasn’t involved in these stories in any way. I was never a character in my own daydreams. I was multiple, like Frankenstein’s creature, but only in the sense that I was teller and audience in one.
Does anyone else out there “daydream” like this? Ever since I was a teenager I’ve wanted to know if other people tell themselves sagas too. I teach creative writing, and one of my students recently confessed that she “writes” intricate fictions in her head as well—we looked at one another with astonished relief, like two Martians meeting on earth—but she’s only other serious daydreamer I’ve met. It’s hard even to google the subject: there are no keywords to look up. When I mention my daydreaming habit to people (a rare occurrence), they look at me with a combination of alarm and wonder and inevitably ask, “Why don’t you write your stories down?”
I’ll get to that soon.
Most of the time as I was growing up I kept my talent/habit/addiction/vice in check, but whenever I had time alone or reason to procrastinate, I could slip into a serious daydreaming jag. Because my stories were open-ended and unedited, morphing at will as I stole events from life or fiction, they thrillingly—dangerously—went on and on. High school became college, college became grad school, I got a job in Manhattan, and all the while “daydreaming” was my secret, reflexive habit. I was vaguely aware that my plots often outpaced my experience, anticipating and testing the ground before I walked on it, so to speak. As if life were a half-frozen pond. Sometimes I fretted that I was only half-living my real life. But whenever anything really interesting came up—travels or a love affair, the demands of a new job—my daydreams shrank back and I gave myself to the external world with abandon. I figured I was fine.
By my midtwenties a fairly sophisticated fiction had taken shape that now, today, has historical roots in my actual life—where and when I’ve authored it, to what degree, at what age—and deep fictional roots of its own. In her memoir Sunbathing in the Rain, the Welsh poet Gwyneth Lewis refers to what she calls her “need for a reality away from my ordinary life.” For Lewis, alcohol and poetry (in that order) provided the alternative, though she’s careful to differentiate between them. “I see alcohol as a journey away from reality, into fantasy,” she writes, “and poetry as an indirect route deeper into reality’s hinterland.” For me, equally dependent on the need to reconstitute the found world, daydreaming filled a role—a shapeshifting grey area—between the two.
Once, after I was nearly killed in a train wreck (for real), I lost my balance between my internal and external worlds. I didn’t confuse them, I simply lost interest in the one that leaves visible traces. It wasn’t exactly a retreat from “life” or activity—daydreaming is a rigorous discipline and demands enormous creative energy and powers of memory, which is why it’s impossible to drink and dream at the same time; believe me, I’ve tried—but it was a retreat from active living.
At that point in my life I was just setting out to make my way in the world as a freelance writer. (Can you imagine a more fraught choice for an inveterate daydreamer?) Each day I’d get up, eat breakfast with my apartment-mate, she’d leave for work, and I’d settle in the living room with my notes and the latest edition of Writer’s Market. The sun would be streaming in the east windows. The next time I returned to external awareness, let’s call it, the sun was in the west windows and the shadows stretching across our rose-colored carpeting were long and blue. I’d make deals with myself and the clock, like “Just until the big hand reaches a whole number,” but that was like a gambler saying “Just one game.” Whole days disappeared, one after another, for months.
With the perspective of a quarter century I can see I was probably suffering from posttraumatic stress. At the time I thought I was losing my mind. If only I could write my stories down, I thought, I’d be okay. Words on a page were evidence that you cleaved to the safe side of the line between being crazy and being a fiction writer. When you write down what you make up it’s art, and no one complains. But I couldn’t do it. I lacked the craft tools and I feared that if I tried to capture my characters they’d revolt and disappear. So I just dreamed on. Not long after this period things perked up. Life came and claimed me and I gratefully went with it, and before long I was writing for real—but never about my “daydreams.” I fully expected as I grew older my stories would disappear, but they’ve only diminished. Wielded carefully, I’ve found they can serve as alchemical tools for converting observation into empathy. I spend whole years without them now, yet they never retreat entirely. Rather they’re contained, like a river canalized, often flowing into darker, more disturbing channels than I have ever ventured myself, filtering the world’s soot out of my soul.
Pamela Petro’s latest book is The Slow Breath of Stone: A Romanesque Love Story, from which some sections of this essay were drawn. She’s currently working on a novel drawn from her daydreams.