Sigmund Freud and the writer’s gift

The creative writer does the same as the child at play. He creates a world of phantasy which he takes very seriously — that is, which he invests with large amounts of emotion — while separating it sharply from reality ~ Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud

Over the years, several people coming new to writing workshops have remarked that they feel like they’re in playschool, when they had been expecting something much more difficult and demanding. ‘It’s very enjoyable,’ they say, ‘but when are we going to get to the nitty gritty?’

The ability to be playful is the nitty gritty – it’s the key to creating the dreamlike fantasies of fiction, and it’s an ability that many of us lose as part of the natural process of growing up and engaging with the ‘real’ world.

Freud says we actually distance ourselves from the fantasies of our inner lives to the extent of feeling fearful and ashamed. The writer’s gift may be that in being able to sustain the playful attention and emotional attachment that children do to their dreams and fantasies, he or she provides an acceptable way for readers to indulge in the same activity vicariously.

And there’s more.

…our actual enjoyment of an imaginative work proceeds from a liberation of tensions in our minds. It may even be that not a little of this effect is due to the writer’s enabling us thenceforward to enjoy our own day-dreams without self-reproach or shame ~ Sigmund Freud

In overcoming their ‘grown-up’ rejection of the dreams and fantasies of their inner world, writers may also be giving a kind of permission for readers to explore and engage with their own.

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13 thoughts on “Sigmund Freud and the writer’s gift”

  1. I do despair, just a little, when I hear tales of authors who forever seem to struggle with their ‘art.’ Of course it is art. Anything creative is a form of art but it is also great fun and if at times we struggle with writer’s bloc then what of it? The fun in writing is immeasurable even for those who write literary fiction as opposed to commercial. And yes, Freud is correct in his analysis, it is by releasing that inner child we find creativity which in turn gives us such joy. Wasn’t it Confucius who said (and I am paraphrasing here) “find a job you love and you never have to work in your life”?

    1. Massive yes to this, Russell. And you make a good point that it doesn’t matter what kind of fiction we’re writing, it all starts with play.

  2. Your posts always give me something to think about, Jenny! For me, every books involves some struggle, but part of what helps me get through that is the sheer pleasure of writing and bringing a story and a world to life.

  3. Hi Amy – every book involves some struggle for me too, and a lot of graft, and sometimes some what I call ‘spaghetti brain’ – but what begins it and keeps me going is the joy of playing and then later on, the pleasure of crafting the story that’s emerged into the most beautiful form I can find

  4. As an only child who was also shy and introverted, fantasies were the one true solace in my life. Teachers accused me of daydreaming too much, but my mind had no other choice. It’s always thinking and creating. I get bored easily, so I often step into my fantasy worlds to soothe the anxiety.

    1. Hi Alejandro – that’s interesting – I’ve looked at the same situation in the opposite way, seeing myself as someone who doesn’t get bored because I can always go off into a daydream!

  5. One of the reasons I moved from writing factual articles to more creative style writing was the frustration of having to be very structured. When I started writing more creativity it did give me that childlike sense of fun because I was reaching into undiscovered nooks and crannies of unconscious. And your quote from Freud is spot-on in describing my enjoyment an imaginative work. It does liberate the tension in my mind.

  6. It’s exciting, isn’t it, Carolyn? You never know where it’ll take you. I write both fiction and non fiction, and approach both playfully, but it’s a different kind of play. Non fiction’s more like a jigsaw-puzzle for me, where I’m trying out different pieces in different places and trying to see the big picture; fiction writing is more like pretend games, where you imagine what it would be like to be someone else, in someone else’s life. I’ve always worked both strands in parallel, and find that the one feeds the other

  7. Dear Jenny,

    Thank you for posting this interesting essay. In my opinion, the creative process is more complex than Freud’s explanation. I find that some creative writing requires research, for example, writing about a character who has a learning difference. And shaping our words into a sonnet or quatrain also requires analytic modes of thought. I believe that creative writing involves all parts of our brains, not only fantasy and play.

    Best wishes!

    Janet Heller

    1. I completely agree, Janet, and that’s a lot of the pleasure of writing for me, that it involves all parts of the brain. I think the spark and energy for creating fiction comes from the play instinct – it ‘finds the lump’ for the critical side of the brain to work on and craft into the best form possible. I like Dorothea Brande’s description of this in ‘Becoming a writer’, where she discusses in depth the functions of the different parts of the brain in writing.

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