Sigmund Freud on 'Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming'
Sigmund Freud (1907-08). ‘Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming,’ Art and Literature,
translated by James Strachey, edited by Albert Dickson (London: Penguin Books,
1990), Penguin Freud Library, pp. 129-141.
These clinical notes attempt to explain the difference between ‘day-dreams’ and
‘night-dreams’ (if we can put it like that).
When the term ‘dreams’ is invoked in acts of interpretation, what clinicians are
really looking at are dreams that patients have when they are asleep.
These dreams are sometimes remembered but usually forgotten when the patient
gets up in the morning.
Patients in analysis also find that they are producing dreams which they believe
have something to say to the analyst. These are dreams that are mediated by the
Such dreams are more likely to be remembered because the patient feels that there is
somebody who is really interested in his dreams.
Sometimes patients even try to jot down the basic plot structure of the dream when
they get up in the middle of the night.
Clinicians are acquainted with these phenomena; there is a large literature on
whether or not patients should be encouraged to put down their dreams in writing;
and whether the dream that the patient will eventually discuss in analysis is the
same as that which appeared in his sleep.
The ontology of dreams then is affected by the fact that the analyst cannot see the
dream in the way that the patient can, but can only infer how the manifest and latent
content of the dream are related to each other in terms of the associations produced
by the patient on the couch.
But there is more to dreaming than what the term ‘interpretation of dreams’ means
in the conventional sense. There are also ‘day-dreams, fantasies, and reveries’ that
the patient is subject to throughout the day.
It is easy to overlook the fact that these aspects of mental life could be as important
as dreams in the strict sense of the term and must be subject to interpretation if we
want to understand the patient’s unconscious.
These dreams, fantasies, and reveries, for instance, constitute the mental life of not
only the subject of analysis, but also of artists, scientists, and creative writers.
In this paper, Freud focuses on what we can learn about the unconscious by looking
at these dream-like phenomena.
Unlike the lay-person, who does not dwell on his day-dreams because he thinks that
there is something wrong in doing so, creative writers take their mental life
seriously; they are not afraid of looking into their unconscious when they get a
chance to do so.
The age-old question of where creative writers find their material is easy to answer if
we realize the importance of day-dreams in their life.
Since the creative writer has a sense of ‘literary form’ (i.e. genre), he is able to put his
day-dreams to good use unlike most subjects who waste these dreams.
The reason most subjects waste these day-dreams is that they do not know how to
construct a poem, a play, or a story out of these day-dreams.
So what differentiates the creative writer from the usual subject of analysis is that he
is able to shape his day-dreams, fantasies, and reveries into works of literary art.
As Freud was fond of putting it, the creative artist does not dwell in fantasies as an
end in itself like the neurotic subject, but ‘regresses in the service’ of a higher
purpose that can be termed ‘sublimation.’
The purpose of sublimation is to further the interests of literature, culture, or science.
In order to understand why the creative artist or writer has this ability to sublimate
his instincts, Freud points to the importance of ‘play’ and ‘playing’ in the life of
Children, who are encouraged to play with other children and ask questions, are
more likely to develop the ability to sublimate their instincts than children who
either don’t play or who are not encouraged to do so.
The importance of observing children play as a way of analysing a child’s psyche
was also understood by the pioneers of child analysis like Anna Freud and Melanie
These analysts argued that since a child cannot free-associate in the way adults do,
getting them to play with toys, or with each other, will give the analyst insights into
how they think, and what might ail them, when they are subject to analysis in the
Play analysis was an important source of information that had been over-looked by
analysts who thought that only adults can be subject to analysis in the strict sense of
the term – that is why it took so long for child analysis to develop as a distinct area
of practice in the history of psychoanalysis.
So though a child may not have an unconscious in the technical sense, many
important clinical insights can be generated by exploring how they relate to the
acquisition of language, to their own families, and the symbolic.
Likewise, the creative writer who has kept his ‘inner-child’ alive will give clinicians a
clue as to how children think. Insights generated by observing children at play will
also give clinicians a clue as to how creative writers think.
Freud discusses a number of typical fantasies that constitute the mental life of
children, and how these fantasies are a response to the real or perceived
inadequacies that they might have experienced in their life.
These inadequacies might relate to their parents, families, or social situation. Freud
both here and elsewhere talks about the ‘family romance.’
This is a typical fantasy in which a child imagines that he is ‘high-born’ and that his
parents are not those he actually lives with.
Sooner or later, the child tells himself, he will have to assume the status that comes
from being high-born and that his real parents will be revealed to him.
Such fantasies will not make a positive impression if the child were to reveal them as
a cold fact, but will appear endearing if he is able to transform them into works of
literary art when he grows up and becomes a writer.
How exactly the creative writer is able to transform such commonplace oedipal
fantasies into literature is his ‘innermost secret.’
In doing so, the creative writer is able to win over his reader by giving them a ‘fore-
pleasure’ because of his hold on literary form.
In the absence of this ability at forging a sense of literary form, the writer is no better
than the neurotic who merely ‘suffers’ his fantasy.
The essence of the ars poetica is the ability to sublimate rather than suffer a fantasy
from early childhood. Most fairy tales are but variations on the theme of the ‘family
It is therefore important to understand the analytic difference between day-dreams
and night-dreams and relate them to the state of the analysis.
The ability to sublimate then, to conclude, is an important indicator for whether the
neurotic subject of analysis will get well in the course of the treatment or be tempted
to regress, act-out, or drop out of the treatment at the slightest provocation.
SHIVA KUMAR SRINIVASAN