Pure Imagination

My daughter is going through what my family would jokingly call “that awkward stage.” (Because the fact is, every stage of life is awkward in one way or another. I personally feel like I was born in an awkward stage and have subsequently lived my entire life in one or another sort of awkwardness.) This particular awkwardness, in any case, has to do with that gray space in between childhood and adolescence. As a fifth-grader, she finds that most of her classmates would prefer to spend recess playing sports rather than engaging in elaborate make-believe play. She hates this. For her, it is infinitely more fun to create vast, fantastic worlds to explore rather than kicking a soccer ball around.

Now, to be clear, I have nothing against kids playing sports. Clearly, many have great fun doing it. What I do find repellent is the notion that continuing to play make believe past the age of, say, six or seven, is babyish. That many children who would secretly prefer to spend a little more time in their fantasy world feel compelled to leave it behind for fear of being ridiculed or not growing up as fast as everyone else.

I would like to utterly eradicate this notion. Make-believe is not babyish, or childish. Make believe is not the realm of children. We think of it that way because a child’s make believe takes a particular form that we’ve come to associate with make believe at large. But every healthy adult engages in make believe as well. It’s just usually in a more passive, subtle form than childen’s play. Consider this. Every time you watch a movie or TV show, you are allowing yourself to enter a fictitious world and believe, for just an hour or two, in at least some part of your mind, that it’s real. If you don’t, then the story is meaningless, the main character’s plight unimportant. Even more so when you read a book, which requires significant work on the part of your imagination to visualize what’s being represented by the words. Not really into fiction? You still need to make believe to be an empathetic human. How can you care about someone other than yourself if you aren’t capable of imagining yourself in their place, even in the slightest regard? Or how do you come up with solutions to problems if you aren’t willing to visualize an alternate version of reality? How can you understand metaphor if you’ve never learned to think beyond the literal – to look at a cardboard box and see instead a car, a spaceship, a trap for monsters?

Learning to play make believe is in fact a crucial developmental skill. I am acutely aware of this because my autistic son has had very little make believe play in his childhood. He used to pick up objects and say “Eo?” as if they were telephones, and it was adorable, but that faded away rather than expanding into the sort of creative, unique play that I’ve seen with his younger sister and brother. Now he sees almost everything as a potential spinning object, nothing more. That could mean he has a brilliant engineering mind; who knows? He funnels all his creative thought into one channel and he excels at it. I’m sure his mind has vast stores of creative thought, but something has kept him from expressing and developing them. The symbolist structures of language, the specific rituals of social interactions, the ability to express his inner life – all those things are impeded, and they are all connected in one way or another with a healthy imagination.

Make believe is not childish. It is not an embarrassing phase of life to be discarded and forgotten as quick as possible. It is the wellspring of a hundred vibrant abilities and skills. It is not delusion, the inability to distinguish fiction from reality. On the contrary, visiting dream worlds gives us the resources to confront the challenges of the real world. As G. K. Chesterson said: “Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.” Of course your imagination can evolve and mature and take new shapes as you transition from childhood to adulthood, but whatever new forms it takes, don’t be ashamed of what it was. And don’t be swayed by the voices that tell you to let it go. To be practical, to be realistic. It’s not the either/or they think it is. There is nothing about dreaming that prevents you from being practical. It will probably even help you manage the practicalities of life.

You are never, ever too old for make believe.



Recently I became aware of a certain tendency of mine that manifests similarly in several different fields. I prefer to improvise. This surprised me, because I’ve always considered myself more of a type-A personality, needing things to be in a precise order, well-planned and perfectly under control. Yet as I examined my behaviors, there were several examples that seemed to stand in direct opposition to such a personality: I rarely use recipes when I cook, I prefer to create my own knitting or crocheting projects on the fly without referring to a pattern, and as a writer I am what you might call a “pantser” – I write by the seat of my pants, making it up as I go.

However, on further thought I realized these habits aren’t as contradictory to that type-A controller as you might assume. Part of the reason I don’t use recipes much is because I prefer to do things my own way, without worrying about a call for ingredients I don’t have, or a complicated technique I haven’t mastered. I still follow precise directions for baking cookies or cakes or pies because I know the chemical process requires the right proportions of ingredients and temperatures, so it’s not just an aversion to following directions or an over-confidence in my own skills. In fact, once I’d considered why in the world I was knitting a Halloween costume without any kind of pattern, fudging around where it didn’t turn out right, I realized I was in fact less confident, even protecting myself against failure. Because if I’ve made it up, and it doesn’t turn out great, I have the ready excuse that I was just kind of throwing stuff together. If I try to follow a recipe or pattern and it still turns out disastrously, I have no excuse except my own incompetence.

There’s a lot there about self-confidence and low expectations and setting oneself up for failure that I could probably unpack, but I’m not going to do that now, because this is a blog about writing. And my writing is a whole other thing.

All of these areas – cooking, crafting, writing – are creative to some degree, but writing is arguably the most creatively demanding of the three. You can make up your own recipes and knitting patterns, but if you follow what someone else has written, you still get credit for your skill. If you copy someone else’s writing, it’s plagiarism, and you don’t get any credit at all. So it’s not really about my own work/expertise versus someone else’s. It’s about creating on the spot as I cook/knit/write, throwing something in the mix and seeing what happens. It’s a heady, thrilling business, and it can lead to amazing discoveries and total disasters.

The alternative to “pantsing” is planning or plotting – creating detailed outlines for the trajectory of a story before ever starting the first draft. And while every writer has different strengths and preferences, the ideal strategy probably lies somewhere near the middle of the spectrum rather than either extreme. Excessive planning can lead to paralysis – the inability to start the draft until you’ve refined the outline to absolute perfection (which will never happen). It can also lead to a rigidity that forbids any alteration from the plan even when, during the actual writing, it becomes clear that it’s not working the way it was intended.

Those are rarely my problems. Far more frequently, I get a spark of an idea for a story and start writing it when it’s still barely half-formed. I get to a certain point and find myself stuck. So I try to balance my frenetic love of first drafts with the moderation of planning and plotting. It’s not easy. My best work has come when I take even just a little time to sketch out the skeleton of the book, the character’s initial problem, how it develops and how it will ultimately be resolved. I leave space for the details of those developments, and then once I start writing, I find ways to fill in the details, often in ways that feel positively serendipitous. It seems that I can’t work out everything in the world of my novel until I allow myself to start fully living in that world. When the characters speak their dialogue, when the scenes play out vividly on the page, I can see where the story is headed. More than that, I care where the story is headed so much more. In between writing sessions, I almost aways have the story on my mind, working out potential scenarios of what happens next. Occasionally it flows so fast and freely it’s like the story is really happening and I’m just writing it down as I see it.

I’m aware that this might seem like pretentious or even delusional nonsense, but there is something that happens when I’m writing a first draft that can’t happen with a mere outline. There is a momentum that carries me; planning too much would only impede that momentum. I do need discipline to reign myself in and allow for that little bit of planning. But I will always be a pantser at heart.