Midway through discussing the Billy Collins poem “On Turning Ten,” my daughter’s sixth grade teacher paused at the line It is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends. Turning to the class with a laugh, she ad-libbed, “If you’re over ten and you still have imaginary friends, come see me.”
Pity the children of fiction writers. My daughter, stricken, recounted the comment to me hesitantly that evening — and even as I reassured her, I knew how odd my words must sound: Honey, so long as I know my imaginary people aren’t real, there’s nothing wrong with them being…real.
I’m long past ten, and I live among imaginary friends. As a novelist I spend years unearthing their secrets, their fears, their senses of humor. My characters are musicians, childcare workers, historians — anything other than fiction writers. They’re taller than I am, or smaller; less educated or — intimidatingly — more. Every scene I write through their eyes is a ticket to a different way of being in the world. What’s it like to walk down a nighttime street as a six-foot-three man, women quickening their pace with a nervous glance back at you? What does it feel like to be old; to be an immigrant; to be powerful, powerless?
The habit of inventing people prompts its share of unease. I’ve been cornered by a psychiatry student and quizzed, only half-jokingly, about my chosen profession. (You do know they’re not real, right?) More frequently I encounter skepticism about the entire enterprise of imagination. (Aren’t novelists’ characters just copied from actual people? Is there a recording device under this table?) Some writers do pilfer a great deal from life, others don’t — the sole constant is that every writer’s work is emotionally autobiographical. A short story writer looking out a bus window might glimpse an argument in progress. The bus moves on; the sidewalk scene is wrested away. But now the writer’s curiosity takes over: what might it be like to be one of those two well-dressed elderly men shouting at one another in broad daylight? Something about one of the men — perhaps his stooped form — reminds the writer of his own too-meek grandfather. Yet those men on the sidewalk were both furious. Why? Will they come to blows? If one were to back down, as the writer’s grandfather would have, what would be the consequences? And how will neighbors react to someone who allows himself to be bullied — and while we’re at it, what sort of people are those neighbors? Perhaps one, a single mother newly arrived with her infant son, has a startling response…
By the time the story is finished, that catalyzing sidewalk scene is just one element in a vibrant larger picture of whatever most urgently preoccupies the writer — be it a question roiling the great big political world, or one touching only the intimate world of a single heart. This is why pressing a novelist for the facts behind a work of fiction yields little. The nutritional content of a book can’t be determined through a list of its ingredients; a story isn’t a map of the writer’s actual, factual life. As my beloved great-aunt said to friends who asked where in my novels they might catch a glimpse of her: if you want to find me, come to my house.
Persuading skeptics of the value of imagined people, though, can be an uphill battle. I don’t fault my daughter’s teacher for echoing one of our society’s baseline assumptions: the vivid world of make-believe people is for children only. (If you’re not convinced of the ubiquity of this assumption, just imagine the water-cooler conversation that would ensue if a co-worker casually let slip, “I spent my lunch break imagining how a young girl I dreamt up might respond to being lost in a foreign country.”) It may be considered acceptable for an adult to play video games or fantasy baseball…but evidently in order to become functional adults each of us must renounce our personal Puff the Magic Dragon.
It may be considered acceptable for an adult to play video games or fantasy baseball…but evidently in order to become functional adults each of us must renounce our personal Puff the Magic Dragon.
But what if all of us — not just fiction writers — need imagined people more than we realize?
We live in an information-saturated age. Social media images of friends’ dinner plates vie for our attention with breaking news; data pours in more quickly and on more channels than in any other time in human history. The supposedly-factual dominates even the world of entertainment, where — to quote John Jeremiah Sullivan — reality shows have long since “gone kudzu” on the cultural landscape. (And of course if fact and counter-fact were flying fast before 2017, we’re now deafened continuously by the sonic booms of ‘alternative facts.’ Small wonder if discussions of fiction seem irrelevant, when confabulations-dressed-as-fact demand a response at every turn.)
The notion that the imagined is passé has in fact been gaining momentum for years, even in pockets of the literary world. David Shields’ much-touted Reality Hunger: a Manifesto dismisses fiction, calling nonfiction “incomparably more compelling” and citing Alain Robbe-Grillet’s declaration that “the novel of characters…belongs entirely to the past.”
Weariness with older art forms is natural and spurs innovation — indeed there’s some fascinating experimentation in the world of narrative these days. But as #FerranteFever and the passionate response to works like Hanya Yanigahara’s A Little Life demonstrate, any claim that fiction is obsolete is easily disproven. What audiences crave, regardless of form or genre, is simply the realest kind of reality — the kind that honestly reflects what it’s like to be human. And in an age of rampant dehumanization, the story of our humanity isn’t just interesting — it’s anti-venom.
Telling the truth about any human experience isn’t easy. That’s so in every form of communication ever invented — memoir, fiction, phone call, blog post, and I can only assume hieroglyphics. Ego gets in the speaker’s way, and so does love. We writers may spout a macho line about authorial ruthlessness, but somewhere or another most of us succumb to the urge to protect someone — if only ourselves — from a too-searing gaze.
Amid that welter of impulses, fiction is the best way I know to be honest. With imaginary people there’s no one to protect, and ‘permission to speak freely’ is always granted. My characters can stumble, fumble, act badly without triggering embarrassment or litigation. What’s more, the further I venture from my own life, the less bound I feel by my own ego or fears, and the freer to enter ever-riskier layers of human experience: there’s what people say…but beneath that, there’s what we feel — that lightning-flash of suppressed anger or unexpected joy…and then the blunt, forbidden thought rolling under that…and then in the sub-basement of consciousness, a pinioning question. If access to that terrain is a benefit of what Daniel Mendelsohn calls “the protective masks afforded by fiction,” then it seems worth relinquishing the comforting authority of fact (this story matters because it actually happened).
Fiction is the best way I know to be honest. With imaginary people there’s no one to protect, and ‘permission to speak freely’ is always granted.
Each genre, of course, offers its own powerful literary maps of human experience. But fiction is what I return to, as a reader and as a writer, when I’m overwhelmed by the news; by the scripted cheer of Facebook posts; by recorded voices helping me navigate highways and telephone menus and gift purchases and health care choices, all so stripped of humanity that I can’t help mentally recasting the end of “Prufrock”: till automated voices wake us and we drown.
Writing, at its best, startles us simultaneously with both sides of this coin: Other people experience the world very differently than I do, and, I’m not alone — other people feel exactly what I’ve felt. For me, there’s delight in devoting years to learning what an endless string of fictitious not-me’s might know and experience. Pretend play makes me empathize with others. It’s the most mature thing I know how to do.
Or at least that’s what I tell myself, long after the kids are in bed, as the basket of leftover Halloween candy and I square off together against a massive volume of Enlightenment philosophy — because the protagonist of my new novel is a philosopher, and I can’t write well about her until I get my head around Spinoza.
“I’ve lived long among those I’ve invented,” wrote Bernard Malamud, himself the shepherd of a luminous flock of invented souls. Call me crazy — I’ll keep my imaginary friends.
. . .