Writers with Imaginary Friends – Part One

Did you ever have an imaginary friend? What do you recall the most about them? When did they disappear? In an article I was writing about isolation and disappearing in a world of Covid-19, there was a section in the book How to Disappear: Notes on invisibility in a time of transparency by Akikko Busch. This is a fascinating book in terms of the how we (as a society) perceive isolation and disappearing. With the recent world wide effect of social distancing, it is a good time to take lessons from the best social distancers in the world: writers. Beyond that, Busch does mention the idea and concept of what to make of “invisible friend” of childhood and why they often seem to disconnect from our lives and become memories. We know the concept of having an invisible friend is common and often a novelty of childhood. But I was interested in how those experience shape the writers of the world now. Is it a shift from invisible friend to characters in a novel? Or a shift from an open imaginary vision of childhood into a maturity that diminishes and dwells in words and pages? Or is there something to the type of person that can hurdle real and imaginative lines to incorporate these personas as avenues to creativity?  

While I was at a writers conference a few years ago, poet Eileen Cleary was asking me about my daughter (10 at the time) and I mentioned how my daughter doesn’t want to talk about getting older, that she wants to stay a little kid. And Eileen said that she was still grieving the loss of her childhood. She said it was very common. I was amazed at how accurate, enlightening, and sad I felt all at once. We all go through that loss of our childhood somehow. How does that loss of childhood connect to the disappearance of our imaginary friends? When do we stop believing that life can be casually lived between reality and the personas living in our mind?

The fascinating element of the imaginary friend concept is the ability for children to create a seamless and focused narrative that is shifting all the time. Do children have parents and family that are compassionate to this idea? Or is it driven away by people who think it is a sign of issues in development? Sophie Elmhirst wrote a great article for Aeon Magazine titled Two Land In My Mind and it speaks to imaginary friends and where they eventually go. According to the article, “Most were simply companions, there to help populate their pretend worlds, play games or offer comfort.” She also gets into the flexibility of the childhood imagination and how kids know they are not there and yet use them to try out things, feel like they are not alone, and even creating significant details that are uncanny and specific about their imaginary friends and safe spaces where they dwell.” She goes on to explain that perhaps those uninhibited visions of imagination, “just change shape and finds itself played out in adult unrealities – in the diversions we seek through novels, films, art.” The article extends this idea into the life of a writer and the life of adults as we move away from the imaginary and into reality. 

Where do our imaginary connections go when they aren’t needed? Many of the studies in the Elmhirst article point to a place in their adolescence where they just don’t need those imaginary parts of their lives. And they just fade. Some hang on and still think about that presences in their lives. The article mentions that “Kurt Cobain of the band Nirvana had an imaginary friend called Boddah when he was a boy, and it was Boddah to whom he addressed his suicide note at the age of 27.” Perhaps we are all destined to mourn the loss of our childhood imaginaries at some point in our lives. 

There are two kinds of article in the world based on imaginary friends. The first, your child is fine if they have imaginary friends. And the second, as an adult imaginary friends can be important. But in the article by Sophie Elmhirst, she mentions something relevant to writers. She says, “the percentage of writers in the study who reported that they had imaginary friends as children was more than twice the average. These people have been pretenders all their lives.” While we mature, most people may internalize these free and wild imaginations and find an outlet through reading novels, watching movies, and other story based art. It does suggest that they are willing to use those skills of wild and unabashed imagination to continue to create a world that they find unique and important to them. From this way of seeing the world, writers know and trust their imagination. I often picked some random fact to help ground me in places and with characters. Where is someone likely to keep the tape they need to wrap a gift? It is a simple exercises, but I was constantly ruminating in my mind where I might find things in places in my imagination. I still have dreams of looking for things in places I’ve never been. It explains a lot about me. With this skill of knowing things immediately, comes the skill – dare I say an intuition that connects to the moment, with the character, with the scene. That is what making stories is all about. You may know where to find the tape, but you also know why the scene is important and how to find your way into it and back out. It is significant details, it is little things that make up a bigger pictures. And this creative and imaginary world can be refined into something like art. And that is a kind of superpower for writers.  

My idea was to get to the connection between writers and their imaginary friends. You may think, of course writers have imaginary friends (how would they work otherwise), but the sad reality is that people who don’t still use this intuition have cast away their imaginary friends at some point. Is that something people long for? Busch mentions in her book that “Alison Carper suggests that one function of the invisible friend is to serve ‘as an imaginary witness to our internal experience.'” In writing terms, that is a narrator, a character, the beginning of the story. 

I leave you with these ideas as way to remember why you are creative. There was a time when you didn’t write, but you may have been seeing your imaginary friends and developing complicated and (to you) important plots and stories. Then you started to write and you began to write them down on paper. Maybe you lost some of the raw magical spirit of your imagination, but you didn’t lose the instinct to be creative and refine the empathy and emotions in the characters you’ve created.

Challenge: I suggest that any writer who has the time, should write a letter to their imaginary friends, and tell them things they might like to know. Maybe they know all about you and you want to talk about their relationship. Maybe you want to catch them up on all the ways they inspired you. Or maybe you just miss them and want to tell them that. 

P.S. If you write a letter and want to share, please email them to me. I would love to see what happens in those moments between the there and now. ronsamulwriter@gmail.com 

Two Land In My Mind by Sophie Elmhirst from Aeon Magazine 2013

Busch, Akiko. How to Disappear: Notes on Invisibility in a Time of Transparency. Penguin Books, 2019.

Significant Details: Proof

One of the best comments I received about my book (The Staff) was – how did you come up with all of this? It is all in the details. The book was placed in a natural setting, so the mood of the environment was always the mood that spilled out around the characters. And while I always felt like their lives were simple, it was always enough to make the world oppressive and remote. That being said, I often tell writers that details are important, but significant details are critical. But what does that mean? Significant detail, according Writing Fiction by Burroway, is important to detailing. We know that details can be concrete (appealing to the five senses) but it also has to convey the value of idea or judgement.

Details not only give us textual minutiae of the moment, but it also gives us proof. John Gardner calls it “proofs” in that, in the end according Burroway, “we cannot help believing that the story he tells us must be true.” We, as writers, must create description that balances the tactile five senses and may even create a sense of judgement or idea, but not at the expense of experiencing it as a reader. We can allude to the idea that the last falling leaves of fall is the end of the season and that something is in change, but we don’t want to say – “the falling leaves meant this was the end and death was coming.” The whole point to the narrative is to get readers to feel it, not be told that this is the judgement of the writer.

In fiction writing workshops, it feels like “show, don’t tell” is a popular catchphrase, but how does it relate to significant details. Clearly, we can shape the way writers create immersion by way of being thoughtful and craft a good description so that it is meaningful but experiential all in the arc of a few paragraphs. This is a refined version of “show, don’t tell” and by creating a tactile element and nudging it toward an idea or a judgement without overtly explaining it, means a lot. Janet Burroway makes an interesting point, the writer isn’t there to make generalized, overt judgement – the reader will do that when they understand the subtle nature of your concrete and significant detail. That garden must be important because we spent so much time there. That house is why they are all back and that is clear because we know it so well. It shifts perspective in terms of the heavy lifting doesn’t all belong to the writer — but the work and the detailing should be specific and meaningful enough for readers to generalize into themes, ideas, plot, and character.

The final step for significant detailing, like dialogue, is when the significant detailing then becomes a motivation or an agent of change for the character, turning the character’s motivation or plot line into something more. We see this all the time in mysteries. We found this thing and it changes everything. Discovery and clues are what often drive these kind of stories. So, it is important to think about how details can shift stories. Many of my stories are about finding something. Typically, it isn’t a physical thing – or it is but it isn’t the intention of the story. I think that ties into the idea that we all “want something” which ties into a character’s desire and when we find things or search for things — we are trying to fill that desire. Of course, when other people are looking for different things and have different desires that is the classic set up for conflict. And that is when the stories start to become meaningful and filled with tension and purpose.

It is meaningful and important for us to practice description. But not just in basic terms, but in how – through our details we can shift something from a thing to a human quality or category that is meaningful to the reader. What it looks like (feels, smells, tastes, sounds) is good practice, but that has to be connected to some kind of motivation or desire based in the realm of the character and how they are living their lives. The first part is exposition in many ways, the second element is where the creative writing becomes nuanced and crafted. Push too hard and it feels like you are telling. Don’t push enough and it feels like a simple description. Balance it and you have a sense of time and place with the detailing.

Our role as writers is to immerse the reader in an experience that will accumulate with experiences, it is important to not tell the reader what you are doing, but show them. I know that is something we hear a lot, but in terms of significant details, it is another place where we can practice immersion and allow the reader to interact with those great moments of realization, those moments where we are not sitting on our couches reading, but we are there smelling the wood smoke and the tension we create with our great prose.

I think it is interesting that John Gardner called significant details “proof” because all those small and tangible moments make these stories live in our imagination and provide the proof that all this possible if we can see it, taste, smell, and reach out and touch it. That is a significant part of our accumulative storytelling.

Note: All of the cited or mentioned material mentioned in this article is from Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway. Read this book. She is the definitive guide to understand the tools and elements of fiction. There are plenty of great books about writing and specific titles around specific elements. But overall, Janet Burroway is the comprehensive methodology that I prefer as a writer.

Let’s Talk: putting your dialogue to work

My characters are just place holders in my writing until they actually open their mouths and speak. Then they come to life. That is why dialogue should be doing some heavy lifting in your novels. Dialogue is the best action that can be given to a character. Their ability to speak can bring to life a sense of who they are, what they are saying, and why they are saying it. But it doesn’t take a lot of telling to make that happen. Dialogue reveals once you start writing it. And when you begin to really develop good dialogue, it can change the way you see the writing.

There is a lot of focus on writing convincing main characters that may live on through a series. And while we spend time with the characters, what they look like and how they function, eventually, they will need to speak. But creating a character is far from using a D&D profile sheet and creating whatever makes sense in the moment. Characters often develop with the writing process, and they sometimes bend the story to their emerging will. Their conflict and desire (as Janet Burroway clearly defines it), can shift and create opportunities in the story that will change the fundamental scope of how you see the story and a characters role in it. It doesn’t until they speak.

Dialogue isn’t just about talking and making conversations, it is about action and this is probably the most important use of dialogue in a novel. In the book Writing Fiction: a guide to narrative craft by Janet Burroway, she discusses the concept of dialogue as action. She explains, “Speech characterizes in a way that is different from appearance, because speech represents an effort, mainly voluntary, to externalize the internal and to manifest not merely taste or preference but also deliberated thought. Like fiction itself, human dialogue attempts to marry logical to emotion”(45). Dialogue should be working for you on multiple levels. It can reveal a characters manner or impulse, it can reveal their needs and desires, it can show their apprehension to talk at all. But the most important element that dialogue can do is create action. “Dialogue is action when it contains the possibility of change. If in doubt, ask yourself: Can this conversation between characters really change anything?” This is where you can weaponize your dialogue from chatter to action and make it feel like when the characters speak, something is coming. That intensity and foreshadow is where the characters move from chatter to important and meaningful advances in the telling of the story.

It is important to value planning and vision when it comes to your writing, but I don’t think there is enough value placed in the flexible act of writing itself. Some pragmatist just rolled their eyes. Writers should listen to the characters speak. Shifts and changes in what they say and do are important to creating credibility, vision, and putting the reader into a state of active listening. This will lead to important dialogue and action points along well crafted interactions with characters.

Controlling dialogue and the way characters speak is important to understand the character, but it is also an opportunity to affect the story. In writing a story about a mother-in law, I wrote about her coming to the house staying with her children. It wasn’t until she finally got to a story about her husband that story broke open and began moving. As a writer, there is no better revelation than writing dialogue that shifts everything into place. Sometimes dialogue is meant to give the reader what is expected, i.e. this is the part where she is going to tell him she loves him. But sometimes, just a turn of phrase or an unexpected line will ignite action and story. Often is can’t be planned. It has to be developed through the story process and the developing understanding you have between your characters.

In the television show Atlanta (FX), Darius is by far the character who tosses off dialogue that challenges the other dynamics. Every time he says something, it changes the balance of things. Writing unexpected dialog isn’t just about opportunity or humor, but it is giving the reader something to think on, something to watch for. Don’t get me wrong, plotting and allowing for the audience to understand and predict some of the plot is valuable in buying in for reader. But sometimes, it is the dialogue that sets something into motion that a reader didn’t see coming.

Technical elements of dialogue are skills we develop and copy. How dialogue looks and work is important. But what is more important is getting the exchange down. Sometimes, it is better to forget all the formatting and write out dialogue like a play that is simple and concise. Then you can add format back into the traditional narrative that you are creating. When two people are speaking, the tags with names and attribution should be minimal. It get complicated when more people are involved. Practice and look for examples in book you admire. I prefer indenting dialogue when shifting speakers, but some writers prefer to embed their narrative into longer paragraphs. That is a matter of preference and vision for the sake of the writer. Lastly, I think it is important to discuss the outliers in dialogue. Cormac McCarthy doesn’t use quotes and other standard formatting elements, but the reader can understand the conversation once the reader understands the system has changed. Faulkner and others have mastered dialects but that can be tricky, forced, and offensive. Sometimes, it is best to suggest and then leave it alone. I also think in historical context, simplified or neutral language is better. Using contraction in the 1700’s just doesn’t sound right. Historical fiction is about being neutral with language. And if you aren’t sure what the voices should sounds like, look to the masters to see how they handled the speaking voices of history.

There is so much to think about as you begin your first draft, and like actors it isn’t a bad idea to get them talking early and try some scenes in your journal to see if they can open up a bit and share some of the dialogue created insights that can be captured when your characters start talking openly in your writing. It is often the defining moment between telling a story to the reader, and showing them something meaningful, important, and connective.


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