The Connection Between Creatives and their Invisible Friends
Ever have an imaginary friend? What do you recall the most about them? When did they disappear? We know the concept of having an invisible friend is common and often a novelty of childhood. But I am interested in how those experiences shape the writers of the world now. Is it a shift from invisible friends to characters in a novel? Or is this more of a shift from an open imaginary vision of childhood into a maturity that turns to the page to hide these relationships? Or is there something to the type of person that can hurdle real and imaginative lines to incorporate these personas as avenues to creativity? In the book How to Disappear: Notes on invisibility in a time of transparency by Akikko Busch discusses the idea of what to make of “invisible friends” of childhood and why they often seem to disconnect from our lives and become memories. This idea resonates.
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. The loss of childhood and the disappearance of imaginary friends likely go hand-in-hand, and has to be a difficult time for kids. It might even be one of their first betrayals about how the world works. When do we stop believing that life can be imaginative and fluid between the mind and reality? And what happens after that crisis of thinking?
An imaginary friend is the ability for children to create a seamless and focused narrative that is shifting all the time. A child always have imaginary people with them, helping them, guiding them. 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 Lands In My Mind that 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 create 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? 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 people hang on and still think about that presence 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.
What does imaginary friends say about children? There are two positions on this idea. The first being 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, or creating 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 desire. Writers know and trust their imagination and value the insight it gave them when they were young. Grounding imagination in details like where are the envelopes in my imaginary friend’s house, might just come naturally to someone who sees it so clearly in their mind. It is a simple exercise, but it shows the granular ability of creativity to adapt and build things in the mind. Perhaps creatives meditate or find time to have those internal moments. 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 envelope, 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 bigger pictures. And this creative and imaginary world can be refined into something like art. And that is a 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 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. For writers who value their internal experience as much as I do, this concept is an overwhelming revelation. Haven’t we all been longing for a witness to our imagination?
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.
Busch, Akiko. How to Disappear: Notes on Invisibility in a Time of Transparency. Penguin Books, 2019.
Ron Samul is a New England writer and creative writing mentor.