We Need Our Imaginary Friends

I’ll get around to the imaginary friends in a few lines, but let me explain what put me on the subject by providing a glimpse from a day in my life:

I’m home from work with the worst cold I can ever remember having (or maybe it’s the flu), wondering what it would be like to be able just to take care of myself when I’m sick. Because, of course, my son is also sick, so I’ve been getting food and drink and tissues and otc meds for him. You know, after helping my daughter through the daily crisis that is finding everything she needs to wear or carry to school with her. Also, I have a shoulder injury I’m treating, so I have to make time to ice my shoulder. And I’m trying to overcome my winter blues with one of those special lights, so I have to work in time for sitting by it. Deploying my brilliant multi-tasker abilities, I decide I can do ice pack and SAD light at the same time.

I’m coping. I get my daughter off to school, my son supplied with what he needs, and by 9:00 a.m.,I’m sitting by the SAD light with an ice pack on my shoulder, tissues and cough drops near at hand, when the phone rings. I consider not answering it, but pick up the receiver anyway. I soon realize the Beat poets were right – “First though best thought.” I should have let it ring. It’s the outreach counselor from my daughter’s high school, calling to check in, see how things are going for us, investigate whether we have a family history of schizophrenia…

My daughter is a high school freshman and, like her mom, a writer. She’s working on her second novel. How cool is that? She’s been meeting with a group of other young authors and acting very writerly. She has a muse, whom she has named. He doubles as a protagonist in some of her stories.

I get it. Her writers’ group gets it. He’s her muse. But she made the mistake of being both honest and creative at school. She let them find out about her muse, even calling him by name. The counselor wanted to know if I was aware that my teen has an imaginary friend and how abnormal that is for someone her age. Obviously he didn’t get the difference.

When my daughter was about seven, she asked me if I’d had imaginary friends when I was little. I told her “I still do. Only now I call it writing fiction.” I’ve written one novel (I need to catch up with the whippersnapper) and many short fiction pieces. What am I doing other than committing to paper the lives of the imaginary people in my head?

AL Kennedy has a great article in the Guardian addressing this topic. She says:
“And then there are the people we make up. Yes, should you watch me writing (for what I could only say would be singularly twisted reasons) I may look as if I’m a bit glum: hunting and pecking away and then staring. And I will have no visible accompaniment. Oh, but inside, dear reader – the writer is in minds, under skins, on roads untravelled, anywhere and everywhere and more. The intensity with which a writer can inhabit a character can make good old reality seem a little bit flat without the use of mental discipline and a will to observe. We have more company than some people will ever know.” Read the whole thing; it’s well worth the time.

Writer Ann Marie Gamble has written recently about her muses, including their names and personalities:

The more I think about it, the more I believe most people, of whatever age, have at least one “imaginary friend.”   Dear Diary, Today I made the decision about my college major. To whom are you speaking if you write something like that? Does the piece of paper care? Imaginary friend alert! Ever stand in front of the mirror singing into a hairbrush microphone while the imaginary crowd cheers? Yeah, I thought so. Ever practice a speech beforehand for the imaginary audience that precedes a real one? Mmm hmm. How many people do you know who regularly carry on conversations with loved ones who have died? I know a lot.

I’ve heard some atheists claim that God is an imaginary friend for adults. I’ve heard the same about guardian angels. Some cultures have a widespread belief in animal spirit guides; other people think they don’t exist. For the religious who believe in God or the spirit world, you could turn that on its head and say that the reaching out to a diary, a muse, whatever, is really reaching out for God or the spirits or whatever. From any angle, it seems to me that most of us have a longing, even a need, for the other who isn’t.

Noam Chomsky once said “It is quite possible–overwhelmingly probable, one might guess–that we will always learn more about human life and personality from novels than from scientific psychology.”  I agree with him. Humans use stories to make sense of our lives, always have. Those imaginary people teach us so much.

Author Elizabeth Gilbert gave an excellent talk at TED about creativity. Check out the part where she discusses the ancient Greek and Roman ideas of a genius as a separate entity from the artist. It starts at about the 6:00 mark.

Scientific psychologists who ignore or discount the creative process and the imaginary friends who assist with it, do so at the peril of their own understanding of human nature. As I roll it around in my mind, I find myself more concerned about people who’ve never had imaginary friends. It doesn’t seem normal somehow.

4 comments on “We Need Our Imaginary Friends

  1. Ann Marie says:

    Sometimes I think schools need to go through their curricula and delete the word “creative” wherever it appears.

    Seriously, from a diagnostic perspective, imaginary friends are only a problem if you don’t know they’re imaginary. (And maybe even then they’re only a problem if they’re telling you to do dangerous things. Oy–my parental, hands-on attitude to schizophrenia: that old caution always applies, regardless of mental state, “If your friends told you to jump off a bridge, would you do that too?”)

    Give my regards to Jasper–long may he thrive. My muses haven’t outright been characters in my stories, I thought, but each planning session starts not with “What shall this character be named?” but “Can this character be named Bailey?” Maybe I need to figure out who is Bailey.


    • thedamari says:

      Yes, well, it’s possible her muse has told her to work more on her fiction when the teacher wanted her to graph parabolas instead. But nothing much more radical than that.


  2. rahul says:

    yeah i also have imaginary friend and i am 17 is this normal


    • thedamari says:

      I don’t know if it matters whether it’s “normal.” To me, the relevant question is: Does it hurt anyone?

      An imaginary friend who talks you into doing things you know you shouldn’t, or keeps you from living your life is one thing. An imaginary friend who stimulates your imagination to create stories and adventure scenarios, or helps works through problems by imagining how someone else could solve them – that’s the heart of fiction writing, whether it gets down on paper or not.

      Just my opinion and I’m just one person.


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