Head Count

At a recent book reading and signing I was asked an interesting question.
Frankly, any question is welcome over the sea of bemused faces that usually follow my reading an extract from my latest novel, which makes no sense out of context and has been expunged of all swearing, violence and spoilers. At that point someone asking the way to the loo is a godsend.
But I digress.
On this occasion there was not only a question but a thoughtful one: as a child had I had imaginary friends?
I conceded that indeed I had, being an only child, had many.
The rather fearsome, elderly lady asking – for these are generally the ones with the cojones to pipe up at such gatherings. And bedraggled CW teachers. But they often just want to moan about the state of the publishing industry, how it no longer nurtures true artistic talent.
But back to my lady. It was her theory that all writers had imaginary friends as children. That most lived in entirely imaginary worlds.
As adults, she advanced, we continue until we eventually feel compelled to write it all down.
Now I can’t speak for others, but this struck a chord with me.
As a kid I had armies of exciting playmates freewheeling in my head.
Together we would form pop groups, perform complicated dance routines and travel to far flung lands. Frequently Hawaii.
From time to time, we would quarrel and I’d be forced to cull. Fortunately, there were infinite new friends waiting to be born, all more engaging than their fallen comrades.
By puberty, when many put away childish things, I simply swapped my pigtailed pals for handsome teenaged boys. Naturally, all were desperate to kiss me.
By adulthood, I knew that my little dream world wasn’t entirely normal, that I should engage more fully with ‘real life’, make actual human friends.
I vowed to spend more time with flesh and blood friends. The trouble is of course, those friends are rarely vampires, or the President of the United States. They don’t suggest trips to the Amazon or invent ways to travel through time.
A few years ago, well into my thirties, a new ‘friend’ appeared. She was energetic, outspoken and funny. Great company. She lived in a world where terrible things happened to innocent people and her knack was to set everything right.
One night, I can’t say why, I wrote her down on a piece of A4. The rest is history.
Three books later, Lilly and I are still enjoying our time together. She gets stronger and deeper, more herself with every day. Sometimes we argue, sometimes I’m sick of her. But mostly we have fun.
Of course she’d better not get too cocky or I might throw her under a train.


Administrator said...

LOL, Helen! - and welcome to Strictly Writing, it's great to have you on board!

I didn't have imaginary friends, but each night in bed i would play out a story - me in the starring role - and each story would last about a week and then i'd move onto the next one. Usually starring some hunk as well:) This continued right up until my late 30s when i started writing. Then it stopped, only reoccurring very occasionally.

so, clearly all those years, my imagination was crying out to be taken seriously.

I'm very interested to hear what other people say - great post!

Julie P said...

Hi, Helen! I'm the same as Samantha. I didn't have imaginary friends as a child but I always had my head in a book or would make up little stories in my head.

If I'd had a bad day I'd re run it in my head but make it better!

Julie xx

Sheila Norton said...

Oh yes, Helen - I do identify with this! I had good 'real' friends, but in my imaginary world, I was always somehow the dominant one, the one with all the ideas for exciting adventures - the one all the others followed. So unlike reality!! I also projected myself into my favourite stories and gave myself lead roles in those in my imagination!

Caroline Green said...

Genuine LOL there at 'forced to cull'!

I didn't have an imaginary friend but would play very long and satisfying games with my dolls, in which all sorts of dramas occurred. I think that idea of living inside your imagination is part of the fun of writing. Great post and welcome on board.

Susannah Rickards said...

Great post Helen. I had one. His name was Bobba. He looked like a skin head complete with bovver boots but was extremely gentle and kind when my mum burned the cakes. He was around for years. I even knew where he lived with his nan in a house hidden in a deep valley near ours.

Oddly enough it's never occurred to me to create a new best friend in a character. That is such a brilliant idea. I'm going to try it.


Roderic Vincent said...

Hi Helen, welcome to Strictly. I laughed too at the cull.

No imaginary or other friends, but I used to share a room with my little brother and every night I told him stories about "Barn Boy" who lived in the farm next door to us unbeknown to the farmer.

Susie Nott-Bower said...

Lovely post, Helen!
My imaginary friends lived in the books I constantly read. So I was blessed with hundreds of 'em. All the characters in the Narnia books, the Secret Seven, the inhabitants of The Faraway Tree, the children in Swallows and Amazons...
I think perhaps I still seek just that thing when I read now - a good, interesting friend I can really relate with, who is a bit more courageous and extravert than myself.

Katy said...

Very funny. I love the idea of throwing unwanted imaginary folk under a train, Helen :-)

Personally, I lived very happily with a colony of glass-helmeted space cats for many years in primary school. As their representative on earth, my main task was the rescuing of small injured animals - especially birds, mice and kidnapped kittens. I now own a dog and no longer commune with the space cats, although I did bring home an injured seagull last week. :-)

Caroline R said...

Great post, Helen, and welcome to Strictly!

I didn't have any imaginary friends but I used to narrate my whole life in my head. So I'd be sitting at school staring out of the window, thinking "I sat at the desk, the drone of the teacher's voice fading into the background as I gazed at the clouds that billowed high above the playing field..."

I did that all the time, sometimes in the third person. I was a real saddo then, not like now.

Anonymous said...

Great post. Like Caroline I used to narrate my life to myself - so solipsistic - but my imaginary friends were mostly pets (we didn't have any real ones): horses to ride, dogs to walk with, falcons to fly. And, specially with hist fic, now I get to do those things on the page...

Dorothy Sayers said that for the rest of her life, long after she'd stopped writing Peter Wimsey novels, he was still present to her, offering opinions about what she was doing, and she would ask his advice.

And lovely to see you on the Strictly team.

menopausaloldbag (MOB) said...

One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. What’s in a name eh? If you were having a bad time and talked about your imaginary friends you would be hauled away for urgent treatment for schizophrenia or multiple personality disorder. But, claim to be a writer and, hell, of course it’s okay – it’s all part of the creative process! Yes I fantasised the way that you talk about and used to escape from my real life. I do the same now, just hadn’t put it into this context. Thanks for an interesting post – it has made me think on a bit and given me a bit of a laugh. But if I start talking about this stuff and get carted off by the geezers in white coats, I want a reference from you to back me up, okay?!

Claire Moss said...

This is great! I finally realise that I'm not weird - or if I am then at least all you lot are too... I had tons of imaginary friends as a kid and was constantly making up stories, which I know a lot of kids do. But this is the first time I've found someone else who admits to narrating their life - thanks Caroline R! I also have a tendency to do it in the style of whatever book I'm reading at the time. When people who don't write ask me how I come up with characters, or how I decide what happens to them I try to explain to them - it's easy because in my head this has already happened, and these people are real.

Geraldine Ryan said...

Laughed out loud at the "culling" and throwing uppity characters under a train, too, Helen! I used to "be" characters in the books I loved. I was Jo in Little Women and Lynette Darwin in "The Swish of the Curtain" and Veronica in the Sadler's Wells' series.

Welcome to the club, Helen!

Paula Williams said...

I didn't have imaginary friends, Helen, because I had a houseful of people around me all the time, having five siblings (four of them of the male, noisy, annoying kind plus their even more annoying and noisy mates who used to hang around) and the only place I found any peace was inside my own head.
However, like Geri, I fantasised about being Jo in Little Women. I found the idea of growing up in a family of girls particularly appealing and used to wish that my Mum would somehow magically turn into Marmee overnight! She never did, bless her, and could administer a stinging flick of a teatowel across the back of bare legs, which Mrs March would never do. But I dreamed.

Fionnuala said...

Helen, I loved this post and roard at the culling point! Even turned down the tennis to read it properly. Welcome to the SW crew and yes I too had a few imaginary friends. By puberty, little girls became gorgeous guys. One guy in my head had a name and some people actually thought he was real? David Cassidy I think I called him....
I also had imaginary plays like Sam. I'm going to stop now as I sound troubled even to me!

Gillian McDade said...

Welcome Helen! I'm an only child too, so I had plenty of imaginary friends. Nothing wrong in admitting it! :) With the lack of siblings I also pretended the Famous Five were my brothers and sisters :) :)

Helen Black said...

Thanks for the warm welcome guys.
I'm so glad that there are so many fellow imagineers out there.
And not just friends, but pets too!!!
In my mind I live a far more exciting life than the reality. For instance, that guy who shouted at me at the traffic lights today...he's dust.

Anonymous said...

I love this blog. First, there all those fellow OCD window counters and now this. I spent most of my childhood, until I left home at 18 in fact, with some sort of parallel story and a bunch of imaginary characters running alongside.

Loved the culling too, and also the helmeted space cats !!!!

Administrator said...

Finally we've all found a place where we can tell the truth about our lives...:):)

Kath said...

I never had imaginary friends but used to wander round our fairly large garden telling myself stories. These sometimes featured my four favourite teachers whom I would imagine going on outings together and arguing with each other, a bit like the sisters in Little Women. Later on I had a reel-to-reel tape recorder and used to record plays with sound effects, taking all the parts myself because no-one else ever wanted to do it. The sound effects were the best bits - open the window for an outdoor scene (and remember to take the ticking clock out of the room), blow into the mike eerily for the wind howling round the haunted house...

Lydia said...

Thank God for SW I say! At least here we can feel like we're not out of step with the rest of humanity! I also had imaginary friends who miraculously turned male at puberty - David Cassidy - I'm with you Fionnuala! Aren't we lucy to be able to live out these characters in our work and (hopefully!) get paid for it?! I "hear" my characters talking to me sometimes and I know you lot won't think that makes me whackier than Jacko!

Rosy T said...

Just popping in - late as usual - to say what an enjoyable post this was, Helen!

Anonymous said...

Hi Helen, I not only had imaginary friends but an imaginary dog named Digger. One day my aunt drove me and Digger over to my grandparents' for a visit. Although they lived on a farm, my grandmother did not allow animals in the house, including Digger. I guess it runs in the family. Thanks for the post! -ae