Children are not ashamed of playing make-believe. If it weren’t for those telling them it’s not socially acceptable to shamelessly promote their imaginations, they might never stop.
Maybe in some ways, we still never really do.
Writers make up stories. This is obvious — every story you have ever told has had some element of fiction added to it even if it was unnoticeably small. It is the job of a writer to pretend.
So the problem many adults have who dive into writing for the first time — or the first time in a long time, depending — is that they often have to re-train themselves to become comfortable with playing pretend.
For a long time, I was afraid to take my stories to their highest potential because I didn’t want them to be “too big.” Through no real fault of anyone in particular, I grew up being told to tone down my ideas, my excitement, my curiosity. “That will never happen” is a phrase I heard so often I just learned to believe it.
But the more I got into writing stories — it seemed to be the only thing I was ever good at, and became the only career path anyone ever encouraged me to pursue — the more I realized that if I wanted to be the best writer I could be, I needed to trust my imagination and set my big ideas free.
This started off small, of course. But that, it turns out, is how we grow.
It has always amazed me that the human brain often keeps such small and seemingly insignificant memories intact for so many years after they are stored.
Like the first time I accidentally started learning how to write by learning how “not” to write.
The phrase “hanging ten” or Hang Ten is the name of a surfing move — the one where you stand on the board and “hang” all your toes over the edge.
At nine years old, I did not know this. I knew nothing of surfing moves, having grown up in the Midwest where, sadly, there are no oceans on which to surf. But what I did know is there was a movie coming out called Lilo & Stitch, and all the commercials said something about the characters “hanging ten” in Hawaii. Or something like that.
I remember very clearly sitting on the floor of my best friend’s bedroom, writing a “pretend” news article for our “pretend” school newspaper (I guess we weren’t interested in pretending to be princesses or pirates or anything relatively exciting at that point, which is honestly a shame). I was writing about Lilo & Stitch, and used “hanging ten” in my copy even though I had no idea what it meant.
This is the first time I remember ever using a phrase in something I was writing that I would never have used on my own without having read or heard it first.
I was mimicking a piece of writing that interested me — not plagiarising, because you don’t typically know at nine years old that you aren’t supposed to copy other people’s words and I wasn’t planning on publishing a fake news article in a real magazine or anything. I recognized that these words were good enough to be part of the advertising copy for a Disney movie and so I used them because I wanted my words to be good, too.
You grow out of mimicry as a writer the more you compose. You learn how to put things into your own words, how to communicate thoughts and ideas in your own style and voice.
It’s odd even still for me to think that I began learning this lesson because I was pretending to be a journalist of some kind. I’m not sure that was what I wanted to be at the time. But in my best friend’s room stretched out on her pink carpet on a Saturday afternoon, that’s what I was.
Something you never grow out of as a writer, though — something you never SHOULD grow out of, anyway — is your need to play pretend. To imagine different worlds, to create characters you’ve never met before, to travel to places you have never seen and do all the things you have yet to do in the real world.
Some of the most fulfilling and most engaging stories I have ever written have been the ones that forced me to step out of reality and allow myself to experience things I hadn’t yet or never would. And I’m not just talking about fantasy or science-fiction worlds. I’m talking about real-life scenarios that we are sometimes too afraid or too embarrassed to admit we’re thinking about … until they become parts of our books, anyway.
When I was nine, I suppose I pretended to be a “real” writer because I wasn’t sure I ever would be. And I would go on to write stories about writers in the coming years both as a way to explore that possible career path and because, as you can probably guess, I just really enjoyed writing about writing.
We can’t be afraid to stop letting our imaginations roam free. You can’t write good stories if you only stick with what you know (within reason). You can’t take potential readers on a journey if you are not first willing to go on one yourself. Anything you might fear about letting your dreams run wild is nothing compared to the wonder you will experience when you realize what you and your mind are capable of when you dare to create unapologetically. When you decide that you will not let a boundary or an expectation or the possibility of judgment stand in your way.
Imagining is how we learn, and grow, and thrive. It is the foundation upon which we must build every story we begin to tell. We shouldn’t deprive ourselves of that simply because a loved one or a teacher or society tells us we should.
Give yourself the freedom to be creative. Start small and work your way up. And no matter what you do, keep moving forward. Keep writing. Even if you start by modeling your sentences after ones you read. Everyone starts somewhere. Believe you can and will grow. Believe in your ideas. Believe you can do this, no matter what.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.