Thursday, May 10, 2012

Where Are the Wild Things? In the Writer's Mind

Renowned children's author and illustrator Maurice Sendak, best known for Where the Wild Things Are, died the other day. I was inspired to post by something he said about imagination:

I believe there is no part of our lives, our adult as well as child life, when we're not fantasizing, but we prefer to relegate fantasy to children, as though it were some tomfoolery only fit for the immature minds of the young. Children do live in fantasy and reality; they move back and forth very easily in a way we no longer remember how to do.

This lifelong, pervasive engagement in fantasy is particularly characteristic of those of us with "writer's minds." It is with some shame that I admit I have never written so much as a complete short story (not after elementary school, anyway). But I do think I have the mind of a fiction writer, if not the ambition or talent. Since I was about ten years old, there has not been a time in my life that I have not had characters dancing in my head, that I haven't tried to wrestle them into some sort of narrative that would be worth writing down. (It almost never is, at least not to me, and so I do not write.)

Sometimes my characters go away for a while, when I'm too busy thinking about other things, or dreaming of other things, to take care of them. But when they come back, or when I am reminded of them, I fall in love with them again. I remember how much I need them, how much they, and the fragments of their stories, add to my inner life. I have never believed that such fantasy is "tomfoolery," though there are few people with whom I would discuss "the characters in my head," and perhaps no one I would tell about the most secret of them, the flat ones I use mostly to work out my own issues.

Why do I need my characters so? Why does it comfort me to "hear" them talking? (This may sound crazy, but it isn't!) Why do I get a little thrill every time I form the outlines of a new one? One reason: I have largely been a rule-follower throughout my life. (Perhaps this is one reason that I am now a copyeditor.) But in my head? There, to paraphrase T.S. Eliot, I feel free. There are no fences on thought, and no consequences for letting my imagination run like a horse. That beautiful contradiction--true freedom and safety in a single place--is impossible anywhere but in the mind.

Those of us with rich fantasy lives and rule-following outer lives believe that the best place for the "wild things" of life is in our own heads. We imagine what we, or our characters, would do if we met these things, fell into them, pursued them. We engage with them while keeping our real selves safe. (A valid question, though: can one really write anything of worth if one always turns away from the wild things? Maybe not. Maybe that is why I do not write fiction.)

In one sense, it does not matter whether we give voice to our wild things by telling others our stories, or whether we are happy to let our characters live their whole lives in silence. Allowing ourselves to fantasize is its own reward. Not only is it fun, it helps us work on ourselves, on our lives, without having to open the door to creatures we are not ready to confront.

Our characters, even if they are not much like us, become our surrogates. We use them to rehearse our battles, and they don't mind. In fact, they may become deeper, stronger, more real with use. (And even if they don't, they have served their purpose.) Sometimes those characters are little boys in wolf suits. Sometimes they are monsters. Sometimes their clashes are, we know, too trite for the page, but we continue to set them against each other in our minds, because the conflict, the fantasy, means something to us. And sometimes that's enough reason for us to keep dreaming.