I have a lot of fun with my imaginary friends, thinking of them as if they’re real, telling my tax deductions about mommy’s imaginary friends and laughing about what they do with Dude, talking about them to other writers who like to talk about what their imaginary friends do, too.
We talk about them as if we have no control over them, as if they’re driving the train. In a review of Stay, reviewer Julie Weight said,
When you read Jovan’s books, you just know these characters are like real people to her. She knows them like she knows her own family. Actually, she knows them better than her own family, since she knows their motives and what they’re thinking. If you get her talking about them, you’ll forget that they are just the imaginary people who live in her head. She makes them real, however and wherever she presents them. And because of that, she also agonizes over their lives – to the point where sometimes it seems like she forgets that she’s the one in charge of their lives! All of this familiarity and love for these people comes out in the writing and the story. Because she believes in them, you will start to believe in them. She writes the characters and the stories so well that you, the reader, will become wrapped up in their lives and care deeply about what is going to happen to them.
Here’s the thing: All that’s true. It’s really the subconscious doing the heavy lifting—we all know this. We let it do its thing and we talk to our imaginary friends and let them dictate their lives to us because we are their scribes, but…
Then they stop talking.
What do you do then?
I didn’t realize that this can get into scary territory until I was talking to another n00bish writer who speaks in the “Character X told me to do this” vernacular. It’s cute. I like knowing I’m not the only crazy person on the planet.
Then I realized… He wasn’t taking any responsibility for the words on the page, and it drew me up sharp. He didn’t know what to do when his characters/subconscious stopped. He didn’t have any confidence in the work of the conscious mind. Worse, he wasn’t sure it was even necessary to employ the conscious mind (i.e., himself) because he had himself convinced he couldn’t write without channeling the imaginary friends and taking their dictation.
My subconscious comes up with some amazing shit. Seriously amazing. Stuff my conscious mind would have had to work for decades to come up with. People are amazed when I say I don’t outline, but I don’t. At least, not in any recognizable fashion and certainly not the way I was taught in fifth grade. (I always had to write the paper first and backward engineer the outline; it was a pain.) Things tie together in ways I don’t know how it happens, and I seem to write by serendipity. It seems automatic.
But then the free-flow stops.
At some point, the writer has to take responsibility for who these people are, what they do, what they say, how the story winds out. It’s all fun and games while the subconscious is doing its thing and the writer can pretend these people are real and are simply giving dictation.
But the subconscious is notoriously unreliable and sporadic. What do you do when it takes a break and you can’t?
You start putting words down on paper.
Conscious words, words you choose and arrange, laboriously.
You take responsibility for those words.
And for all the ones you wrote when you were taking dictation, because it doesn’t matter that nobody knows how the subconscious works, what you wrote is still from you.
There are no imaginary friends.