One day a few years ago my three-year-old came to me crying, having discovered a tear under her toy bunny’s arm. I suggested we phone Granny (the only person in our extended family who could actually sew), but Charlotte fixed me with urgent wide eyes and told me that we would need Invisible Fred.
A creeping sensation went through me. Who was this Invisible Fred?
I suddenly recalled my own slightly alarming imaginary friends, Ux and Timothy, who appeared at the dinner table one day when I was four years old. Sadly lacking in any moral code, they threw vegetables on the floor at mealtimes and scribbled in my Ladybird books. After a year or so they disappeared as suddenly as they’d arrived.
Children often have a very fluid sense of what is real. They spend hours communing with bits of fluff-filled fabric or acting out scenarios with lumps of plastic. As a child I made sprawling Lego towns inhabited by families of tiny animals, enacting their lives, soap-opera style, over weeks and months. I remember crying for days after leaving my anorak at the beach, worried that it would be cold and lonely.
We know that play is crucial. It forms a central part of early years education, and is used as the basis of countless therapeutic techniques. It helps children to see things from other perspectives – the foundations of empathy. They use it to make sense of themselves and the world around them. With my imaginary friends I was probably experimenting with the idea of what it would be like to be a different, naughtier version of myself.
And yet the education system is designed to make us into adults and prepare us for the world of work. Even young children, at school, are told to ‘stop daydreaming’, to concentrate on the task at hand. As we grow we’re measured and tested and benchmarked. The pressure to conform, academically and socially, is immense. There’s a sense that all this is for our own good – we all need to earn a living and so we need to be sensible, not the sort of person who talks to imaginary people. Or anoraks.
But still, as adults we create imaginary worlds all the time – our anxieties, and our daydreams, are nothing but stories we tell ourselves, stories set in the future, in a parallel reality that we will never actually reach. And sometimes we go further – think of a grieving husband who still talks to the wife he’s lost. Perhaps this is a painful kind of playing, the inhabiting of a different, in-between reality, where the alternative one is too much to bear.
I find it interesting that at around the same time I began to grow out of playing, I began to experience anxiety as a problem, as something that slowed me down and made life feel difficult. I suppressed it enough to do some of the things I wanted to – I did well in my exams, went to university, qualified as a lawyer… attended to the serious business of ‘real life’.
Motherhood stopped that life in its tracks. It was the scariest thing that had ever happened to me. I lived on a knife-edge of fear that something might happen to my baby, or to me; nightmare scenarios that always spiralled towards the worst possible unhappy ending. Anxiety had me well and truly in its grip.
It was my six-year-old self that saved me. While still on maternity leave, I stumbled upon a primary two homework book in which I’d written, “I want to be an author when I grow up”. I felt for this small person who had reached through the years to speak to me in her wobbly, undaunted writing. I started writing because I didn’t want to let her down, with her certainty that she had a voice and stories to tell. Now I see that I was the wobbly one, and she was the one who knew what she was talking about.
Given where I was in my life, it was no surprise that my first novel was about a new mum learning to overcome her anxieties, and coming to terms with her new identity. But in writing I also found my missing link – the ability to play. I did exactly what I’d used to do with my Lego towns - happily sitting down at the end of the day and making my characters act out my stories. I let out the Ux and Timothy spirit that I’d learned to suppress, and let mischievousness into my writing. My characters became as real as my erstwhile imaginary friends, because writing is a way of playing other realities, with ‘what ifs’.
And I discovered that when I was in an intense writing phase – in creative flow – my anxieties didn’t bother me. My old childhood self, the one who knows how to play and to write, also knows how to let me fly above my fears.
I began to look at how my own children worry. Their anxieties – the frightening stories they tell themselves – can be intense but they come and go, like the weather. They don’t get stuck in them. Children naturally explore their fears through play and I believe that when we can’t or don’t play, our fears stop being something we can experiment with, things that teach us about what we might or might not want to do, things that we can leave aside and come back to. They become lead weights that hang around our necks.
Play – or imaginative creativity – does something else to us too. When I told people I was a writer, some of them began to tell me about their secret selves. There was the lawyer at work who gave me a CD of songs he’d written and performed with his band. The mum at the school gate who was applying for Masterchef. The granddad who’d taken up painting. The teacher who’d written a series of children’s stories and never showed them to anyone. These people appeared lit up from the inside as they told me about the things they’d made.
I realised that they were doing the same thing I was, because creativity – whether you’re creating characters in a novel, a complex arrangement of sound waves, or the pattern on a pottery bowl – is bringing something into being that hasn’t been there before. It takes an idea out of your head and makes it into something that others can experience. Like children who learn about empathy through playing, we are taken out of the everyday places where we hide and into a place of connection. It is nothing less than a way into each other’s worlds.
I believe that we need to play, to create, to imagine, as our childhood selves knew how. We need that potent sense that reality can be something mysterious, something beyond our immediate experience. We need it to get out of our stuck places. Out of our loneliness and anxiety and nearer to each other. We need to tell ourselves stories that make sense of the past, and of the place we are now; this point where we stand on the edge of the future. And stories that tell us about that future, and help us to shape it. Play is a kind of thinking that leaves the way open for the unexpected and the transformative.
What of Invisible Fred? It was with some relief, but a little disappointment, that I later realised Charlotte was talking about the ‘invisible thread’ from Granny’s sewing box, which had been used to repair bunny’s previous injury. But the seeds had already been sewn for a new character in my next novel – a sinister imaginary friend for a little boy called Pip. So it seems Invisible Fred was destined for my imaginary world rather than hers. A ghostly bunny-surgeon, a cousin for Ux and Timothy, unnerving and yet sparking with possibility, walking across from one reality into another.