*Blows dust off this thing and taps microphone* Hello, hello. Testing, 1-2-3.
First, the obvious. It’s been a while. Things have been crazy. 2020 and 2021, amiright?
I’m not going to try to summarize my “years in books” here as I have in the past– suffice to say I read a lot of ‘em, some of which I liked very much indeed. I won’t attempt to give a play-by play of the past several years, but here’s a quick highlight reel for those I don’t have regular contact with: The past couple years included a major career change from teaching to youth library work (with a one-and-a-half-year stint as a professional painter squashed between them), overlapping a long haul in graduate school and a (second) Masters degree completed, (this one in Library and Information Science). My wife and I started a podcast together, then abandoned it for six months. We’re talking about starting it up again soon. We are expecting our second child (a little girl). I’ve written reams of essays and discussion board posts, but precious little fiction. I’ve not been to any conventions. My authorial career (glorified hobby?) has been pretty much on hold. I’ve had a couple short fiction publications of stories that were resting on my hard drive, but haven’t written anything new that’s worth doodley-doo. I’ve not even blogged.
Metablogging is boring, though, so although I’m tempted to say something about hopping back in the saddle blah blah blah, I’d rather just dive right into discussing something that’s on my mind.
My son is three now, and I read to him a lot. I put very little stock into the trendy educational concept of children’s “reading level” (a rant for another day), and I’m far more interested in a book’s quality or its ideas than I am in its difficulty. I firmly believe that stories are the food that our minds and hearts grow on, and I try hard to present him with a balanced diet of fiction and nonfiction, simple picture books and more complex narratives. He is fond of Elephant and Piggy, but equally fond of Robin Hood. He knows the Cat in the Hat and King Arthur, Alice, Aslan, and Winnie the Pooh. If you ask him, he could probably tell you all about Charlotte the spider, Anansi the spider, and the itsy-bitsy spider that climbed up the fabled water spout. He devours stories more-or-less indiscriminately, the simple along with the complex. Listening to him play is one of my greatest joys, as he crafts narratives for his action figures, his cars, even his silverware at mealtime. Cut him, and he bleeds imagination. (Can you tell I’m proud of my boy?)
Naturally, our discussions while reading have involved the veracity of the claims of any given story: George Washington was a real person, for example, while Frosty the Snowman was not, etc. Parents often don’t give kids enough credit about separating make-believe from the real world; very rarely have I known kids to be actively deceived by fiction. “Only in books” has become a kind of catchphrase for him– “Do hippos go to the store?” I’ll ask him while looking at a silly picture. “Only in books,” he’ll respond.
Only in books or movies, only in the games we play or the thoughts we think. Pretend.
And yet, as I listen to my little man making up little stories about little people enacting little dramas in their little Duplo house, I can’t help but think there’s something more significant going on. I caught myself the other day using a common phrase with him, explaining a piece of fantasy. “It’s just pretend.” Then I stopped myself. What do we mean when we say something is “just” pretend?
Obviously we mean, first and foremost, that it is not part of the real world: that it is born of the mind, something that exists only in thought. But that is no small thing, and certainly not to be trivialized too rapidly. As adults we regularly play through possible scenarios in our minds, crafting plans for who we would like to be and what we would like to do as well as horror-shows of potential failures. We act, based upon what we first imagine. The things we play at become reality as we make our choices. Millions of possibilities and impossibilities constantly parade before us. Pretend contains multitudes.
Of course, I am a fantasist so I am unashamedly biased on this subject, but how much more do we enter into this world of pretend through the stories we encounter? Fiction can be as trivial as a Bazooka Joe comic or as weighty as a novel by Dickens or Tolstoy. When we are able to invest ourselves in stories, they can make us laugh or move us to tears, they can anger us, inspire us, comfort us, and, yes, teach us. Starship famously built this city on rock and roll, but our collective culture, as well as our lives as individuals, are built on imagination. Make believe is a powerful thing, my friends. A mighty powerful thing. So why are we so quick to trivialize it, to shove it aside, to *ahem* pretend it’s just for kids? I suggest we stop.
If things are pretend, they are not reality. But pretending shapes how we understand reality and presents us with resources to meet it. The internal life is no less vital than the real world, simply because it doesn’t exist in physical space.
Macbeth, Paul Bunyon, Jo March, Frankenstein, Batman, Huck Finn, Winnie the Pooh, Scrooge, Hercules, Norman Bates, Elisabeth Bennett, King Midas, Princess Lea, and Bilbo Baggins– These characters and myriad others– heroic, cowardly, kind, and monstrous– are gloriously, wonderfully, majestically fictional. They live only in our brains, “only in books,” but that doesn’t make the impact they have on us any less real. They are Pretend with a capital P. Dragons are pretend, but because I want my son to learn to be brave in the real world, I encourage him to slay them, which he does, vigorously, swinging his toy sword around our empty living room. Fairies and vampires and space aliens and talking animals and ghosts and unicorns are pretend, sure, but they are not *just* pretend. In some hard-to-define way, as they take up residence in our imaginations, they become something more.
Nothing is *just* pretend. Let’s lose the ”just.” These things I have been describing are pretend. Full stop.
And that is a good and noble thing to be.