When I was a child, I lived and breathed fiction, inventing detailed characters and complex worlds everywhere I turned. In my fiction, I was a ballerina, a mini Indiana Jones or a resistance fighter. I was an only child growing up with a single father, an orphan raising my three siblings, or I was the oldest of seven brothers and sisters with a widowed mother. I lived in the city, worked on a farm, attended elite boarding schools somewhere far from home, or traveled across invented countries in Europe in the midst of a fictitious war.
Immersing in Imaginary Lives
As a curious little girl, I soaked up my father’s fascinating stories about being one of nine children living on a tobacco farm in North Carolina in the ‘50s. His family grew their own food, and he and his siblings played sports with the fruit crops. They raised animals–from barn cats and chickens to mules and cows–as pets or as livestock. His mother cooked from scratch and regularly baked the favorite desserts of each child. And it seemed like there was always someone his age–boy or girl–with whom he could play. I liked to imagine what it would be like growing up in such a big family in the country.
My mother, on the other hand, was raised in the city as the only child of older parents. She had grown up in the unfamiliar-to-me world of classical piano recitals, debutante parties and local beauty pageants. Hearing stories about her more genteel upbringing (at least, in comparison to mine) encouraged me to fantasize about living in privilege, traveling across the country for ski vacations and attending all-girls’ boarding schools in Europe.
In real life, my parents, brothers, and I lived in the mostly white, New England suburbs during the ‘80s. I had never left the country and had only really traveled down south. Yet, I knew from my favorite novels, movies and National Geographic magazines that there were billions of people out there who lived a reality completely unfamiliar to me, in wholly different environments and raised within richly diverse cultures. I loved to fantasize what it would be like to be born into different families in faraway states or exotic countries.
A Girly Girl in A Tomboy World
Growing up with two older brothers, I was widely exposed to the world of boys–climbing trees, going fishing, playing video games and breakdancing. I was a soccer player and gymnast who had more speed, strength and power than the dexterity, balance and elegance possessed by my ballet-dancing or horse-riding characters. Thus, I enjoyed creating protagonists with traits and strengths that were opposite of my own. What–I wondered–might it be like to be a girly girl?
In truth, I got a kick out of watching the WWF Superstars of Wrestling and kung fu films on Saturdays with my brothers, and I enjoyed creating lively scenes with my M.A.S.K. action figures. Yet, I also really loved playing dress-up and re-enacting the dancing, love scenes of favorite films–like The Sound of Music and Dirty Dancing–with my Barbies. Of course, my best, girl friends were happy to play dolls with me when they visited, but they unfortunately didn’t live with me, like my brothers did. While the boys occasionally indulged me in a make-believe session or two, their hearts were never in it as much as I wished; when they entered adolescence, they stopped playing along all together.
My Cabbage Patch Kids were my surrogate children, but I had to invent sisters through the characters I crafted. In my stories, I had a multitude of female siblings–both older ones whom I could ask proper girly questions and younger ones who pestered me for attention because they admired and looked up to me. Sisterhood remains one of the most explored and fascinating territories of my fiction writing to this day.
The childhood wistfulness for sisters perhaps stemmed partly from instinctively sensing that I did, in fact, have those other sibling connections out there somewhere. It was confirmed in early adulthood that I had both an older and younger sister (and brothers), children my father had with women other than my mom. While I knew of the older sister from a very young age, I didn’t understand the concept of having a sibling who lived several states away and whom I’d never met until my early teens. She couldn’t teach me how to properly put on make up or to effortlessly flirt with adolescent boys. So for most of my youth, my distant sister was less real to me than Beezus, the older sister of Ramona in Beverly Cleary’s classic children’s series. While I knew from books and from friends that older sisters could be just as bothersome as having brothers sometimes was, I also observed that they were a key resource for navigating that tempestuous– and sometimes, downright terrible–terrain of female adolescence.
This would have been especially helpful to me, as I was, to quote the fierce songstress Ani DiFranco “the only whatever I am in the room,” with regard to ethnicity, at least. No one else had my skin color or hair or my physique. Make-up colors that looked great on my friends made me look like a clown. The clothing styles that suited wide hips and flat butts did not favor my round but and muscular thighs.
And my hair? Don’t get me started. I was known for my signature braided pigtails until fifth grade, when I announced to my mother that I now wanted to wear my hair down, like all the other girls. Oh, the humiliation I put my poofy locks through trying to mimic the swooping hairstyles of my fellow, female classmates. I had an ‘old school’ mother from the South who would administer straightening perms for me and roll my hair up in curlers so that it would, after an hour under a salon hood dryer, lie smooth. However, it was never bone straight, and it always had the big bounce of the hairdos my mom favored that were popular in the 60s and captured so perfectly in the film Shag. I figured if I had had an older sister, she would have experimented on her own hair enough to discover what flattered ‘girls like us’; and if not, at least we would be riding in the same, outlier boat together.
My loving brothers were generous with advice, but they were popular, star athletes, and their boy realities differed significantly from the more offbeat and bookish female self I had gradually grown into in adolescence. So, I learned about romance from books, and I had my first relationships on the written page. I wrote myself into effortlessly attractive and endearing characters who had meaningful romantic relationships with dreamy boys. I was so convinced of the power of the written word, in fact, that I eventually could only properly communicate with guys about my feelings through writing them letters. And I wrote a lot of flowery, impassioned letters that baffled plenty of oblivious boys.
I also thought I was being generous by rewriting myself as a protagonist who didn’t have to struggle with feeling like she never fully fit in. My heroines were wise, bold and confident in the company of the cool kids. They always knew the right things to say, and, by being themselves, they charmed everyone with their brilliance and beauty. But if, on occasion, they were more like the real me, their blunders were still adorable and delightful. And most had knowing sisters who advised them on dating boys and coached them in looking fabulous. When my female alter egos did look out-of-the-ordinary, it was because they purposely wanted to stand out from the homogeneous crowd.
Throughout my youth, I spent a lot of time and energy in imaginary worlds where an exploration of different realities and identities was not only acceptable, but an admired and treasured pursuit. I honestly believe that having the creative license to try on different hats and follow different storylines through my writing gave me the confidence to ultimately accept both the congruous and contradictory aspects of my self. So, by my mid to late teens, I had developed the courage to more fully embrace being uniquely me–idiosyncrasies and all.
How My Imaginary Lives Helped Me Reinvent Myself
Despite all the effort I exerted in my youth to live and breathe in make-believe worlds for varying lengths of time, I sincerely enjoyed my very real childhood. I admired and respected my amazing parents, who encouraged my passions, supported my pursuits and graced me with unconditional love and plenty of affirmation. I adored my older brothers, who were my earliest allies and cheerleaders, who taught me so much about relating in the world and who introduced me to the incredible passions that filled their lives. I also had a myriad of my own, rewarding hobbies and pastimes that kept me entertained and energized, both alone and in the company of diverse groups of people. I grew close to kids with disparate personalities, some of whom were just buddies for a season, while others became bosom friends I still remain close to today. Most of all, growing up the way that I did showed me how my imagination was something to be thoroughly explored and embraced; doing so would arm me to singularly face any significant challenge that I have encountered in life.
My creativity has nourished and enlivened all vocations and avocations I’ve pursued in adulthood. Being imaginative has equipped me to think outside the box, while shaping an unusual career path that is a better fit for me than a traditional trajectory. Years of reading and writing about other lives, other worlds and other realities have enabled me to truly put myself in someone else’s shoes; nurturing a sincere empathy and compassion for others–and for myself. These qualities are what have enabled me to strengthen and deepen my relationships with others.
Immersing myself in the deep waters of make-believe as a child also gave me the life jackets of hope, resilience and self-assurance as an adult facing the trials of chronic illness. Burgeoning belief in–and love for–self have been incredibly instrumental in my healing journey. Because of all the inner exploration and self-reflection I have done in both my fiction and non-fiction writing, I have learned who I truly am–separate from my physical abilities and health limitations, beyond any surface-level characterizations or restrictive, societal labels.
As a result, I’ve had the amazing opportunity—the great privilege and pleasure, really—to reinvent myself a myriad of times, on paper and in real life. Some of my incarnations have been more ‘successful’ than others, of course, but all have given me the chance to learn new levels of being. I’d like to think that along every plot I carved in my life, I grow into a more nurturing and loving friend, relative and life partner; that with each new story I cultivate, I refine and evolve my character as an observant writer–always, still–and as a constructively engaged citizen of the world.