The Value of a Life in Fantasy and Fiction
The question on my mind these days — Is it really okay to spend one’s life engrossed in a fantasy world? Is this a valid life?
I have wrestled with this question for most of my life, but recently it has once again come to the forefront of my contemplations as I find myself at an important crossroads in my journey.
I have leaned towards the writing life from a very early age. I won a Young Author’s competition when I was in the fourth grade, and as I worked on my entry I had the encouragement and enthusiasm of my teachers and most of my classmates. My teacher would reward the class for good behavior by promising them time at the end of class for me to read the latest installment of my work. I wrote in private off and on through my teenaged years. When I was 18, I began seriously writing my first full length novel, primarily for my own benefit. I decided since I was always on a quest to find the perfect book to read, the one that did just wanted I wanted it to do with the characters, that I should write that book I wanted to read, and then I would always have it around to read when I was in need of a fix. Then one book lead to another, I sold a couple of short stories, and soon I had plans of a professional writing career.
But I always had harbored certain reservations about whole-heartedly embracing the role of “writer.” There lingered a sense of this being a temporary distraction before I could resume my “real life.” I have struggled with a number of health issues that derailed my more physically ambitious career plans, but for a number of reasons not relevant to this particular writing, I was lead to believe for many years that one day my health might improve, and I would be able to go back to school and do something else. In the meantime, writing was my pacifier.
Writing is also the only thing I feel truly competent to do in a professional capacity. It is the way my mind works, the way I process the world, the only medium through which I have ever felt my genuine voice has been heard by others. It is my offering to which the world best responds.
So, here is my dilemma — I have spent much of my life fighting not to give up on my dreams. Fighting not to let my health challenges win. Fighting not to let my dyslexia win (a challenge which went undiagnosed until my late thirties, further confusing matters). Becoming a part of the literary elite in the traditional sense one expects in academic circles was never really an option for me. As much as I love to read, as a dyslexic I will never read quickly, so I will never have the repertoire and scope of reference of the traditional English lit major. I will also never write with the pace and quantity of product that the industry (or readership) often expects. That, too, has made me feel like an intruder in someone else’s space. And it has been all too easy to get lost in my fantasy life and sate my desires by reading or writing about the things I wished I could have instead of trying to find a way to actually have those things (if such a thing were even possible, which sometimes it is not).
In my very young years, I thought of writers as those who failed (through lack of talent or lack of bravery and determination) to do the “real” job of starring as the actors in films or plays. (This particular ridiculousness has now been well-and-truly erased from my brain, but just bear with me, here). I fully admit I always looked with a bit of disdain upon writers who lived at home with their cats, didn’t exercise, didn’t bother with make-up or fashionable clothes, yet wrote romance novels about glamorous women in fabulous love affairs. It felt like escapism, to me. Like choosing to live vicariously through fantasy, rather than stepping up and doing the work to make one’s dream a reality in this life. I have been judgmental of those who bury themselves in the charm of medieval chivalry or forever pine to be part of the Star Trek universe (bearing in mind, I am a woman who has attended many sci-fi conventions herself and even dressed up a time or two, so I am certainly not exempting myself from such judgment).
Now that I am in my early forties, I have been forced to face a number of harsh realities about what will and will not actually happen in my life, and instead of letting the frustration and disillusionment crush me, I am choosing to actively structure my future to live the life I have to the fullest and experience as much joy and thriving in my next forty years as I can. I also wish to contribute as much as I can.
My romantic life has been a blessed gift I am still unsure what I did to deserve. I met the love of my life when I was 22 years old and not even well enough to leave my parents’ house for more than half an hour. We are now approaching our twentieth anniversary, our son is learning to drive, and we are facing our tenth (and hopefully last, for a long while!) cross-country move.
My question, thus, pertains to my professional fulfillment and my very personal contribution to the wider world.
I am left to ask — Is it okay to live in a fantasy life much of the time? To create worlds in one’s head and write about them for others to share? Without feeling self-indulgent, without feeling like one is copping out. Is this an equally valid life as, say, nursing or building houses for the poor or rescuing poodles? Is it giving up or giving in? Is it pacifying or living vicariously? And, by that, encouraging others to do so? Feeding their fantasy lives with one’s written material and helping others stay in their heads and not present in their lives?
Or is storytelling something more than that? Storytelling is inherent and pervasive within human culture and society. Is storytelling a vital part of life through which humans frame and distill their understanding and appreciation of the human experience, perhaps in ways that “real life” alone does not allow?
Stories bring people together. They awaken and feed imagination and innovation. They serve as cautionary tales and present possibilities of hope.
Is a life carefully balanced between genuine presence with friends, with family, with pets, with children, and constructing and processing fictional worlds in one’s head an admirable and valid goal? (Perhaps other writers can compartmentalize better than I, but if I truly give myself to the writing of a novel, I exist half in that world all the time, no matter what I appear to be doing in the physical realm, until the story is told.)
I am not the first artist to tackle this question. Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story teaches us how very much is at stake if humans cease to indulge and feed the imagination. The film “Labyrinth” teaches us to never forget that the fantastical friends of our childhood are never far away, and that we never stop needing them, no matter how old we grow.
Stories, fandom, films, books, writing — these things have often served as my lifeline. They have taught me as much as any hands-on experience. Part of me just wants to stop fighting the tide and embrace the joy of the writing life. To let go of the expectation of what that means, what I should have read, how fast I should produce words and what type of work I should write. To let my mind free, let myself get lost in the worlds I want to write and just be.
Is that right and is that okay? Is that an equally valid life? Or do we all just convince ourselves that it is?