Yesterday my daughter sat down at the computer to write a letter to Nicodemus, leader of the rat colony in Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (the 1972 Newberry Award-winning children’s novel by Robert C. O’Brien). She asked my husband for help spelling “your house,” but–being no slave to orthographical convention–she freestyled the rest. (She does take pains to enforce the correct spelling of her name. Pity I had to white it out for the internet.) While her spelling of “bcazz” is notably awesome, my favorite phonetic rendering is “franz” for “friends.”
Yes, Nicodemus is a rat. Who doesn’t actually exist. But what of that? Some of my own closest friendships have been with fictional characters. This was especially true in my adolescence. It would undermine my professional credibility as a teacher of literature if I were to admit which fantasy series supplied my first crush–already I have said too much–but whatever those books may have lacked in artistry, they did have compelling characters. I could protest that my first crush was about as reciprocal as your average adolescent crush, even if the object of my interest wasn’t technically alive. Compare and contrast with my second crush, on an actual human being who lived a mile or so away from me, but nevertheless was just as oblivious of my existence as the boy from the novel. Both relationships were entirely fictitious, even if one involved an actual person. I relished the conversations and other dynamic scenarios that went running through my head every day for what must have been years with those two boys. I was never alone.
As a grown-up, I still have a lot of conversations with people who are not actually present. I prefer to think of them as “hypothetical” rather than “imaginary” conversations, these days. Now, too, I prefer the hypothetical company of real people to fictional characters. Sometimes I find myself spending time with my actual friends when they’re not actually present. Occasionally I relish the hypothetical companionship of people I’ve never met; I imbue them with the most congenial personalities that I can possibly square with the known facts of their existence. If I can’t imagine that they have congenial personalities, we don’t hypothetically hang out. I have no interest in A-list celebrities (It’s just utterly implausible. I cannot willingly suspend my disbelief that we would find anything interesting to talk about.) though I have, on occasion, taken obscure authors for my hypothetical friends. In a couple of these cases, I have followed up by writing non-hypothetical letters to the actual authors, and actual epistolary friendships have resulted. Once, the obscure author was actually as congenial as I had hypothesized.
Imaginary friendships are not a complete waste of time. Hypothetical conversations are exercises in empathy–or at least good rhetorical practice, as they force you to imagine what your audience might say, or what reaction you might elicit if you spoke what was on your mind. They’re also exercises in revision, a crucial life skill; you can have the same hypothetical conversation over and over again until you get bored of it and drop it, or until you have made it a conversation worth actually having. In fact, for any virtues I might possess as a writer or a companionable human-being, a share of the credit must go to my hypothetical friendships.
Hypothetical friends are no substitute for actual friends. Though they’re never so lost in their own interior dialogues that they fail to register what you were saying, they also can’t surprise you with their responses, or initiate conversations and share ideas beyond your ken. And even when real friends are less congenial than hypothetical ones, real hugs trump hypothetical hugs every time.
I hope my daughter will have many imaginary friends, and some real friends too. And when Nicodemus fails to actually respond to her letter, I hope she will realize that she can follow the tunnels beneath the rosebush to his house all by herself. When she makes the journey–if she hasn’t already–Nicodemus and all her new “franz” will be waiting for her.