Worldplay and the Writer

Tracy Ryan

What are you able to build with your blocks?
Castles and palaces, temples and docks.
Rain may keep raining, and others go roam,
But I can be happy and building at home.

(Robert Louis Stevenson, “Block City”)

The imaginative nature of the writer’s life suggests intuitively that it’s linked to earlier play in childhood, and of course Freud makes this connection explicit in his famous if inevitably limited essay/speech, “The Creative Writer and Daydreaming” (1907). I say limited because Freud does not develop in it all the ideas he raises, and many of his points are arguable.

Nevertheless, some of them are also food for thought, such as when Freud observes:

We may perhaps say that every child at play behaves like a writer, by creating a world of his own or, to put it more correctly, by imposing a new and more pleasing order on the things that make up his world… Now, the creative writer acts no differently from the child at play: he creates a fantasy world, which he takes very seriously…                                   [trans. David McLintock]

Freud will go on here to assert that, since in his view we never really renounce anything, but simply find a substitute,

so the adolescent too, when he ceases to play, gives up nothing but the link with real objects. Instead of playing, he  now fantasizes, building castles in the air and fashioning what are called daydreams.                                                                                      [trans. David McLintock]

Creative writers then would be those who retain a deliberate link between play and what they do in the “real” world. Setting aside Freud’s further argument about the wish-fulfilment/fantasy nature of creative writing (because this view is perhaps too narrow – literature is so much broader than wish-fulfilment), it’s still worth considering very concrete instances where childhood play and writing come together.

I’m thinking of those writers – and there must be many more than we know of – who as children created whole imaginary worlds, whether shared – like those of the Brontë siblings and, say C. S. Lewis with his brother – or solo, like Hartley Coleridge (son of Samuel Taylor Coleridge) with his Ejuxria…

Hartley Coleridge

When Freud, as quoted above, says that the child at play creates “a world of his own” he is not speaking specifically of such detailed worlds as these, nor indeed of worlds so prolonged (the Brontës and Hartley Coleridge in fact kept their imaginary worlds going on into adulthood, which is apparently unusual).

Through research on this phenomenon since the 1970s, the kind of creation I’m discussing here has been given the coined name of “paracosm”, meaning an imaginary world created in great detail, which may extend to many things other than transient play (most often the play is consistent and ongoing). It may include detailed mapping, histories, stories, poems, songs, illustrations – in some cases even languages and forms of writing.

You can see how this might be connected to the practice of “worldbuilding” in fantasy and science fiction literature – or even, indeed, to the vast social world created by Balzac, about whom I wrote last time, in his Human Comedy, a panoramic set of novels in which the same characters recur with differing emphasis in certain of the works – apparently when he thought of creating such a panorama, Balzac rushed to tell his sister, “I am about to become a genius!” (There’s modesty in that use of the future tense…) But jokes aside, some research does raise the question of the connection between childhood paracosm-play and giftedness.

Gifted or not, paracosm-play certainly represents a high level of commitment and engagement to an idea, a kind of single-mindedness that proliferates, if you like, into multiple-mindedness.

That multiple-mindedness will serve an adult writer well… Freud himself was concerned to account for why, if fictional narrative is egocentric wish-fulfilment lived out vicariously through a “hero” – “his Majesty the Ego”, Freud says – there can be so many books that fracture this into multiple viewpoints:

On the whole the psychological novel no doubt owes its special character chiefly to the tendency of the modern writer to split up his ego, by self-observation, into partial egos and consequently to personify the conflicting currents in his mental life in several heroes.

Some will agree; others will wonder if Freud is not bending the reality of the variety that exists out there in literature to fit his ego-model.

Perhaps – returning to the child – like writing, paracosm-play represents an attempt to deal with existence as a dispersed and non-singular experience; hence too its ability in some cases to be shared with others.

For myself as a writer, paracosms are interesting because I did not create them as a child. I never had imaginary friends either, though two of my sisters had long-term shared ones, and I am sure the creation of such characters is not unrelated to the paracosm.

I did begin to approach something like a paracosm in my teens, in a shared but short-lived “literary experiment” with my older brother, who was an avid reader of science fiction. I was addicted to the writings of the Brontës, and aware from an early age of their paracosm-play and its literature, “printed” on tiny hand-made leaflets that can still be seen today in the Brontë Parsonage Museum, and I am sure this knowledge was an influence. Further, the sense of at least one parallel existence began for me with learning foreign languages in my teens, especially since they were languages not yet connected to people I knew, and therefore belonged only to a world of literature and imagination.

There is an Australian poet, Javant Biarujia, who has created something akin to the paracosmic with his private language or langue close, again evidence of extraordinary persistent and creative devotion to an idea and the “world” it can generate. (If you don’t know about Javant and Taneraic, you can read about it here). Again, this was a phenomenon that began in the creator’s teen years, and was revived later in life after he’d begun to publish poetry in English. He used his language (as I did French in my teens, though it would never have occurred to me to go further and “grow” another language altogether) for secret diary-writing.

The other reason I’ve become interested in paracosm-play is that it dominates our household through the activities of Tim, aged 8, who fills every spare moment with “Connor”, which has expanded into the well-mapped land of “Dawn to Dusk”. This world, entirely of his own instigation, exists in huge piles of character portraits, large maps that float across the dining table and that require every so often another A4 sheet to be taped on as they expand, and one finished novel with a second one plotted out. Plus a few songs.

Tim told me once that he can stop seeing with his literal eyes and, even if his eyes are open, look at what’s happening in Connor. This world imports every conceivable device and creature from various fantasy worlds he knows (those of Rowling, Tolkien and Lewis) but curiously also contains certain wheatbelt towns transmuted from the real region we live in.

As a writer, separate from a parent, if that’s possible, all this fascinates me because it seems so urgent and crucial to his daily existence, as if it’s a way for him to make sense of things, a thinking tool that magnetises every other available tool and integrates them into a functional whole. And he is clearly not alone in this need.

Like many writers, I did write a lot of stories and poems as a child, and made little books for family members, but never with this aspect of holistic integration and comprehensive absorption. Some writers start paracosmically, some don’t – some who never go on to become writers or artists may well have made such worlds in their youth. I am interested to know what your experiences have been in this regard, and about any other writers you know of who had significant paracosms in their youth…

5 thoughts on “Worldplay and the Writer

  1. This reminds me of ‘The jet-propelled couch’. If you haven’t seen it before, you might find it interesting:

    http://www.harpers.org/archive/1954/12/0006789

    I was an only (lonely) child and so inhabited various imaginary worlds in which I played all the parts. They often involved some construction (I built a city that didn’t quite fit under my bed) and I made elaborate costumes for my toys. For instance, an orange cat was dressed as a priest because he had a floppy neck and the cardboard clerical collar held his head up. And there was an ongoing imaginary game at school in which I controlled the plot and even the dialogue of my friends like a megalomaniac

    Also, I had a box of buttons and each button had its own role according to the type of button it was (the gold one with the lion on it was a king). I went on holiday to a caravan park and I showed a kid my button world. As a result, she thought I went to a special school and all the kids at the caravan park gave me head starts in races in the pool

  2. Hi, squib

    Yes, it reminds me too of a couple of Patricia Highsmith books I mentioned in an earlier blog entry — though these are fiction & not case histories.

    One is Edith’s Diary, in which a woman is recording in her diary the life she imagines she is having, while the real life is narrated in the rest of the novel — so she has an actual fictional life and a fictional-fictional life…

    The other is This Sweet Sickness, in which a man so cannot accept rejection from the woman he adores, that he builds a real, furnished house for imaginary living with her, and begins to live a double identity, with a different name in each “life” — until his two worlds start to clash, because in the real world the woman has married someone else.

    I think Highsmith had a strong sense of that sort of splitting and moving into an imaginary realm that she often preferred to reality — and this in turn drives her most interesting fiction.

  3. Interesting post. I recall hearing someone criticise Tolkien once, for being so inwardly focussed that he created not just an entire world but a language for it. Yet, even though i could see the mania involved in his creation, i also felt it enabled him, as a writer of great imagination, to comment on the world we collectively inhabit as well. (Obvious, i know, but a necessary riposte too.)
    For myself, creative writing reflects both a fantasy element to my everyday thinking and an attempt to place shared realities in a metaphorical narrative and imagistic space. Sometimes i wish i had the patience (and the time) to maintain those worlds until they reached the status of parocosm. Most of the time, they become vignettes by comparison; and because of this i love the short story frame.

  4. Geoff, I believe Tolkien started with what would become the Elvish languages rather than with the fictional world of Middle Earth. He was trained as a philologist, a comparative linguist, not a writer or scholar of English literature. At Oxford, his primary teaching revolved around the Anglo-Saxon dialect, on which Sindarin is greatly based. So, yes, he created a language; and why not? He spent all his time thinking about them.

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