let's pretend

My brother and I often started our play times together with the words “Let’s pretend,” as in “Let’s pretend we’re evil dentists” or “Let’s pretend we have a chemistry lab” (okay, yes, we were both unmitigated nerds). And off we’d go, creating evil dentistry tools out of LEGO or asking Mom for spices from the kitchen that we’d take into the dark garage and use to concoct foul-smelling brews (I highly recommend curry powder for dramatic affect).

The joys of unabashed “Let’s pretend” sessions needn’t stop after childhood. If you create anything – from a novel to a stir-fry recipe – you start with “Let’s pretend.” Pretending as a conscious and playful process keeps the passageway between conscious and subconscious alive and thrumming, open and more available when you need it. The muse adores pretending.

It doesn’t matter what you play “Let’s pretend” about, but have as much fun as possible so you get accustomed to associating imagination with fun. Just before going to sleep and just after waking up are wonderful times to play “Let’s pretend.” The mind is already loose and flexible and the subconscious is more tangibly present and influential.

You can make up new stories about characters from movies or books (after seeing Brokeback Mountain, I pretended Ennis and Jack hitchhiked to California – a state-wide gated community of tolerance – were admitted as residents, and eventually bought a little ranch in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada). You can change an experience you had from what actually happened to something that would have been a lot more fun. You can imagine parallel universes, alter the laws of physics, ignore time. The opportunities are limitless.

You can also experiment with tuning the mechanism that allows more or less of the subconscious to be in control of what happens. With more subconscious involved, timelines become fuzzy and loop back, scenes change in an instant, and reasoning doesn’t matter as much as senses and feelings. Allowing elements of what you’re imagining to be out of your conscious control trains you to recognize and welcome inspiration. Think of it as building your inspiration-reception muscle.

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In the wee hours of this morning, I lay in bed half-asleep and played “Let’s pretend we got a postcard from our dear friend P.” I imagined what she’d written and what the postcard she’d chosen for us looked like. I imagined myself being so excited to get it that I read it while standing beside the mailbox.

A few days ago (in real life), our mail delivery man rang the doorbell and I rushed down. He handed me a postcard and said something cryptic while pointing to who it was addressed to: “Miss Grace and Mr. T,” which did not match the way our names appear on the label beside our buzzer.

We have issues, this postman and I. For one thing, he obviously pops a handful of amphetamines on his way to work, which makes him fling his arms around a lot, roll his eyes in frustration, and babble impatiently in various languages, none of which seem to be English or German, though I do catch the odd French word now and then.

I told him, in my best German, that the postcard was, indeed, for us. (It was from a good friend of ours who’s been in Chile for months and I was excited to read it.) Before I could thank him, or even turn the card over to look at the picture on the other side, he snatched it out of my hand, waved me off with mutterings, and turned to put the mail into the mailboxes. Fine, I thought, I’ll come down and get it when you’re gone. But when I went back, our mailbox was empty. No matching names, no mail – that’s apparently the rule.

I tell you this story as an example of how playing “Let’s pretend” can definitely and practically affect your writing: I thought of this article as I lay in bed and played “Let’s pretend we got a postcard.”

This morning (in real life), I went down and confronted the postman. I told him again that the postcard had been for us. I was curious to find out what he’d say. He responded with the usual arm-flinging, a shrug, and a clearly enunciated word, a long one I didn’t know. I rushed upstairs, repeating his word over and over so I wouldn’t forget, and looked it up in the dictionary. I suppose he wanted to let me know how irretrievably gone that postcard is by now, because what he’d said was “It’s prehistoric.”

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Let’s pretend … the postman knocks on the garage door – a couple of sharp, rapid knocks. My brother and I recognize that knock. We exchange a meaningful look. I raise the garage door a couple of feet and leave the postman to scramble underneath on his hands and knees. “Do you have any more yet? Is it ready?” he asks, wringing his hands and looking nervously into the shadows.

D stands up from the chemistry equipment on the concrete floor and taps a jam jar as he holds it up to the strip of light beneath the partially open garage door. The orange swirl of the jar’s contents pins the postman’s attention. “Yup,” D says, “here you go.”

The postman lunges for the jar like the addict he is, but before he can grab it, D pulls it back. The postman groans. “What do you want this time,” he asks. We know by now that he’ll pay anything at this point, once he’s caught sight of the stuff. He takes out his wallet and paws through a thick slab of bills.

“We don’t want your money this time,” I say. The postman looks relived and puts his wallet away, but then sees our weird little smiles. “No,” the postman says, backing away (but only a little – he still needs the jar). “Please, no, not again. I’ll give you more. I’ll go to the bank. I’ll take out a loan. Just don’t make me …”

We shake our heads. The postman whimpers. We all wait. D holds out the jar and finally the postman shuffles forward and takes it, clutching it to his chest as I lead him to a corner of the garage where we’ve laid out the newest LEGO dental tools.

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