Some of my earliest memories are of lying in my darkened bedroom, holding my breath and listening for the sound of someone else breathing, or hiding under the covers, sweat sticking my hair to my head, crying for my mum or dad. The curse of an overactive imagination!
Shadows in the corners, shapes cast by moonlight on the walls or across the ceiling, strange sounds I hadn’t noticed before, were all transformed by my imagination into monsters, burglars, murderers, ghosts, vampires. I would lie in bed staring at the shadows until they formed the shape of a face or a huddled, breathing mass and scare myself silly. Of course, as an adult I know that the brain tries to make sense of irregular shapes and tries to find familiarity in them, usually forcing the eye to see human features. As a child though, I was terrified.
‘You have an overactive imagination,’ my parents would say, cautiously screening any telly viewing to make sure I wouldn’t end up having nightmares. ‘No, you can’t watch Agatha Christie. You had bad dreams last time.’
As I learnt to read and write, I found a channel for my overactive imagination – story writing. My parents love to recount the tale of being at parents’ evening when I was about six and the concerned teacher showing them my writing book, which contained a particularly gory story about some pirates. I have no recollection of writing it, but I do remember other stories I wrote at school involving fantastical places, creatures and adventures. My best friend Vicki and I were always the last ones frantically writing up to break time, desperate to finish our stories to ‘The End’.
My overactive imagination was a particular problem in my teenage years. Who hasn’t been at a sleepover where the order of the day (or night) was to watch some horrifically scary film? I’ve watched some pretty scary stuff thanks to peer pressure. During my early twenties I even thought I was starting to tolerate them a bit better. Was I finally toughening up? Not really. When children came along in my mid-twenties, my tolerance dropped again. I found myself plagued at night-time by all the horrific things that could happen to my children. No horror film required. So on the odd occasion when I did watch something frightening, this was doubled. No more scary films for me. My husband and I recently watched ‘Casino’, which was more gritty than scary. An amazing film, phenomenal acting from all the main players, but it was on my mind for days. Bloomin’ overactive imagination!
I have a huge amount of sympathy when my own children are bothered by their imaginations at night, but I can also help them with it. We encourage them to turn their scary dreams around to put them in control of the action. We help them imagine the most amazing sweetshops in the world, riding on a pillow train (my husband’s speciality) or being on holiday at the beach as they fall asleep. We explain that having a good imagination is a positive thing, even when their brains are determined to think scary thoughts. Think of all the amazing stories they can write!
Having an overactive imagination is an essential part of being a writer, I suspect. I’m certain that the more stories I write and the more involved I become in each one, the more overactive my imagination becomes. My writing is also a channel though, exercising and exhausting my imagination; my pencils, notepads and laptop are a treadmill for my mind. So, whilst I do the best to not let my overactive imagination get the better of me, I also revel in it a little.
When our three year old cries in the night and says a ghost is in his room, I try really hard not to freak out when he points and looks over my shoulder into the shadowy corners of his room. I need to be the brave one after all!
When I drive along a pitch black road alone to pick my eldest daughter up from Brownies, I try really hard not to imagine looking in my mirror and seeing an axe murderer lurking over me from the back seat of the car.
When I have to go out to get the washing in at night-time, I try really hard not to play out a ‘Midsomer Murders’ style scenario in my head. ‘Oh, hello! What are you doing here? Arrrghhh!’
At the same time, I store up all these imaginings and rest assured that my imagination, the most essential tool of my trade, is still working just fine.