I'm well aware of the risk that I may come across as a pompous ass with this post. If that's the case.... here's my 'Sorry Face' in advance. My intentions were (and are) good, I promise.
I learned from an early age that bad stuff happens in life. Lots of it, frequently and with no apparent limits on a person’s designated quota.
I learned that the Universal Karma System employed by life was pretty screwed up too. That no, being a generally good person and trying to Do the Right Thing didn't grant you automatic immunity from any crap flung by the Angry Monkey of Fate, in the same way that being a monumental asshat didn't cause crap to rain down from the heavens on said asshat in a constant shitstorm until they mended their ways. Life’s default setting when it came to crap-flinging was Bloody Unfair. And nothing could or would change that system, so best suck it up and deal with it while you’re still a kid, so you've got plenty of practice under your belt by the time you finally bungee-jump-with-a-blindfold-on into adulthood.
Imaginary life doesn't work like that.
Pick up any storybook and the life inside it is neat. Ordered. Controlled, from start to finish, by the author. In a good story everything works the way it’s supposed to, following the plan until it ties up into an ending that makes sense and feels right. The good people might get some Angry-Monkey-crap over them for a while, but in the end it’ll all be washed away, while the asshat drowns in the shitstorm of his own making. Balance is restored, karma dispensed, hugs all round. The way real life should work, but all too often doesn't.
For an insecure kid living in polite chaos as a failure-in-training, falling brain-first into an imaginary world where the rules were fair, consistent and easy to understand was the perfect escape.
Sometimes the imaginary worlds I visited were created by other writers, sometimes they were mine. In either case, I would spend hours in my room becoming explorer, anthropologist and detective all in one as I walked the same path and chewed the fat with the heroes in story-worlds. Like me, they were flawed and suffered for their screw-ups, but I always felt that, if I could hang out with them for a while, maybe some of the strengths and special talents that helped them win through in the end might eventually rub off on me.
But more than that, those imaginary worlds changed the way I looked at my own, real world. Sometimes this was because they were so different – but more often because of the subtle ways they were the same. The imaginary worlds often had the same problems, injustices and cruelties as the real one – but unlike the real world, they weren't smothered by a chorus of indifference. The story didn't just crash and burn against the wall of “well that’s just life isn't it? Life sucks and it’s pointless being a crybaby about it, so let’s all think about puppies instead.”
The characters in story-worlds could – and did - talk about that stuff. They were proactive, pointing to the shit that was wrong with a big neon arrow and saying “this needs fixing, and we’re gonna need help with it so come on, get on board!” And those who did were immediately members of Team Good, while those who didn't had, by their very inaction, signed up to Team Evil and the inevitable shitstorm-retribution finale. The good people of imaginary worlds want them to be better, fairer places - for everyone, not just the career-driven, or the religiously pious, or the financially astute, or the ones with beautiful faces and ‘perfect’ bodies…
Of course, if they tried that malarkey in the real world they’d get squashed pretty damn quick; there are enough non-imaginary people on this blue and green ball of rock who like the status quo just as it is, thank you very much. Those people don’t like being made to feel it’s wrong that there are people starving in third-world countries while their leaders expand their rocket-launcher collection, because putting that right would mean having to pay more for their exotic grocery items. They don’t want to hear scientists shouting at them on telly that the ice-caps are melting thanks to global warming, because that messes with their dream of owning a gas-guzzling people-tank. And they hate being told that belittling someone just because they’re somehow ‘different’ from the idealised, cookie-cutter norm is unfair, because – well jeez, how are they supposed to feel good about themselves if they've got no-one to feel superior to?
It’s all about the self-interest, you see. In today’s world we’re all taught to look after number one first – “everything someone else gets might mean less for me…” So ironically, the more we see and learn about people suffering in every corner of the globe, the less we empathise with them. Instead, we fear. Fear that, but for random luck and geography, that could’ve been us. What if we ended up in their situation? No, mustn’t think that. Stick our fingers in our ears, la la la…
And that’s where the imaginary worlds from stories come in. The people who’ll shut their ears to reasoned debate and impassioned pleas will dive into story worlds without fear or hostility, because they always know where the exit is should the going get tough. It’s a safe space – for them and that world’s creator - to exchange messages that get drowned out by the Darwinian white noise of the real world. Messages that just might get through, hidden like the jam in the tasty doughnut…
That’s why I write.
The words of insignificant little me won't change the world, but they’re my way of adding my tiny ant-squeak to the chorus of other tiny writer-ants, pointing out what’s wrong and how maybe we should try and fix that. I can whisper in the ears of others who are afraid they’re a failure and say “no you’re not. You’re okay, and it’s okay to be you.”
Because everyone needs an imaginary friend sometimes. Even writers. Hell, especially writers.