The Writer and the Whale: An Overactive Imagination

After Cadillac and I got back from our trip, I regaled the kids with tall tales about Cadillac. My kids’ motto, like the X-Files, is, “I WANT to Believe.” They love hearing stories and sometimes believe them, even if they are far-fetched. And they often add onto them, spinning them into Paul Bunyan-Babe the Blue Ox-esque levels of exaggeration. I told them that Daddy drove the car at 110 mph through San Francisco, sending it airborne but landing safely. Daddy ate all the dumplings in Chinatown and then he was still hungry, so he ate all the chickens hanging in the windows. They still talk about how Daddy fought the zombies in NYC (largely thanks to their Monster atlas, which had a world map of monster origin locales, and seemed to stick Zombies squarely in the NYC area for some reason).

With this photo, I told them that it was in Daddy’s way, so he picked it up and threw it into the bay. Little Girl in particular seemed to really really want to think this was true, but of course she knew it wasn’t. “Were the people in San Francisco mad when he threw the anchor in?” she asked.


It made me think about my imagination when I was little.

Like a lot of kids, I had a crazy imagination, but mine was overpowering at times. I had trouble with Halloween, because everything seemed so real to me– kids in masks and makeup made me cry. Forget about the Haunted House– in 1st grade I fell down in the mild one at school, in the strobe light room, and just lay there until the vampire girl helped me up; and I remember feeling shocked, just shocked, that she was in costume and wasn’t going to hurt me. In the ’70s there were for some reason a bunch of movies about demonic possession and the devil in your house (along the lines of the Omen, but these were on television during the 70s so I don’t know what they were) and my family for some reason let me watch these movies with them, and I literally had nightmares for a decade about Satan coming to steal my soul and demons lurking in the house, with their red eyes peeking through the windows.

And I believed what people told me to imagine– around Christmas one year, I remember standing in the kitchen talking to my dad about what I wanted for Christmas one year when I was small, and he said, “Oh no, Santa’s going to bring you a lump of coal!” and I said, “No, he’s not,” but my father persisted, saying, “Yes he is, that’s all you’re going to get,” until I believed him for real and erupted into tears, prompting my mom to step in and put a stop to it like my dad was an older brother or something.

When I was maybe three, my parents took us to Disneyland, and we went over to the Storybook Land ride. To get in, you have to ride a raft through Monstro’s mouth. I’d found Pinocchio to be absolutely terrifying so of course I was wary of the whale.

“It’s not real,” my parents assured me.

But then I saw Monstro’s eye roll.

“No!!!” I screamed. I was certain that my parents and brother were suckers. Why didn’t they see that they were being tricked?

My dad stayed back with me while my mom and brother went on the ride. “It’s fine,” my mother said. “We’ll show you.” They waved merrily at me. I sobbed, sure that they would both be eaten. Disneyland was a horrifying place and Monstro was clever in his tricks.

The Disney employee and my dad said, “It’s fine, it’s not real,” and I just thought, “You fools, why do I see what you cannot?” I stood there crying on the docks until my mom and brother arrived, and I thought, “Well, he didn’t get you THIS TIME, but if *I* go I’m toast!”

And then I stood on the dock and quoted Descartes.

Whatever I have accepted until now as most true has come to me through my senses. But occasionally I have found that they have deceived me, and it is unwise to trust completely those who have deceived us even once

Well, I would have if I’d known about it.

And of course, since I’m a writer, having an overactive imagination is now really considered a Good Thing. I imagine scenarios and stories for passing strangers, endless What-Ifs, conversations that don’t take place. Once I narrated them aloud to Cadillac and his response was first to laugh at what I came up with and then said, “All that is going on in your head? No wonder you have trouble sleeping!” And my response was, “What? You DON’T?” But, this imagination thing has been true for nearly every writer I’ve met. We’ve got a crazy monkey in our heads, running wild. I guess the trick is taming the monkey, teaching it how to perform tricks instead of doing what it wants.

And as a parent, I think practicing tall tales are going to turn all the kids into Mark Twain, making my writing dynasty complete.

Published by Margaret Dilloway

Middle grade and women's fiction novelist. FIVE THINGS ABOUT AVA ANDREWS, (Balzer + Bray 2020); SUMMER OF A THOUSAND PIES. MOMOTARO: Xander and the Lost Island of Monsters (Disney Hyperion); TALE OF THE WARRIOR GEISHA and SISTERS OF HEART AND SNOW, out now from Putnam Books. HOW TO BE AN AMERICAN HOUSEWIFE was a finalist for the John Gardner fiction award. THE CARE AND HANDLING OF ROSES WITH THORNS is the 2013 Literary Tastes Best Women's Fiction Pick for the American Library Association. Mother of three children, wife to one, slave to a cat, and caretaker of the best overgrown teddy bear on Earth, Gatsby the Goldendoodle.

3 thoughts on “The Writer and the Whale: An Overactive Imagination

  1. Very funny. I have monkey mind too and everyone wonders where I get all the stuff going on in my head. Don’t know. It’s just there. It’s what makes or breaks us as writers, I think.
    I had a lot of fears when I was growing up. Now, our grandkids love to watch scary movies – I don’t let them when they are here – then they’re afraid to go to sleep. And these are Disney movies! Go figure. Enjoyed this.

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