Wednesday Writing Prompt: Guests of Imaginary Worlds

“I have to go home, dear,” the woman in the bathrobe told me, as I tried to leave for home myself. “My children are alone there, and I left the iron on.”

I was a nurse’s aide that summer, and the women in question was in the new Alzheimer’s wing where I worked. The children that she thought were home with the iron on were, in fact, grown and living elsewhere. They had put her in the unit, at great expense. But every morning she came to me in tears, and in anguish. “They don’t know how to switch it off! They will be burned in their beds! So little, all in one bed!”

The thinking at the time was that Alzheimer’s patients needed to be grounded in reality. Every room and every hallway had a large calendar that had to be set to the right day. I worked 11-7, and that meant a lot of tearing off of sheets. Patients were told what year it is, where they were, who they are, where their family was. Several times each day some of them learned, afresh, again, that their husband or wife had died, their home was gone, there is no piano or breakfast nook or job to go to any more. It was an attempt to be therapeutic and compassionate, but from where I stood in my white shoes and polyester uniform, it seemed cruel,

“I’ll tell you what,” I said, “I’m getting off work now. I live near you. I can stop by and turn off the iron for you.”

Her face lit up and I’m pretty sure that she was about to hug me. I was sweaty and had some other people’s body fluids on my uniform, but what stopped her was the 7-3 nurse coming in, freshly coiffed and ready to take on the day. “You didn’t leave the iron on. You live here. Your children are grown up!” she said, perhaps more loudly than needed. The woman’s face collapsed, and she withdrew into herself, her bathrobe, and her room.

“I won’t write you up this time, you’re new, but you can’t do that again. We deal with reality here!” the nurse said, reproachfully.

“Some of us do, some of us don’t,” I thought, but I needed the job, so I thanked her and scrambled home.

The new thinking, I’ve been told, is far more compassionate. It allows for “fiblets” and playing along, and psychologist David McPhee, in “Quora,” has gone beyond even that. Someone wrote,” How do I answer my dad with dementia when he talks about his mom and dad being alive? Do I go along with it or tell him they have passed away?” I love Dr. McPhee’s answer:

“Enter into his reality and enjoy it. He doesn’t need to be ‘oriented.’ Thank God the days are gone when people with advanced dementia were tortured by huge calendars and reminder signs and loved ones were urged to ‘orient’ them to some boring current ‘reality.’

If dad spends most of his time in 1959, sit with him. Ask questions he didn’t have time for before. Ask about people long dead, but alive to him, learn, celebrate your heritage. His parents are alive to him. Learn more about your grandparents. If he tells the same story over and over, appreciate it as if it’s music, and you keep coming back to the beautiful refrain.

This isn’t ‘playing along to pacify the old guy,’ this is an opportunity to communicate and treasure memories real but out of time.”

But, that got me thinking of other imaginary worlds into which people have invited me. My sibling had a blanket that everyone in the family referred to as “he.” A student used to give me updates about the wolf in her basement. It was only after a year that I dared to ask, “It is a toy wolf, isn’t it?”

“Of course,” she said, scornfully. “We have a DOG. Our dog would bite a real wolf!”

In literature we sometimes come across the intersection of imaginary and less imaginary worlds. In fiction, Shirley Jackson’s story “Charles” is something every young mother should read. In nonfiction, psychiatrist Robert Mitchell Linder in his book “The Fifty Minute Hour” describes his own growing interest in a patient’s imaginary world, and the fall out. In film, we have “Harvey,” in which a kind eccentric is considered crazy for talking about his friend, a six foot tall rabbit (well, really a pooka), whom others cannot see.

In real life we have less pleasant imaginary world — scammers tell the elderly that their loved ones are in danger, a very concerned individual calls me frequently about my car and computer warranties and is so worried that I haven’t the heart to tell her that I don’t have one. There are men who weave deceptive tales for women and women who spin lives for men when the reality is that the relationship is transactional rather than a lifetime commitment. There used to be prank callers who pretended to be someone else and there are spoof internet accounts. My female friends often get friend requests from men whose pages have photos of themselves shirtless and in uniform and next to expensive cars, but with no friends or contact information.

The prompt: Think of a time when you have encountered someone else’s alternate reality. Write about what you thought was the case, how you discovered the truth, and what the effect of the truth was. In non-fiction, you can write about what really happened. In fiction, you can play the reader, as was done in the movie “Secret Window.” Or you can fictionalize something that happened in your own life when you realized that what someone else — or you –recounted as true was not so. Poets, of course, have it easy (yes, you may laugh at this), as so much of poetry is “Wishes, Lies, and Dreams.” But even in poetry there are clearly scenes where a speaker tells one person something that no one else has experienced. “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” comes to mind — the telling of the tale affects the old man, and hearing it affects the wedding guest. How do you want the narrator to affect your reader? How will the narrator change for having spoken?

Character: Jot some notes about your world builder, and about his or her audience. Does the person know that this world is false? Does the listener know? Are the motives pure or mingled, nefarious or chaste? What is the effect of believing? How does each person involved change?

Setting: Where do people encounter other worlds? This could also make a good craft essay. Would the Pevensie children have encountered Narnia had they not been sent into the country in “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe?”

When you are finished: Take a chance and have it published. Submit it to a periodical or website that you read. Or look on Submittable.com under “Discover” for markets and contests you might otherwise not have considered.

Putting It Together — Wednesday Writing Prompt

When my goddaughter was old enough to ride without a car seat, her family let her celebrate by riding home from church in my car. My car doubles, sometimes, as a purse, so in preparation, I had crammed everything that had been in the back seat into the netting behind the driver’s seat, and she was intrigued and pulled something out. “You have a lot of interesting things here! What’s this? Is it lotion?”

I could see that she was holding a tube, but I couldn’t see what it was. “I don’t remember! What does it say?” I asked.

“I don’t know. I can’t read yet.”

“I forgot! Okay, can you tell me the letters and I can spell it out?”

“Okay. I see an A, and a G, and an E, and a D-E-F….”

“This isn’t working. Why don’t you hand it to me at the red light.”

When we stopped for the red light, she handed me the tube. “Age-defying sun screen.”

“Oh!” I said, “This is what I wear in the sun, so I don’t get wrinkles.”

“Oh! I can use that!” she said. “Sometimes the tips of my fingers wrinkle.”

Putting things together from clues is an imprecise art. What one person infers from what another describes can be the catalyst for wonderful stories. The late writer Vasili Aksyonov used this technique brilliantly in his story “Papa, Slozhi,” “Daddy, Put it Together,” where a young girl spending Saturday with her father spells out words for her father to read, and in the process drops clues about another situation he needs to spell out for himself.

In Aksyonov’s work, the revelation is poignant. Modern cartoonist Nathan Pyle uses the technique humorously, referring to familiar body parts as “flavormuscle” and “mouthstones,” while making universal observations about human troubles.

Mystery writers love problems with letters. On “Columbo” the detective solves a mystery by re-arranging the stencils that a slain millionaire was going to use to paint a word on his boat. In other mysteries, a message is typed with the hands three letters off, and ripped pages with words that are incomplete are a trope.

There are also abecedarian essays and poems.  I don’t really care for these, but sometimes having to use a form makes you realize what you really do want to write. 

Writing Prompt: Letters

Write about someone figuring out what a word really is, and thereby figuring out something bigger.

Examples: A person misreads a word in a friend’s post or note in a way that reveals an underlying fear.

The rest of a word or sign is obscured, and the reader reaches a conclusion that is unfounded and debunked.

Parents spell something in front of their children, and the children conclude the wrong thing from it.

In a letter someone spells a word wrong in a way that changes the meaning, and another person reads the letter and reaches a wrong conclusion. (Example: when I was substitute teaching some young readers kept using the word “pride” out of context. It took me a while to realize they were aiming for “pretty.”)

Play around with the idea, see what you come up with and consider having it published if it’s any good.