The Lost Art of Pretending: Imagining a Positive American Future

October 23, 2020 § 13 Comments

By Lindsey DeLoach Jones

On a sleepy Sunday afternoon, my daughters, six and eight, play with dolls on our stairs. From the bedroom where I’m folding laundry, I overhear charming caricatures of adult speech. “Hey Barbie,” my younger daughter says in imitation of a male bass, “I can train your puppies to do tricks.” She wiggles Ken, her preferred doll, back and forth as he speaks, that universal doll-gesture for conversation.

I peer around the corner, where tiny plastic dogs are being tossed through a hoop. Lowering her voice to a whisper, my oldest says, “Pretend there’s a dog show tomorrow.” The whispers are stage directions that inspire their play. Without missing a beat, they adjust the scene. When another idea strikes, my daughter whispers again, as though she can keep her exegesis from intruding on the real world they’ve created: “Pretend Barbie is the judge!” After a while, I lose track of how many times they use the word “pretend.”

This, it occurs to me, is something many adults have forgotten how to do.

It’s a truism that, after a certain age, we outgrow our imaginations. We express a mild nostalgia for Sunday afternoons spent on the stairs, making up life as we went along. But what if the loss of imagination is more than a casual, inevitable failure? There’s a darker side to our inability to pretend. No matter how we define the problem currently facing America, we may have lost the ability to see a way out.

For adults living in an increasingly threatening environment, pretending sometimes feels impossible. Others see no reason for pretending, considering it territory for the weak and foolish. For them, pretending equates to the kind of willful ignorance that allows people to shirk responsibility for making things better.

But the kind of pretending I’m talking about isn’t the kind that opposes action. It’s the kind that inspires it.

We need a collective imagination like the one Martin Luther King shared at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. King insisted, “Let us not wallow in the valley of despair… Even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.” At his core, Dr. King was a writer. His dream speech was wishful thinking, yes, but it was backed by action, protest, force of will. One man’s private imagination had untold constructive consequences in the real world. We seem to think we have outgrown this kind of thinking, that hope is for suckers. But to abandon the project of pretending is to abandon any hope for improvement.

Even as a professional storyteller, this kind of imagination is hard for me in our current climate of fear and dread. Reading materials for fueling despair are abundant; harder to find are the voices reminding us that the fear we fuel will eventually become the air we breathe. We need time-outs to intentionally envision what a better America might look like and how we might contribute to that vision.

One thing is certain: finding a way out of a problem isn’t as simple as it is for my kids. On the stairs, a dog breaks her leg leaping over a plastic obstacle and lies on the sidelines for a few seconds. “Pretend her leg is better now,” says the older girl, and Lassie is back on her feet.

There are, of course, a few major differences between the wishful thinking of childhood and the robust moral imagination our society needs now. Children need only speak something into existence, like that miraculously hurt-and-healed dog. Adults must commit sustained effort, keeping our imaginings in front of us at all times. These become the whispered reminders of where we want to go, stage directions for our own theater of democracy. For me this means reading BIPOC authors, joining protests, supporting clear-eyed candidates with integrity. Most of all, as a writer, it means insisting on nuanced understandings and, whenever possible, hope.

But I pretend in other ways, too. I find joy in the play of my children, I read poetry. I plant gardens and cook meals and drink wine on front porches with friends. Sometimes they seem frivolous, but these things remind me of the goodness we’re after. In this country we cloister our artists as though they belong in a category all their own, one without much practical purpose. Instead, we turn to economists and politicians to find a way forward. But as has often been the case throughout history, as our collective problems become less the domain of policymakers and more the domain of the human heart, it may be the storytellers who help us imagine a future for our democracy.


Lindsey DeLoach Jones is a professional writer, editor, and teacher in Greenville, South Carolina. She has a BA and MA in English and an MFA in nonfiction from Seattle Pacific University and has taught literature and fiction writing at Clemson University and served as Editor-in-Chief of Emrys Journal and Edible Upcountry. She co-founded a regional writer’s network called Writeshare. Among other places, her essays have been published in Paste, South Carolina Review, Literary Mama, Relief, and Ruminate. She is the winner of the VanderMey Nonfiction Prize and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

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§ 13 Responses to The Lost Art of Pretending: Imagining a Positive American Future

  • Now this, I appreciate and needed to read. I was heading in the wallowing direction. Your daughters’ pretend play took me back to my own – alone in the wooded lot, full scale Barbie queendom spread out on Grandma’s patchy quilt, hours consumed in dreaming. A beautifully written reminder not to forget to dream of the future we want, we need, and taking the steps, however large or small, to get there. Cheers.

  • This is wonderful, Lindsey. I especially love “the fear we fuel will eventually become the air we breathe.” I do believe we’ll come out of this current mess stronger. Wounded, but aware of it, and therefore able to heal.

  • Thank you, Linsey, and the editors for their timing, because I feel we all need our “robust moral imagination.”

  • Michael Lewis says:

    Thanks so much for this wonderful essay, Lindsey. It couldn’t have come at a better time. Well done.

  • Lovely, Lindsey. Art reframes the vision and action. Your reminder of “stage directions” brought me back to the child world of possibility—possibility that needs to be re-integrated into healing actions. Thanks for the story—and hopeful attitude.

  • […] on Brevity‘s blog, Lindsey DeLoach Jones illustrates “The Lost Art of Pretending: Imagining a Positive American Future” with her daughters’ play. Only by imagining what is possible, can we work toward a positive […]

  • Beautiful, Lindsey. Creative thinking will help us all!

  • kenkemptv says:

    I think it possible as we get into our golden age we might regress into our childhood. Maybe it is playing with grandchildren that triggers this regression.

  • Thought-provoking.
    A child’s world that is fixable with “pretend” sounds idyllic. I agree that there’s a lot of negativity out there. However, I also believe that raw, honest pieces can unlock our creativity. Maybe even more so than the positive, nice, light things. If you make people believe there is no problem, they will not try to fix anything.
    I really liked how you validated writers as people who can help humanity walk into a new chapter.

  • Karen says:

    This is beautiful. As a child psychologist I join my patients in their pretend world and together we face and overcome all sorts of huge obstacles. Lovely that you bring that idea in to our adult awareness.

  • Carolyn Swed says:

    Lindsey, thank you for this. Your words of wisdom are such timely and compassionate reminders of how we rediscover, and nurture, our soul, and that of our country. So true that we need art now, more than ever. The solution, our future, lies in our hearts as much as our minds; how appropriate that children, whose futures are at stake here, should serve to guide us back to that deceptively simple truth. Thank you for giving words to that which I have been feeling, but hadn’t yet found a way to say.

  • Love this, and it couldn’t be more timely. On social media and even among my activist buddies we sometimes slide into gloom-and-doomery that works like porn. I’m especially struck by your observation that “the fear we fuel eventually becomes the air we breathe.” So very true!

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