In His First Book, Jay Ellis Revisits His Childhood to Gain Self-Discovery

“I believe we all still have this voice inside of us that is yearning for play.”

It’s a wonder that Jay Ellis didn’t write a book sooner. 

The actor, best known for his portrayal of Lawrence in the beloved former HBO series Insecure, vividly retraces his childhood in his first book, Did Everyone Have an Imaginary Friend (or Just Me)? In giving voice to young and adult men who can relate to his “adventures in boyhood,” the collection of essays closely follow Ellis, who was an only child, and the companionship of his imaginary friend, Mikey, who embraced the now-42-year-old through his adolescent years. 

While the 288-page book will surely catch the attention of those wanting a hilarious and illuminating read, it could one day connect to Ellis’ daughter, Nora, who’s soon to be an older sister.

Photo courtesy of Jay Ellis.

“Oh, man! Parenthood. Who knew it would be this?” he tells Sweet July. “I know this is so cliché, but you never really know what you’re capable of until someone comes into your life and kind of looks like you and depends on you. You have to feed them and guide them and help them through this world.” 

Speaking to the “patience, love, understanding, sensitivity and communication” he’s learned in the last four years, he continues, “How I try to express myself and my thoughts and my feelings and my frustrations, have changed so much as I’m helping my daughter navigate those things for herself.”

Before Ellis could put pen to paper on Mikey–who took cross-country summer road trips alongside Ellis to visit family, helped him escape a dangerous movie theater quarrel in the ‘90s, and egged on his crush of a third grade teacher–one of his earliest frustrations was being assigned summer book reports by his mother. Although reading was foundational to him being immersed in reading, as he notes multi-volume series Black Americans of Achievements, it was grueling enough that his immediate family often resettled due to his father, Wendell, being in the Air Force. 
“I had to lug these books around with me everywhere I went to do these book reports, which, it’s embarrassing as a kid that you’ve got to do book reports all summer long,” Ellis says. “But at the same time, I found so much freedom in that because it allowed me to escape the heat. It allowed me to go sit in a corner and if I didn’t want to play with a cousin or a certain group of cousins, whatever, I can go and read a book. There was some escape to that, some freedom to that, I think storytelling in general just provides.” 
Ellis’ affinity for storytelling allowed him to dream up Mikey, a half-Fresh Prince, half-Dwayne Wayne hybrid that represented the older brother figure he wanted for a time. But Ellis affirms that he didn’t necessarily struggle with establishing friendships. As a child who bounced from living arrangements in Austin to Tulsa, there were hardships in maintaining consistent bonds.
Book cover courtesy of Jay Ellis.
“For a very long time, I ran from attachments, I dodged attachments,” he admits. “I think it was because of moving around so much. The only child in me wanted those attachments, so I think that was the internal struggle that I was having, actually wanting the long term friendships but knowing that I’m gonna pick up and move. So it was easier for me to dodge it, and not have to deal with the hurt of that relationship changing when I have to move again.” 
Although fans have gotten accustomed to Ellis playing jovial, lighthearted roles, it may come as a surprise that he encountered troubled behavior as a child, which possibly could have been prevented if he were given creative outlets in his youth. It’s understandable, however, that as Ellis’ parents had him when they were teenagers, they didn’t have the means for ongoing childcare or art-specialized programming. 
“I don’t know if I would have been dropping f-bombs in elementary and preschool, getting kicked out of three preschools and biting kids at preschool,” Ellis hypothesizes about being a creative student. “I don’t know that if I was as creatively fulfilled I would have been doing those things. I do wish that I had those outlets, especially writing, when I was younger.” 
But writing Did Everyone Have an Imaginary Friend (or Just Me)? gave Ellis the space to give truth and a wistful retrospect on his childhood, in which he also questioned inadequate material being taught in education. 
“One of the things I think that I really learned from this book and from this experience is that creativity, imagination and play are so powerful and they lead to freedom. As a child, especially in those school systems back in those days, you’re just kind of forced into like, ‘We learned this. We’re quizzed on this. We test on this, and then we move on to the next thing.’ The creative side of you is not valued or explored, whether that be in art, music or language, those things aren’t explored.” 
To feed his inner child, Ellis regularly takes educational courses, his current lessons being in piano and vocals for nearly a year and a half. “Maybe that thing will never find its way into one of my performances, but I can very comfortably sit in front of a piano right now with sheet music and play pretty much any song you put in front of me, and I can almost be on key,” he jokes. 
“There’s a knowledge base that you’re getting there, a skill set you’re getting there. There’s a relaxation, a stress reliever, and that itch of creativity of imagination and of play is being scratched.” 
Since his parents and grandmother took classes well into their adulthood, Ellis shares that it was due to witnessing his forebears chase knowledge that he still tries to rediscover himself as a student and human. 
“I think one of my biggest fears is that, if I know everything, why am I here?” he says. “There’s so much for us to learn. There’s so much for us to explore about the world, about ourselves, about how we move, how we communicate, how we create, and I just enjoy soaking that up.” 
But for now, especially in preparation for his second child with wife Nina Senicar, Ellis remains in dad mode, as his daughter Nora has adopted her own imaginary friend, Jack. 
“Jack kind of comes and goes. Jack isn’t here every day. To me, when I think of Mikey, I think of Mikey being in my life daily. I don’t think of him not [being] there until he wasn’t there anymore,” Ellis says.
 Nora’s hijinks with Jack have also given Ellis an amusing, adult perspective of the mischief he and Mikey got into. 
“Last night, she had some broccoli on her plate that she didn’t want to eat. And she was like, ‘No, Jack is gonna eat those. He’s upstairs in my room.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, I didn’t know Jack was here,’” Ellis jokes. “Can you call him down to eat this broccoli?’ It’s fun to see that, and also to see the scapegoat. I understand it so much and see it much more clearly because of what she does now.” 
Ellis explains in the book and in conversation that he still has a little more experience to undergo before writing a memoir, but he’s already contemplating a novel on the “universal journey” of coming of age, each decade having its own set of life transformations. In Did Everyone Have an Imaginary Friend (or Just Me)?, Ellis extends flowers to the most precocious version of himself, which he continues to honor. 
“One of the things that I say at the end of the book is that I believe we all still have this voice inside of us that is yearning for play,” Ellis says. “Play can mean so many different things for so many different people, it doesn’t have to mean an imaginary friend, by any means. But I think the creative side of who we are wants us to live in that imagination a little bit.”


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