#42: Writing with a Playful Heart

This week’s column is a little different. The question I want to address is one that author Isabel Yap posted on Twitter. The thread starts here. (And it has lots of great replies, so you should go read it.)

I want to talk a little bit about regaining a playful heart when it comes to writing. I know I need this but I’m not sure how.

It’s on my mind because one of my first pro-published stories got retweeted today. It came out on Tor.com in 2013. It’s probably the story I’m still best known for. I love that story and I’m proud of it and I’m still not over Victo Ngai’s art for it. But after that story came out, or maybe even from the time it was accepted, in addition to exhilaration, I started to feel…pressure.

Pressure to write a good story. Pressure to write a story I can sell. Pressure to write something people will want to retweet. Pressure to try and land work in a good market. Pressure to maybe, juuuuust maybe, write something worthy of award nominations. Pressure to do better than the old me. Pressure to be consistent. Pressure to have a social media presence. Pressure to be someone.

When I wrote that story, I had barely any conception of markets or the sff short fiction/fandom world at large. I was at Clarion and I had this somewhat snicker-y thought of ‘I want to write a story about onsen and maybe a sexy kappa. Hehe.’ I obviously wanted to write a good story. I had some things I wanted to say about grief, and aging, and love in weird forms. But that’s all I really wanted. I wanted to write a beautiful story. I wanted my classmates and teachers to like it. That would be enough.

Some part of me was probably thinking it would be nice to publish it, but that wasn’t my concern. How could it be? I hadn’t even written it yet. So writing it, and failing at the writing of it, was still hard, but it was fun. I fumbled and I tossed around ideas and the sentences started to click. It was playing with a story. It was great.

I’m not sure I remember how to be that way. I’m not sure how to get back there. It’s hard for me to play with writing; the me who writes now feels like I need to be thinking ahead. It’s still fun. I still love it. But the burden is real, sometimes prohibitive.

How do people get out of this? How do people get back to that state of just playing? Is it possible to regain it/trick yourself into it?

My eyes lit up when I saw this because it is so important to be able to play with one’s creative work. And the more your livelihood or identity depends on creative production, the harder that gets.

“Play” is often associated with children. We think that children can play because the stakes are low; they can misspell because they aren’t writing for hire, and can scribble because they don’t get social standing or personal satisfaction from being An Artist. But adults hang all sorts of baggage on artistic creation, sometimes voluntarily and sometimes not, and then we lose access to the emotional expression and experimental freedom that made us want to be artists in the first place. Given that narrative, “How do people get back to that state of just playing?” seems like an obvious question. It feels like we had it, we lost it, and we want to regain it.

But I’m always skeptical about “get back to” questions, because time is linear and only moves one way. We can never be children again; children can play so freely in part because they lack autonomy, and I think most of us would not trade our independence—which we fought quite hard for as children, and keenly felt the lack of—to be able to access a childlike creative space. In addition, if you’ve ever watched children play, it’s immediately apparently that their playtime has lots of pressure on it. They play to learn. They play to build skills. They constantly mimic adults and older children. Their play is scientific and analytical and goal-oriented. When they scribble they are more likely to feel frustrated by their inability to control the crayon than to feel exuberantly liberated from cultural constraints on what “real art” is (because they aren’t aware of those constraints in the first place). They take play very very seriously. So the thing we so hungrily want to “get back to” barely existed in the first place.

What Yap describes as “just playing” is playing like an adult. Where children play to develop skills, we give ourselves permission to be unskilled, or to not bother working at the very peak of our skills. Where children play to learn, we move away from the drive for constant learning and improvement. Where children mimic, we seek our unique identities. We think of these qualities in play as childlike, but they are fundamentally adult because they stem from emotions and experiences that children lack. We can’t go back to before we had those emotions and experiences, and shouldn’t try to. Instead, we move forward and find new ways to play, starting from where we are in our adult lives.

Yap’s recollection of writing “A Cup of Salt Tears” at Clarion has many elements of joyful, satisfying play that can be applied more generally:

  • Separate playtime from daily (working) life. I think this is especially crucial for those of us who try to make money with our creative work. Explicit separation or differentiation helps us to escape those financial pressures and makes room for clumsiness, failure, disorder, and other necessary elements of experimentation. There are lots of forms this can take: a physical journey to another place, a block of time set aside, a particular topic, a particular art form, a support group or collaborative relationship, and so on.
  • Create for a specific audience. Creating for someone in particular can help shift our attention away from our own anxieties as well as from broad general pressures to “write well” or “make something that will sell.”
  • Set up or accept constraints. This seems a bit paradoxical, but constraints free us from everything outside their bounds. Given infinite time, we might infinitely refine our work; given two weeks, it’s easier to accept that our work will be imperfect. While we’re writing sonnets, we can let go of our stress around writing novels.
  • Build on a central concept. This gives us a touchstone to return to when we start to flail or hit a wall: “Am I being true to the concept at the heart of the work?”
  • Allow mess. Commercial work needs to be polished; playful work does not. Write a dozen versions of a single sentence. Make a literal physical mess of an outline with note cards and Post-Its. Write drabbles and doggerel. Leave typos uncorrected. We might even find that we enjoy the messiness, once we let ourselves believe that it’s allowed.
  • Work in the moment. Create work simply to bring it into the world, or as a way of practicing or exploring or enjoying a particular aspect of the act of creation. It may eventually be published or it may live on our hard drives forever or we may print it out just so we can set it on fire; don’t permit that to be relevant right now. “Success” and “goals” and similar concepts don’t exist within the play-space.
  • Draw on strong emotion. Any emotion will do: joy or anger or sorrow or jealousy or whatever it is that you’re feeling in the moment. We can use this emotion to power us past the places where our intellectual assessment says “This isn’t very good” or discouraging neuroses such as anxiety or depression start creeping in.
  • Say “I want.”  Don’t underestimate the power of these two syllables. The biggest obstacle to adult creative play is the awareness of what other people want. They may want us to succeed or to fail (by their definitions, not ours); they may want more of what we’ve made before, or something new and exciting. This is often internalized as “I should” (or “I shouldn’t”). “I want” is the sledgehammer that shatters those obstacles and lets us forge ahead on the path we choose. Why did I go with this protagonist, this artistic medium, this shape or style of work? Because I wanted to. Why aren’t I thinking about commercial concerns? Because I don’t want to. In a playful space, that’s a good enough reason. And this gives us valuable practice for owning our creative choices in work spaces as well, which is vital for those who tend to feel paralyzed by real or imagined external shoulds.

There’s certainly no need to trick yourself into playing this way, nor would a trick really work, because play is rooted in the id and isn’t amenable to the mind games that can fool the ego and superego. What’s needed is planning—starting with that crucial act of separation from daily life—and practice. Creative play is a skill and can be cultivated like a skill. Approach it mindfully, engage in it regularly, and be compassionate with yourself as you learn what feels right to you and brings you joy.

Happy playing!

Cheers,

Story Nurse

This advice is brought to you by my generous patrons on Patreon. Got a writing question? Ask the Story Nurse!

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