Story Hospital

#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 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:

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!


Story Nurse

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