How Play Forms the Foundation of My Writing, Part I

Here’s what I believe: If, during the course of a day, I can only do one writing-related activity, that activity should be play. On any given day, I could draft new material, edit or revise one of the drafts I’ve been working on, outline something I’ve written, plan how to organize an idea I have for a piece, do some reading or research for a poem or story or essay. Each of these is a good use of my time; each can help me as a writer. But if I can only do one of thing, it should be play. Why?

Because nothing expresses the love I feel for someone or something as powerfully as play. Nothing cements my regard as much as shutting off all purpose and advantage and gain and simply spending active, pleasurable time in the presence of who or what I love. Play says that at this moment, the joy I share with you matters more than whatever use I might get from doing anything else. It says that I gladly turn over the most precious things I have—my time and my active attention—to the happiness of being with you. In play, I also give up control and will and direction. I open myself up to surprise. I forget about the outcome because the moment with you matters more than any outcome could. And as much as intention eventually informs my finished writing, I also need to learn to practice letting go of intention and outcome when I create.

Given the power of play, its ability to consume me emotionally and physically and psychologically, of course I struggle with it. Ironically, it often takes work for me to give myself over to play. Sometimes I pretend I’m playing when I’m really just tuning out, vegging, watching television, drifting along the electronic waves of the internet, or evening reading an interesting or diverting article. For me the difference between these activities and play lies in the engagement and energy I feel while I’m doing them and the sense of reinvigoration I feel afterward.  When I “pass the time” relaxing, I don’t feel worn out when I’m done, but I generally don’t feel recharged either; it’s more as though I’ve awakened from a nap that didn’t last long enough—or that lasted too long. Part of me wants the time back.

But when I play, my mind and body feel sharper, even if I end up more physically tired. It’s often after engaging in some writing play that I feel most ready to get down to work, and if I can’t do that, I’m frustrated. In a strange way, knowing what feelings may follow play can discourage me from doing it sometimes. That is, I anticipate the energy my playing generates, and I hesitate to get myself cranked up if I won’t then have the opportunity to use that energy. I’ve found, though, I never really waste the energy play produces. If nothing else, I connect more strongly to the person or subject the play has been about; I feel more alive; I have a stronger sense of optimism and possibility; I believe that I’ll be able to deal with problems that seem insurmountable when I haven’t played.

So that’s the role that play serves in my writing life—a fundamental role. In Part II, I’ll writing about what forms my writing play takes.

I’d love to hear from you: Is play a part of your writing life? Why or why not? And what does it look like when you play with language?