8 Essential Writing Lessons Journalism Taught Me: Engaging Play

One of my first jobs on the college newspaper at Kansas—The University Daily Kansan—was copyediting. As students in Dr. John Bremner’s editing class, each of us had to do a set number of shifts during the semester. I had written before, all kinds of writing for years, since I elementary school; but I had never edited writing—either mine or anyone else’s—as meticulously as I learned to edit in that class and on that desk.

Don Munday served as copy desk chief. He was an advanced undergraduate in his early 20s, but looked ageless. While he sat in the slot of the U-shaped desk, we were arrayed around him on the outside edge, making our editing marks on sheets of newsprint onto which reporters had typed their stories. Don was droll and very smart, and he had on his desk, facing us, a small statue of the Big Boy, a pudgy figure in checkerboard overalls whose image adorned the JB’s Big Boy restaurants that operated in Kansas at the time, and to whom Don bore an uncanny resemblance.

Day slid into shadow during each shift, the next door newsroom’s typing and buzz growing quieter until it ended altogether as evening progressed. Mainly I remember the fun of bathing our hands in words. I’ve never particularly enjoyed crossword puzzles or Scrabble, but decades later I still miss the challenge of wedging music and sense into a difficult headline space.

We formatted each page of our newspaper six columns across, and when it was time to write a headline Don would give us the count—the amount of space we had to fit the headline into: between one and six columns wide, between one and three lines of text, and the size of the print (the larger the print size the fewer words that would fit per line). The smaller the print size and the more columns of width and lines of depth, the more words would fit into the headline and the easier it was to write. One column headlines were the most difficult.

Early on, I learned that to compose a good head I had to read the entire story, distill its essence in my mind, and begin to play with words. Brevity mattered, but so did sound and sense. What began with something like “University Registrar encourages students to sign up for classes early” had to be whittled down: “Registrar urges early registration.” I discovered the value of play without noticing it. I’d try one word then another, searching for synonyms, trying this verb then that, excising adjectives, collapsing nouns into smaller and smaller words. I started to hear the emotional tone beyond strict meaning that each word carries. We editors played with poems, really, composing our kind of haiku. We’d practice with puns, seeing how far we could go before it became too much, too stylized, to obscure.

A few years later, I copyedited in my first professional newspaper job, and experienced one of my most productive periods of creative writing. Knocking off work at midnight or 1 a.m., still energized, in my basement apartment I’d stand by a tall chest of drawers tapping on the typewriter placed atop it, my mind roiling with the language I had kneaded and massaged for the previous eight hours. In play I’d pry my mind open, breaking and remaking the rules it’s impossible to learn any other way. I came to trust the truth of language to push past the limits others have erected to fence out the innovative. I found that surprise resides in play. Language’s musical echoes get buried in everyday exchanges but uncover themselves in play’s silly sideways illumination, in the infrared or ultraviolet glow just outside the spectrum of normal light.

So I bend words, phrases, sentences, ideas into myriad effects, just to see what happens. Just to see how it sounds this way or that, to see where the emphasis falls when I slide the word left or right, when I slip in the punctuation that punches or for fun flip a different switch. So much of writing is necessarily purposeful and directed, but play is my source, tapping into the deep wells within language and within me from which my writing flows. I freewrite; I brainstorm; I make word clusters; I concept map. I don’t expect the product of this play to see daylight; that isn’t its function. But through it I ready myself for serious writing business.

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?