A word on play.
A serious word on play.
I write this as one who just wrote a craft book. Which might be defined as a lot of thinking about writing: how it happens, why it happens, how to do it, why do it. When I grew up in the early Pleistocene era, there were only a handful of writing craft books. Now there are literally thousands. I’m not sure what more, if anything, needs to be said about the act of writing.
Except one thing.
The thing about craft books, as much as I like to read and write them, is that all writers now seem to have a game plan, a process, an outlining technique, special software, apps, pings on their phones, data tracking and mood tracking and dietary tracking, dashboards and charts and spreadsheets. A plethora of motivational writing quotes. And more.
To think we used to tell stories around a fire.
After finishing my craft book, I thought about all of this, and I began to think about what my next writing project would be, and I tweeted something to fulfill my self-promotional obligations for the book I just published (All the Comfort Sin Can Provide, available for purchase with just a simple click), and I updated my writing website with some links, and in the midst of all of this, my heart constricted in an uncomfortable way, and in that moment I realized how unplayful I had inadvertently become. In life and writing, but especially when it comes to writing. It really has become a job for me. Or too much of a job. Too much of an endeavor, a goal, a checklist, a to-do, a must-do.
A “writing project” sounds like something you do at work, after all. It doesn’t sound like something you do in a sandbox or on a playground. At one time, it was something I didn’t do with a pen. That’s because everything I did with a pen was fun. Please take a moment and think of all of the metaphors you can conjure for a pen—as in it’s a rocket ship that takes you to other worlds, a dance partner, a magician, a hall of mirrors, a telescope, a roller coaster, and more (I bet you have better ones). A pen was my primary vehicle to life back when I first started writing as a young child who just liked to imagine stories, who didn’t really know what the word “project” meant if you can imagine that.
That’s because my pen (and me by implication) was playful.
We’ve arrived at the stage in human history (let’s call it the “Productivoscene era”) where something like play is distrusted. It’s good for kids in preschool. It’s good for adults on the weekends (after they’ve taken care of the yard, shopped for groceries, and hit their cardio goals). It’s good as a creative warm-up. It’s good for team building and bonding. But it’s not something that is at the true center of any “project.” Because that’s not the definition of a project.
Play can’t be tracked and charted. It doesn’t fit into that new novel outlining software you just bought (so it might not be part of writing?). Even though every creator knows its value and espouses taking time for it, it’s exactly that: something we now take time for. That sounds very adult, doesn’t it—to take time, make time, for play.
Most adults didn’t seem very happy to me as a kid, and they don’t seem very happy to me as an adult. What’s the one thing that happens when kids change into adults (other than growing a lot more hair on their bodies)? Play. Or an absence of play. Adults don’t really know how to play. It’s strangely a “skill” they’ve lost.
Somebody should write a craft book on this. This should be a new writing project. Or not.
Here’s what I think of when I think of play—other than it’s fun.
When you’re not working your imagination to fuel your project with words on the page, your imagination is actually this thing that’s made up of love and generosity. Your imagination wants to conjure and frolic and share. It wants to meet others and hear their stories and … play with them.
Playfulness likes to be unplanned, without rules, without limits, which is why recess has always been a flawed concept. Play shouldn’t exist in strictures, but flow through every stage of the school day or the novel-writing day or, yes, the project day. Play is fundamentally instinctual, and even though we tend to distrust instinct in this Productivoscene era (perhaps because there’s not an app to measure instinct), I like to think of how many of my best thoughts, decisions, and actions were actually purely instinctual. Or, rather, all of my best thoughts, decisions, and actions. I’ve never conjured the poetry of a story with any planning tool or craft book.
Play relies on uncertainty—it relies on an open-endedness of life. It doesn’t have a technique or a craft. You shouldn’t work at play. You have to play just for the sake of play (otherwise it’s not truly play). Play isn’t a means to an end, but a beginning to a beginning.
Play shouldn’t be dismissed as frivolous, as a questionable use of time, with no truly important real-world applications. We shouldn’t view our creative processes as something to organize and make more efficient—as if creativity is a business process.
What if we conceived of our words not as something to serve our various projects but as something to serve play? What if the point of our writing was play itself?What if we place our trust in uncertainty and live in an open state of curiosity? What if we write for fun, write to feed our imaginations, write to revel in the childlike wonder of being elsewhere.
Wait a minute. Let us pause there.
One definition of adulthood is the constant desire to be elsewhere—to dream of life in the future or where you can move to now for a simpler, less hectic life. I don’t know how this pairs with an increased amount of bodily hair growth, but I think it relates to a malaise that is all too common for the adult species in the Productivoscene era. The adult’s pervasive desire to be elsewhere is a desire to escape so that we can … yes, play again.
We all want to play. That’s the funny thing. But we don’t have to go elsewhere to do it. We can do it now. In our living room. In our cubicle. Maybe even with our new novel outlining software.
We can go to recess now and decide that this time it’s not going to end.
Grant Faulkner is the Executive Director of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and the co-founder of 100 Word Story. He’s published Pep Talks for Writers: 52 Insights and Actions to Boost Your Creative Mojo; Brave the Page, a teen writing guide; Fissures, a collection of 100-word stories; and Nothing Short of 100:Selected Tales from 100 Word Story. His stories have appeared in dozens of literary magazines, including Tin House, The Southwest Review, and The Gettysburg Review, as well as in anthologies such as Best Small Fictions and Norton’s New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction. His essays on creativity have been published in The New York Times, Poets & Writers, LitHub, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer. He also co-hosts Write-minded, a weekly podcast on writing and publishing.
His books can be found here: https://bookshop.org/lists/books-by-grant-faulkner