Is writing child’s play?

playtime

Silk’s Post #151 — I found myself in a playful mood at the keyboard the other day, and suddenly two unbidden questions formed just above my head, like cartoon balloons.

The first was: Why don’t I feel like this more often? The other was: What’s the difference, really, between work and play?

I quickly concluded the first question would be difficult to answer, probably requiring some couch time with a mental health professional. (As it turns out, I now believe I was overly pessimistic about finding the answer, and overly self-centred in thinking my playfulness deficit and longing for more of it is at all extraordinary – but more on that later.)

On the question of the distinction between work and play, I expected to easily find received wisdom with a few clicks. Perhaps there would not be total consensus, but surely such an elemental question would have been deliberately examined thoroughly enough to have been distilled into two or three theoretical camps. Maximum.

But it was not as easy as that.

I found myself at a fork in the road, where the sign marked “play” pointed one way, and the one marked “work” pointed the other. A bit of cyber hiking revealed a lightly explored wilderness between the two camps. It seems “play” occupies a space exclusively populated by children, except in special multi-generational compounds designed for structured activities like drama, sports, or music. On the other hand, the “work” zone is, more or less, an adult gated community.

So, is that the answer, then? Play is for children and work is for adults? This seems very wrong to me. But, as a writer who has been struggling with the balance between the regimented discipline of work and the creative anarchy of imagination, the question feels important. Existential, maybe. It begs a more satisfying answer.

I mean, come on. Two little four-letter words we use every day. You can’t tell me we don’t objectively know what we mean when we say “work” or “play”.

But if there’s a simple definition about the difference between them (and their relationship to each other), I didn’t find it. Is work-play a continuum with varying degrees of combination, like a mixing tap for hot and cold water? Is there one (or more) key differentiator that separates work and play, some litmus test? Is play just practice, a learning strategy, a training ground for a life of work? Is the experience of work or play entirely subjective, all about attitude, all in the eye of the beholder?

There are some enlightened professionals around who are broadening their horizons regarding play – looking beyond childhood development, where it is well-recognized as critically important to development of physical, social, mental, emotional, moral and creative skills. There does appear to be dawning recognition of play as a vital, lifelong companion to work, perhaps in response to the age-old lament “youth is wasted on the young.”

Wouldn’t adults benefit equally from experiencing this effect of play, described in a pamphlet from Play Wales, a national organization for children’s play? …

Play is a spontaneous and active process in which thinking, feeling and doing can flourish; when we play we are freed to be inventive and creative. In play, everything is possible with reality often disregarded and imagination and free-flow thinking taking precedence.

To me, this sounds like the ideal state of mind for a writer. An interesting series of articles by Dr. Peter Gray in Psychology Today (check out “The Value of Play”) suggests these five attributes of play (paraphrased from Gray):

Play is self-chosen and self-directed; players are always free to quit – Play is an expression of freedom. We do it because we want to, not because we have to (or because someone is making us do it).

Play is activity in which means are more valued than ends – What we value most, when we are not playing, are the results of our actions (i.e., meeting a goal, solving a problem, earning a reward), while in play this is reversed: we engage in play primarily for its own sake, even though there may be intrinsic goals within the play activity itself. The corollary (an important one when play is applied to creative pursuits like writing) is that fear of failure is absent or diminished.

Play is guided by mental rules – While play is a freely chosen activity, it is not without shape and form; self-imposed rules are conceived to guide and stimulate choices, problem solving, actions, imagination and (in social play) shared understanding – all of which imbue play with satisfying (but not threatening) challenges.

Play is non-literal, imaginative, marked off in some way from reality – Play is serious yet not serious, real yet not real; it is a work of imagination – a “let’s pretend” fantasy – like a novel that is based on, reflects and experiments with reality, but is fictional.

Play involves an active, alert, but non-stressed frame of mind – Because play demands our active engagement and creativity – but emphasizes process rather than outcome – it challenges and stimulates us in a low-stress manner; play is only possible when we fully focus on the “here and now” without being constantly distracted by the past and future (i.e. goal-oriented pressure to perform, which is a creativity killer).

Gray does note that children are more capable of engaging in pure, 100 percent play than adults, citing his four-year-old son’s ability to stay completely in-character as Superman for days at a time. He suggests that adults more often experience some mix of play (imaginative fantasy) and work (disciplined reality), depending on their activity and attitude. He estimated his work-to-play ratio in writing his blog post as 20/80 – obviously a man who loves to write.

In fact, 20/80 is my new personal goal for work-to-play ratio when I’m writing!

In my December post, 5 more overlooked emotions, I suggested playfulness as an “emotion” to spice up your characters:

This important emotion is too often dismissed as frivolous. Well, it’s not. Maybe it makes you think of puppies and kittens. I believe that a sense of playfulness is the bright face of curiosity (the dark face of curiosity is usually termed “morbid”).

There’s all kinds of serious brain science behind this passion for understanding, but it starts in childhood in the pure form of play. Although psychological research into adult playfulness is apparently in its infancy (“probably because it wasn’t deemed worthy enough,” bemoans University of Zurich psychologist René Proyer), it has been highly correlated to academic performance, active lifestyles, good coping skills, creativity, and attractiveness to members of the opposite sex.

People like playful people … So if you want to make readers love your character a little more, let him be playful. Maybe some of it will rub off on you!

What I discovered when I searched for insights into adult play was that all the good quotes were, without exception, attributed to creative people. Aha! Yet another piece of evidence that life imitates art. For your amusement and contemplation, here are some of the best:

“Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.” (from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer) — Mark Twain

“The true object of all human life is play. Earth is a task garden; heaven is a playground.” — G. K. Chesterton

“The supreme accomplishment is to blur the line between work and play.” — Arnold J. Toynbee

“Men do not quit playing because they grow old; they grow old because they quit playing.” — Oliver Wendell Holmes

“It is a happy talent to know how to play.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

“We are never more fully alive, more completely ourselves, or more deeply engrossed in anything, than when we are at play.” — Charles E. Schaefer

“If you want creative workers, give them enough time to play.” — John Cleese

“Genius is play, and man’s capacity for achieving genius is infinite, and many may achieve genius only through play.” — William Saroyan

“This is the real secret of life – to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realize it is play.” — Alan W. Watts

“Reality leaves a lot to the imagination.” — John Lennon

So, I think I have my answers – or perhaps I should say I’ve found the inspiration I was looking for …

Why don’t I feel playful more often? As with most people whose youth is behind them, life has conspired to turn me into a work-headed adult. Goal-oriented. Realistic. Mostly serious. In the course of “making something of myself” over the decades, I’ve been taught to associate play with relaxation and recreation, not accomplishment and creation. This is a difficult thing to unlearn, as it gets hard-wired in your brain. Yet in the past few years since I’ve been trying to become a writer, I’ve (finally) gained a different perspective.

If I want to write, I need to learn to play again. Focus on the game instead of always the goal. Let fantasy push reality aside sometimes. Make fun of being serious and get serious about making fun. Is this not the most congenial prescription ever? As Br’er Rabbit cried so eloquently, “Please, Br’er Fox, don’t fling me in dat brier-patch.”

What’s the difference, really, between work and play?  The difference between work and play seems to come down to the attitude and perspective you bring to what you do. If you’re fortunate enough to have choices, and especially if you’re creatively inclined, you can turn a good chunk of your life into a playground. How play relates to writing is so obvious, I can’t believe I didn’t really “get it” automatically, but had to pursue the concept and process it in my analytical left brain before the epiphany came.

But even mundane or stressful tasks with seemingly limited opportunities for fun or creativity can be re-cast by a play-full mind. Some lucky people can turn anything into play. Peeling potatoes. Making sales pitches. Caring for a patient. Painting a house. I’m convinced of that now. And it’s an incredibly empowering revelation. Probably should be a religion. Maybe I’ll start one.

 


Note to readers:  Where’s the 5/5/5 box score? It’s a new year and a fresh start, but it’s pretty obvious that I’m just getting some traction on my writing practice again. Getting back up to speed didn’t magically happen when the clock struck midnight on December 31st. My hope is to re-start my weekly progress reports with my next blog post. Stay tuned!

6 thoughts on “Is writing child’s play?

  1. My father, who loathed his job, wanted me to have what he called a “total life,” a line of work that I loved so much I’d want to do it all the time. He probably got it from Toynbee, whom he admired. Now, as I creep up on 70, I believe that it takes more than finding the particular activity that’s right for you. You have to have a special kind of personality to love anything so much that you want to do it all the time.

    I don’t have that kind of personality, and I think few do. There are those who compulsively work round the clock, but, I believe, they’re running away from problems they can’t handle, hiding in an area of competence.

    The thing about child’s play is that it’s developmental. The three year old plays with blocks, or other kids, or fantasizes, and learns things that he’ll need to be a four year old. Adult play is far more complicated, and more difficult to bring about. If you can get into a playful frame of mind you may do some really good writing, but getting into that frame of mind is difficult, as is staying in it. You don’t have the same inclinations as a three year old. It’s far less clear what a fifty year old needs to develop into a good sixty year old. Sorry to piss on your parade.

    • Jerry, you’re right about adult play being more complicated — we have a lot more trouble blocking out the “reality” noise and getting into the flow of play for the sake of play. But I don’t think our “development” needs to (or should) stop — there’s always more to learn. In fact, I think that most of what’s wrong with the world is that people quit trying to “develop” themselves as soon as they think they already “know it all”. Which, if the behaviour of many of our public figures is any indication, is often ridiculously premature.

      I think “play” is not the same as “recreation”. It’s not just all about fun and games. It’s about cultivating imagination and stretching the mind. That’s when discoveries and breakthroughs happen, whether artistic or scientific. I think play (in this sense) is essential to creativity. But, yeah, it’s challenging to summon that mindset!

  2. For me Alan Watts said it best: be completely engaged in what you’re doing and realize that it’s play. Or choose to define it as play. Sometimes I actually remember to do this!
    Alison

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