Is writing child’s play?


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!

A story-teller like no other

101 days. That’s how long our house has been on the market by now. It feels more like 1001 nights!


Ferdinand Keller – Scheherazade and Sultan Schariar (1880)

As I was thinking of a topic for today’s post, trying to come up with something moderately meaningful and entertaining, I thought about Queen Scheherazade of 1001 Nights (a.k.a. The Arabian Nights). Here I am struggling to come up with one post per week, while this clever woman told a new story to her husband, the Persian King Shahryar each and every night for almost three years. Though she certainly had a more pressing motive than most other writers, she must be the ultimate storyteller of all times. Hands down.

There are many different accounts of how she did it, how she managed to keep her husband pining for yet another story. Writers, pay attention. What she achieved is any writer’s dream! How do we keep readers turning the pages of our novel, just like Scheherazade concocted stories that kept her alive another day and yet another, and so forth.

The story, dating to the early 9th century, goes that every day the King would marry a new virgin, and after doing so would despatch the previous day’s wife to be killed. This was done in anger, having found out that his first wife was unfaithful to him. He reasoned that all women are the same. By the time he was introduced to Scheherazade, his high-ranking political advisor’s daughter, he had killed 1,000 such women. Eventually the vizier, whose duty was to provide them, could not find any more virgins.

Against her father’s wishes, Scheherazade volunteered to spend one night with the king. Once in the king’s chambers, Scheherazade asked if she might tell him a story during the long night. The king lay awake and listened with awe as Scheherazade told her first story. The night passed by, and Scheherazade stopped in the middle of the story. The king asked her to finish, but Scheherazade said there was no time, as dawn was breaking. So, the King spared her life for one day to finish the story the next night. So the next night, Scheherazade finished the story and then began a second, even more exciting tale which she again stopped halfway through at dawn. So the king again spared her life for one day to finish the second story.

And so the King kept Scheherazade alive day by day, as he eagerly anticipated the finishing of the previous night’s story. At the end of 1,001 nights, and 1,000 stories, Scheherazade told the king that she had no more tales to tell him. During these 1,001 nights, the king had fallen in love with Scheherazade, and so he spared her life, and made her his queen.

I love this, because it’s a story within a story. A tall tale, you might call it. But think about some of the wonderful stories that Scheherazade thought up, night after night. Sinbad the Sailor, Aladdin, Ali Baba, Old Man of the Sea, The Fisherman and the Jinni, The Thief of Bagdad, and The Three Apples.

This last story, The Three Apples has in fact been described as a “whodunit” murder mystery with multiple plot twists. However, although the story has detection fiction elements it lacks a detective, in that the person charged with investigating the murder, does nothing to solve the crime, but in both cases sits at home awaiting his fate. Both times he is saved from execution by a chance revelation.

Or take The Thief of Bagdad. It tells the story of a thief who falls in love with the daughter

The Thief of Bagdad - N.H. Wilton 1924

The Thief of Bagdad – N.H. Wilton 1924

of the Caliph of Bagdad. Hugely popular, the story was made into an American swashbuckler film in 1924 and considered one of the most expensive films of the 1920s. Not a bad record for a woman who made up the story on a whim ten centuries earlier.

What’s so interesting about these stories for us writers is their structure. The Three Apples is a first level story told by Scheherazade, and contains one second level story, the Tale of Núr al-Dín Alí and his Son. It occurs early in the Arabian Nights narrative, being started during night 19, after the Tale of Portress. The Tale of Núr al-Dín Alí and his Son starts during night 20, and the cycle ends during night 25, when Scheherazade starts the Tale of the Hunchback.

It’s the layers of the stories that make them so effective, i.e. saving Scheherazade from literally losing her head. She tells just enough of the story to keep the King’s interest, promising to continue the next day. She then adds layers to the plot, introducing new characters, adding more complexities as she goes. (Footnote: What does that say about the need for detailed outlining? Looks like our clever storyteller was a true pantser).

I love those stories and I am starting to read them again, after many, many years. They are magical in the purest sense, and they show me some interesting things about pacing, plotlines, and a lot more. Whether fact or fiction, 1001 Nights has much to teach writers about the art of storytelling.

Enjoy what’s left of the Labour Day weekend.

Repurpose, reuse, recycle

Wikipedia Creative Commons image

Wikipedia Creative Commons image

Silk’s Post #55 – More writing lessons learned on the road. This week, I’m soaking up history and culture in Rome. I have my own offbeat idea about what makes this ‘The Eternal City’.

Probably like many people who are not European history scholars or actual Italians, I’ve always thought of Italy as Old World. As a county that’s been around practically forever. It’s an easy assumption to make. All those ancient ruins! All that foundation of western civilization stuff! Latin as a language! The place is absolutely drenched in history.

But here’s the part I must have not paid enough attention to when I was goofing off in history class: although the story of Italy begins somewhere around the 9th century BC, Italy as a unified nation only came into being in 1861 – almost a century after that New World whippersnapper, the United States.

Before that, it was a continually evolving collection of city states, duchies, kingdoms and republics which each had its own unique culture, dialect, governance and claims to fame. And although the Republic of Venice, the Kingdom of Sardinia, the Papal States, the Kingdom of Sicily and others all had their day in the sun in later times, nothing compares with the grandeur of the Roman Empire – which lasted nearly 1,500 years, at one time stretched from England to the Middle East, and ruled over 50 million people in the first century.

So what makes this city so eternal? And why is it still so vibrant, so classy, even while Italy struggles as one of the EU’s worst economic basket cases? What puts Italy on everybody’s bucket list, and continues to make it a culture, arts and design leader? Oh, yeah, and what does any of this have to do with writing?

My theory: Italian culture has a survival instinct that continually repurposes, reuses and recycles the kind of creative genius that made the Coliseum in ancient times, the Sistine Chapel in the Middle Ages and Ferrari cars today.

Walk around the Foro Romana and the Coliseum, and you’ll see chunks of exquisitely-carved columns littering the ground like common debris. Sore-footed tourists plop down on these priceless shards of history to rest up after standing on the endless entrance lines and moving like a human tide around the massive oval of the arena. Once a column, now a bench.

Earlier our guide, Roberto, pointed out a corner of one house along the narrow, cobbled streets of an older neighbourhood during our walk towards the ruins. In the neoclassical facade, dating from the 19th century, an ancient Cipollino marble column had been incorporated as a decorative element, recycled from some ruin. Roberto said this kind of re-use of artifacts is ordinary. Apparently, the Vatican took great advantage of ‘pre-used’ architectural materials and elements in building the stupendous Saint Peter’s Cathedral.

The same kind of repurposing, reusing and recycling can be seen in other aspects of Italian culture, like layers of pentimento in an over-painted work of art. The cultural DNA continues to find new expressions, but never disappears. Somehow you can park a Ferrari in front of a Roman ruin and actually see the family resemblance. They just seem to go together, the ancient and the modern, and the latter owes something to the former.

So, back to writing.

We often talk about the intimidating ‘blank sheet of paper’. Of how daunting it can be to start from ‘square one’ and create something from nothing. That whole cop out doesn’t work for me anymore, and it took a trip to Rome for me to realize why it’s such a stupid analogy.

We never start from zero, not really. That’s ridiculous when you think about it. We don’t live in an isolated moment in time, or a singular cultural space, unconnected to anything else. We’re inevitably always starting in the middle of a stream, with our own past – and the accumulated past of human culture – flowing through us, and some as yet unimagined creative destination downstream of us.

I wonder whether we sometimes obsess on reinventing the wheel, when the more productive creative path may be in repurposing, reusing and recycling the rich trove of stories, words and ideas that already exist within and around us. Turning them sideways and upside down, examining them, incorporating them into our own work and reinterpreting them with a fresh voice.

Maybe this sounds like another kind of a cop-out, bordering on imitation or even plagiarism. For me, though, it’s about a more realistic and productive way to visualize the writing process. The analogy of the blank white page is, to me, a negative and false barrier. Another of the million rules and ‘received wisdom’ I’ve been struggling with as an emerging writer. The sense of my own creative process being part of a bigger stream of ideas, words and stories – rather than the solitary quest of one writer facing a blank page of paper – is really about an attitude adjustment.

As all the 5writers have commented in various posts, writing isn’t a solitary profession if you have some friends, a community. But in reality we have much more than that. We have a whole stream of collective creativity – thousands of years of it, right up to the present. When we step into it, we become part of that stream and it can help carry us to a destination we can’t easily reach on our own.

If this sounds a bit airy-fairy, let me paint you a picture.

When Michelangelo poured his genius into the Sistine Chapel and other Vatican treasures, he used to spend his evenings studying the design and artistry of the then-abandoned and deteriorating Coliseum – at some risk to himself, apparently, since the site had become the neighbourhood of thieves, prostitutes and other low-lifes. When asked by a solicitous friend what he was doing there and why he wasn’t home safe in bed like any sane and sensible person, he explained that this was his school. He was there to study the masters.

Yes, to study – and then to repurpose, reuse, and recycle. He then, of course, created his own unique reinterpretation, which we recognize as Michelangelo’s personal artistry. Yet, great as he was, he didn’t really start with a ‘blank sheet of fresco’. Even this master had his own masters, contemporary influences and probably a few sketchbooks of copied ideas.

Ciao from Rome!

A very private affair

 Helga’s Post # 33 – It’s hard to blog after the sad news of Jay Lake’s illness, as Joe did yesterday. That story should make us all put the foot on the brake and remember what’s important.

We all, writers, readers, friends, wish Jay well. And we will follow him on his journey by reading every word he writes and shares with us on his blog.


My post today is short because I am struggling to finish as much of my novel as I can manage before the deadline. No socializing, no errands until next Wednesday. Nose to the grindstone. Four more days to showdown. In four days all will be revealed at our critique group meeting where we share our final submissions. Five manuscripts, five new novels brought into the world since last September.

So this is my last blog before our meeting. Next time I hope to report something more detailed. As I mentioned earlier, I am behind schedule. No excuses, other than life gets in the way, to use an utterly overused phrase.

But writing is personal. It’s possibly the most intimate activity (okay, minus one) in which Homo sapiens are able to engage. What can be more intimate than putting your innermost core into words to be shared with the world. It’s also one of the most daring and courageous undertakings we can commit to. It’s every bit as daring as stripping naked and walking through Times Square during rush hour (not that anyone would notice).

And for some of us writers, that comes easy (not the stripping, but what do I know). For others, the more private ones, it’s more of a struggle. I count myself in the last group. Maybe it goes far back, to age fourteen, when I found out my mother had snooped in my diary. And it wasn’t even an ordinary diary. It had a lock and key. A lock that, known to everybody but me, could be picked with a paper clip. Funny, how little things in life stick with you and shape you.

How does this relate to our critique group’s 5 months challenge?

Deadlines for finishing novels has its advantages, but it doesn’t work equally well for everybody. There are a multitude of variables why it does for some and not for others. Some people are outliners, some write organically. Some just get the story down, grammar and style be damned, while others enjoy quality writing as they create the story from the start. (And get to regret it later when they have to dump their darlings during the rewrite).

Writing is hugely personal. Because it’s so creative, it’s a challenge for many to write to a specific formula and deadline. The famous ‘square peg’ syndrome. Yet, it’s precisely that which gets writers motivated and cajoled into racing to the finish line.

It’s somewhat of an oxymoron: Creativity needs space to roam freely, without borders and fences so it can flourish, yet it might never reach its goal, or produce a finished manuscript without the discipline of deadlines and rules.

Aren’t we writers a persnickety species.

And for all you moms out there, and those who ever wanted to be one,

Happy Mothers Day!