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!

How did it get so late so soon?

Courtesy Debug Design

Courtesy Debug Design

Helga’s Post # 27 — “It’s night before it’s afternoon. My goodness how the time has flown.” So said our beloved Dr. Seuss.

As the weather and by extension people’s moods improve day by day, so does the volume of junk mail fluttering into our mailboxes. Most notably, glossy catalogues about the new spring and summer fashion, and lovely outdoor furniture adorned with sexy models that can’t be more than sixteen years old (don’t these marketing gurus realize that women make most of the buying decisions?)

I usually take the whole lot and dump it unopened or unread in my yellow recycling bag. I do this because I want to buck the trend. According to statistics, the average person (in North America) spends eight months of his or her life reading junk mail. Smack me on the head! Eight months?

Eight months that could be spent writing a novel. A reasonable time to complete a solid, four hundred-page novel.

But that’s just the beginning. How else do we fritter away our most valuable commodity, time? How many sequels could we write if we transform said squandered time into writing? Here are some examples. Trivia to be sure, but a tongue-in-cheek eye-opener all the same.

The average person spends, in his or her lifetime, three years in meetings, over one thousand sick days in bed, seventeen months drinking coffee and soft drinks, two years on the phone (I would argue that is very conservative; think ‘teens’), twelve years watching TV, three years shopping, one year looking for misplaced items, five years waiting in line, an infuriating twenty weeks on hold waiting to speak to a human in call centers, and nine months sitting in traffic.

Time we could spend writing! Not all of it avoidable, like being sick, but without doubt the TV and phone time is something we do have a modicum of control over.

So I’ve been thinking how I could harness some of this wasted time. To confess, one of my many bad habits is pushing the ‘On’ button of the remote after waking up. Just to catch the news. Time managers would tell me to stop that. By the time I am done with the headlines, I will have watched at least twenty minutes of commercials. Not good. Most is trivial anyway – really, do I need to know what Justin Bieber is doing? Or what professional athlete got arrested?

Changes were in order. I now get out of bed without news on TV (I can catch those later in the evening). Thirty minutes saved every day just by getting rid of one bad habit. That’s a lot of writing time.

On to the next time waster, one that many writers can identify with: E-mails.

Since this post is about how to waste less time, I don’t want to waste more time stating the obvious. Instead, here is what to do to stop this colossal squander: Pushing the ‘Unsubscribe’ button. Relentlessly. Who really needs all this electronic junk mail? I managed to live very well without it cluttering my in-box, so why bother with special offers on anything from… well, you know, the sky is the limit. So if anyone claims they can’t find time to write because they get many hundreds of emails per day, it’s tempting to say, get a handle on it. I realize, emails are a great tool for people who are making a living in a marketing job, but the rest of us? Control it. Don’t be a slave to your own in-box.

Because that’s time you could spend writing!

But wait, there’s more. Of course there’s Angry Birds, a no-brainer. Moving on, there’s one huge item that time managers of the not so recent past have ignored, but are catching on fast and furiously. You probably guessed it: social media.

FB image

I can’t even begin to guess how much time gets frittered away  starting the day checking Facebook and Twitter, and LinkedIn and whatever. Substantial, valuable time and mental energy. Sure, it’s tempting, it’s like listening to gossip, and it has all those pretty pictures. But really, let’s be honest. How much does it add to our education, our knowledge, our quality of life? Surely, that time would be better spent reading a good book, or doing research for the novel we are writing? I’m not saying social media has no value. It does. It allows us to share information with lightning speed and it builds communities. It has many benefits, worthy of future discussions. But for the purpose of this post, all I want to share is that I had to control it rather than allowing it to control me. I hope that I have succeeded (I  check my FB and Twitter just before bedtime. That way it  doesn’t rob me of my writing time).

If, after all the ‘wasters’ there’s still time left in the day, you haven’t counted the minutes spent on your cell phone. You can find an astounding statement on WikiAnswers.com: Four. Not minutes. The average person spends four hours a day on their cell phone (admittedly, it sounds improbable).

There is tons of advice on how to avoid time wasters. One such site that caught my eye as I prepared for this post is Inc.com.  Three items resonated with me:

–       You live online. Wasting time on Facebook. Playing with apps. Emailing and texting.

–       You network randomly. Relationships are critical to success. Networking and schmoozing are key to forming relationships. But randomly connecting with thousands of strangers online won’t help one bit.

–       You troll for Twitter followers. If you’re Ashton Kutcher or Kim Kardashian, that’s great. Otherwise, it’s nothing but a distraction–a complete and total waste of time.

Not everyone will agree.

What does all of this mean for my commitment to submit my completed manuscript to my critique group in time for our retreat? I had to seriously prune my time wasting habits to make the most of what matters most to me.  If I can stick to it, I should be able to harness my energy and a good chunk of time to spend on what’s important to me. For what I am. A writer.

Then again, I have to ask myself, whom do I write for? Because here is one more (my final) statistic: The average American adult between eighteen and sixty-four watches television five times more than they read.

A sobering thought. And while I think about it, I will take out a few minutes on my favorite time waster. Because, in spite of all the wisdom stated above, as John Lennon used to say,

“Time you enjoy wasting, was not wasted.”

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