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!

Top 10 ways to spend 2014

Dawn of 2014, Fulford Harbour, Saltspring Island

Dawn of 2014, Fulford Harbour, Saltspring Island

Silk’s Post #67 —  Like my 5writer friends, and apparently many other bloggers I read, I’m not big on New Year’s resolutions. And yet here we all are making lists that we take pains to describe as “not resolutions.”

I think this whole concept of a picking a random day – January first – to represent a kind of annual life re-set button must be pretty powerful. The urge to look in the mirror, critique ourselves, and vow to change what we aren’t satisfied with (there’s always something, isn’t there?) seems to be built in to our DNA. I think we all long for renewal of the spirit, a fresh start.

You might suppose we’re just following traditions established by a thousands-of-years-old agrarian calendar. A ritual to chase the shadows from a long winter’s night. If that were the case, though, we’d start the “new year” on the day after winter solstice, when lifegiving daylight hours begin to lengthen again, by a few minutes each dawn. But I think there’s something more going on here.

The universe may run on in an endless cycle, but people do not. Our time on Earth is finite, and perhaps that’s taught us to measure things. One of the first things we teach children is how to tell time. After all, we only have so much of it, and the only thing we really have control of in this world is how we spend it.

Maybe that’s why so many New Year’s resolutions evaporate so quickly. We make wish lists of ideals with a sense of wild optimism about what we can change through sheer willpower. “Love is all you need” is a beautiful truth, but it doesn’t really help you lose weight. Believe me. If it did, there would be a lot more svelte women.

Everything we achieve has a cost, and the only real currency we have in life to pay for these things is time, attention and energy. These are in our control, if we’re lucky. Other things, not so much. We pay attention. We spend time. We expend energy. But they’re all finite – we have only so much of them. Every year I become more aware of this.

What we choose to do with this capital defines our lives. This may seem ridiculously self-evident, but knowing something intellectually, and feeling it in your bones, are two entirely different things. I’m finally ‘getting’ how critical it is to invest in the things that are truly important to me. It makes me want to kick myself when I think of how much of this capital I’ve blown over the years on the penny candy of wasted time, mindless distractions, hopeless or unworthy causes.

All the things that make us human – feelings and thoughts, creativity and passion, courage and curiosity, imagination and resolve, strength and compassion – amount to nothing but intent if we don’t give them shape and substance by investing the time, attention and energy to put them into action. In other words, wishing doesn’t make things happen.

Still with me? Sorry for the somewhat dark digression. But after my long philosophical side trip I’m back, full circle, to New Year’s resolutions.

My new theory about fresh starts is that it’s best to to free them from the dictatorship of measured goals. My new goals are measured in mindfulness.

I know, I know. I can hear the groans of the 1000-words-a-day people, the lose-20-pounds-by-summer people, the closet-cleaners, the strategists and the strivers among you. I can hear myself screaming … Nooo-o-o-o-o! … and feel my head rotating 360 degrees while my eyeballs pop out of my skull. I NEED GOALS! I get nothing done without a goal! What kind of blasphemy is this, anyway?

It’s true. We all need goals, and I’m not planning to skip off into a field of daisies without a destination. But I want to set a different kind of goal – one that helps me invest my time, attention and energy in the right direction … without defining the outcome in quantified, pass/fail terms. You’ve heard of yo-yo dieting? It’s got a lot in common with broken New Year’s resolutions. So if I have one “resolution” this year, it’s that I don’t want to spend my time anymore on yo-yo anything.

Here’s my top 10 list of things I want to invest more time, attention and energy into in 2014. I don’t know what will come of it or where it will take me, but I expect I’ll encounter, and hopefully achieve, some goals along the way that have been on my list for a long time. I may even find some new ones. Who knows? What I’m sure of, though, is that I won’t be wasting my capital.

1. My head

I want to learn some new stuff. Listen more and talk less. Read. Study. Fill boredom with challenge instead of escape. Get out of my comfort zone more often. As Elon Musk recommends: “just sit and think until my brain hurts.”

2. People

I want to be a better friend, partner, colleague, citizen. Pay more attention to people I care about. Give them my time. Get to know more, and more about, people outside my own orbit. Do something to help make this a civil, healthy, hopeful, peaceful society. Do something generous that no one will ever know about.

3. Nature

I want to spend more time out in it. Let it do its magic in my soul. Take care of it better.

4. My heart

I want to look into it again, the way I used to when I was young and every heartbeat rang in my ears. Open the boxes and bins that haven’t been seen in years. Tend to the sore spots, shine a light in the dark spots, wake up my sense of joy.

5. My health

That thing I said about people? I’m one of those people I want to be a better friend to. Take care of. Spend more energy on. Be more mindful of. Be generous to.

6. My work

I want to re-learn the discipline that drove me through 35 years of hard work on behalf of others, and apply it to hard work on behalf of me. I’ve earned that. To write because I love to write. It’s a calling. Period.

7. My stuff

I want to honour the icons that matter, value and take loving care of the things I choose to surround myself with, and unburden myself of the lifetime of meaningless debris I’ve accumulated. Give some things away. Polish other things. Let nothing I own, own me.

8. My soul

I want to remember it’s there – that spiritual being inside – and get to know it again. Souls need a lot of attention, like any living, growing thing. I need to fertilize mine. And water it more.

9. My artist

I want to free my inner artist from the bonds of daily practicality. Listen to her when she insists that functionality is insufficient. Live more creatively. Pay attention to beauty. Make things with my hands. Embellish. Sing. Knit. Paint. Imagine.

10. My sense of occasion

I want to make more moments special. Observe rituals that feed the heart and the memory.  Pay attention to fun. Bake cakes. Wrap presents prettily. Make somethings out of nothings. Laugh more. Remember how to celebrate. Take play more seriously.

Happy New Year everyone!