Play is the Wrong Word

This is a piece that originally appeared in the Emerging Writers’ Festival Reader.

Every piece of writing – in fact every act of creation – is an exploration, a mapping of elusive contours of thought, a process of divination and excavation. At the other end, every experience of a piece of writing – or every creative work – is the same: a scrabble through uncharted caves, a handheld guide through an unknown city, a slow resonant unveiling of how things are and how they came to be.

But mention the word play in association with either of these processes and the arguments come at you hard and fast. We are serious writers and thinkers, they say, explorers of uncharted territory. We stalk the wilderness and return with wisdom, heroes of our own creative journey. We are adults struggling against the dark, and we have no time for such trivial things.

Perhaps play is the wrong word then? Or perhaps it’s something that needs reclaiming through reflection and re-examination of how creativity works.

For writers, the creative process begins with the blank page, and the question of how do I fill it? To this, everyone has their own answer. Maybe you do morning pages, maybe you write for ten minutes about the plant on your desk, maybe you fill a page with the contents of a dream or a stream of consciousness description. Maybe you try to write something funny or sad or verbose or sterile. Maybe something deadly serious. And sometimes you succeed and sometimes you fail, but most days, you write with the hope of a story, a snippet, a something.

This, we tell ourselves, is unblocking our creative selves and finding a way towards the sliver of a plot or the shade of a character, anything to carry us over that threshold from nothing to something. It is categorically not playing. It is, again, serious business.

Let’s use more serious language then. Let’s look at creativity through the lens of experimentation, identity adoption, and transfer – elements deeply associated with how we play.

When we learn anything new, we follow the same path. From a place of safety, we form a hypothesis about how things work, send out feelers, evaluate the feedback, then rewire our brains based on whether we were right or wrong. When we learn to speak or take our first tentative steps in the world, when we try to grab our parent’s hands or see what happens to our fingers in an electrical socket, this is what we do. When we run around in forests with friends, or try to kiss a girl, or sneak out late, or figure out the politics of a new office, we’re playing in the boundaries of our understanding. We are experimenting.

This process of exploration is the same as crafting a story, but simply turned inward. We probe ourselves, discovering our ideas and themes, mapping the strange, uneven and unsteady terrain of the story. We dig down and set up laboratories of thought to perform unending experiments on what we know of the texture of story, on how people are, on our understanding of plot and character and theme and symbolism and subtext. Like life, some of these experiments will end in failure. We need to accept that as part of the creative process, in the same way that we once struggled through the mishmash of sounds that would eventually becomes words, then sentences, when we learnt to speak.

That’s not quite enough for writing to be considered play though. Our ideas are deep and complex, and while exploring them might look like or contain elements of play, they are, again, serious business.

This argument quite quickly breaks down when we pretend to be fictional people and encourage our readers to empathise with us.

As children, we pretended to be Batman or a race car driver or a doctor or a teacher or a chef. As we got older, we used role models to figure out how to behave as a mother, father, writer, artist, son, daughter. We built models of the people we met in our heads to predict how they’d behave and how our actions might affect them. And as writers we become new people every day, wriggling inside their skin, discovering what makes them tick, coming to know them better than they know themselves.

Hopefully, if we do this right, our readers will do the same, following us on the road of identity adoption. Through empathy, readers track the traits of the story. They project themselves into our world to see how they’d feel if it happened to them. The great lessons from Little Red Riding Hood, To Kill a Mockingbird or 1984 are all possible because of their characters, and because of the stories’ power to pull the reader inside their bones.

But we don’t dress up in capes, we don’t make airplane noises as we swoop through the living room. Sometimes we don’t even swoop through the living room at all. No, we sit and we think and we put words on a page to communicate our ideas.

And this is where the final aspect of play comes in.

The first stories that we listen to from our parents give us metaphors that we can grab on to or moral lessons that we can apply. Stories are instruction manuals for life, but this only works if we’re able to transfer the knowledge – from the story to our life – in some cases adopting the rules wholesale, and in others using them to form new hypotheses as the basis for play. Playing at being Batman only works if we bring the notion of right and wrong, of dark and light, along with us when we take off the cape. Transfer is seeing the world in a new light based on what you’ve learned about the world and yourself. It’s taking knowledge from one area – a story, a movie, a bad experience – and using it in another. It’s essential for play and it’s essential for us as writers and readers.

Our challenge though – and where the exploration of more serious ideas needs to take hold – is that, as adults with broader experience of the world and more complex roles and identities, the tales we tell need to reflect that increased complexity in content and theme. As writers, it becomes harder to get readers to play, to suspend their disbelief and come along with us. Our ideas might be unique and interesting to us, but we need to show our readers the same. Stories work best when audiences have their expectations and theories thwarted in surprising and exciting ways. Drama works in the gap between what the character and audience expect to happen and what really happens. Tension exists when the audience asks who, why or what, and has to wait for the answer with baited breath – their minds racing over the possibilities, second guessing the shape of the story. Stories have their power of page-turning brilliance when the reader is caught in a complex mix of experimentation, identity adoption and transfer.

In short, they have their power when both the writer and reader, for want of a better word, play.

As people, we exist on a continuum, each moment of our life becomes the next, becomes the next, becomes the next. Our experiences as children – where play is largely experimental – through adolescence – where experimentation has much more complex elements of identity adoption added to the mix – continues into adulthood – where we settle into our roles as mothers or fathers or husbands or wives or writers or lawyers or doctors or any number of a million frameworks for how to live our lives. Along the way, play becomes less central to us. Either we forget how to do it or we come to believe that it’s something childish and should remain in the past.

We can’t afford to do that as creatives. We owe it to ourselves to experiment, to challenge our sense of the world, to engage with our senses and our ideas. We owe it to our characters to fully inhabit their lives and push them along the same process of learning and dangerous experimentation of their fictional lives and worlds. We owe it to our audience to not only find ways to communicate our experiences, but to find ways to bring them along the same journey we went through.

We owe it to all of them to reconnect with our most essential instincts, to chart our dark internal terrain, to cast a light on the edges of experience, and to find new ways to play.

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