Just Play

I hadn't written much of anything in months other than pithy captions on Instagram photos, nor was I in a hurry to do more. My actual writing had grown stagnant, but my desire to have written was still gushing. Starting seemed insurmountable, ideas and lines flying here and there and the task of organizing all those birds in flight into the single-file lines of rational sentence structure wore me thin before I could even begin. I was explaining this wearying paralysis to a friend (read: complaining), and she looked at me with only a marginal amount of sympathy and said, "Just play."

Take the pressure out of it. Stop trying to be brilliant. Make some nonsense. Write whatever comes to mind. Just write.

A couple months ago, with her words ringing in the back of my mind, I made a commitment to start writing every day.

Failure commenced the very next day when I wrote a sum total of nothing.

But the experiment hasn’t been an all-out disaster. Most days I do write. Some days I don’t. I’m trying not to beat myself up about it, trying to extend myself a little grace. And trying to play, to have fun, but also finding that I might have forgotten how.

I started small. I would try to write a paragraph at the very least, and I was doing okay. Then Anne Lamott and her lovely little bird book conspired with my inner-Achiever, and I found myself whispering to myself, saying thing like, "If you were really serious about this writing-everyday-thing you'd be writing at least three hundred words a day."

Cue the musical montage depicting my five days of discipline and self-satisfaction. Smash cut to me brooding in the mirror as I brush my teeth at the end of another day in a long line of not typing a word.

What this experiment continues to reveal is that I’m all for discipline, but I also need to allow for a natural ebb and flow. Without that little bit of give, healthy discipline quickly erodes into resentment, stress, and other downward-spiraling nonsense.

I’ve been in a bit of a busy stretch the last week or so that’s kept me from writing for any regular block of time, so I’ve been trying something new. I just finished the book Accidental Creative (highly recommended), and it talks about doing a better job of noticing the fly-away thoughts we have throughout the day, those momentary flashes of insight or pangs of emotion that rise up in the course of ordinary conversations, commutes, and correspondence. Todd Henry (he’s the author) recommends carrying a few index cards at all times to capture these thoughts before they disappear into the ether.

(In her book Bird by Bird Anne Lamott suggests the same technique, but I’m already feeling a bit abused by her genius so I’m giving credit to Todd.)

Well, I emphatically will not carry note cards. They remind me of homework and flash cards and public speaking, and I’ll have none of that. But I will carry my phone, and for the last week or so I’ve been capturing these fragments of thought every time I can remember to do so.

And it feels like play.

Out of necessity these rapid-fire snippets are often captured without a filter, a result of needing to get them down as quick as I can in the bitty breaks between meetings or stoplights. No filter means they’re rife with misspellings and non-sequiturs, but they’re also full of reality and raw originality. I look back and I see moments that would have passed by with a half-smile only to be forever forgotten. A single rhyme or instance of alliteration will materialize in my head, and in the course of writing it down it will suddenly bloom into a whole stanza (a whole stanza of really awful poetry, mind you, but a memento of a beautiful moment nonetheless, written in ugly sentence structure… like this).

I’m easily topping three hundred words a day now (take that Anne!) and having a lot of fun. I feel as if I’m casting seeds, little insignificant fragments of things that just might become something really beautiful when I have the chance to coax more out of them with a little care.

I'm playing.

Sometimes making things can start to feel like a burden rather than a privilege. Or the immensity of touching the untouchable can suddenly seem too much. Or as our eyes cross with the complexity of it, the masterpiece at hand can begin to look like a paint-by-numbers. And maybe, sometimes, it is. When I'm in these dark, confining rooms called fear, worry, and complacency I sometimes need to burst out the front door. I need to feel my feet running down the street. I need to start ringing the doorbells of every neighbor with the surnames of Wonder, Laughter, and Discovery painted on their mailbox to ask if any of them might come out and play with me. We each need a place where we can experiment, and try, and fail, and withhold judgment, and maybe find a way out of these very dark rooms. We all need a way to just play.