play

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.

The Pace of Wonder

We all lament the pace of our lives. Despite our best efforts to slow down it seems we often crowd so much into our lives that we cannot settle, we cannot enjoy, we cannot slow, and we certainly cannot stop. Whenever my son, Finnden, is trying to pretend he is not getting sleepy he overcompensates by rushing from one thing to the next. He turns into a bit of a maniac, bouncing about endlessly, shifting from one leg to the the other, shouting for no discernible reason, and generally being terribly disobedient. Sometimes I feel like that manic child.

But today I was fascinated to watch Finnden playing with his wooden train set. I helped him lay a track that coursed through the barren wheat-field of our living room carpet, and as soon as I connected the last piece I was ready to set a battery-operated train engine on it, press the button, and watch it go a few rounds.

But not Finn.

Finnden wanted to push the train. Forget the buttons or the speed. He wanted to slowly connect other cars to the engine and fill them with their cargo. He wanted to painstakingly push the lumbering train around the track, head lying low the ground, watching every slow turn of the engine’s wheels from eye level.

When he came to the windmill he wanted to spin it. When he came to the mountain, he slowly chugged up its slope and down the other. When he came to the crossing, he pressed buttons and listened to the noises and opened and closed the gates again and again.

I watched in amazement as it took him a full half hour before his little “choo-choo” had made it all the way around the little track. Such concentration, such deliberation, such wonder and enjoyment.

Certainly, we all need to get better at learning the things we should shoulder and the things we should refuse. But if we’ve mastered the word “no” and have not learned to slacken our pace a little…well…

There will always be things that compete for our attention. There will always be ideas or engagements or projects to which we cannot say no. There will always be deadlines and work to do. But when we discover wonder it is as though time stops even when it hasn’t. When we are captivated by what we have in front of us and around us—peering into things from eye level, attending to the details, enjoying the process—we will suddenly find that our business can become quite endurable, even enjoyable, like a child at play. Perhaps the only way to slow down is not to find more time but to find more wonder, to find more play, to find more enjoyment in the things we encounter along our way.

Fountains of Creativity

Despite the fact that we live in the midst of the bustling suburbia that is Orange County, our little town of Orange stands apart from it all in some ways. It has this downtown that is something straight out of small-town America complete with the corner drugstore, local breakfast spot and antique stores. It stretches a block or two in each direction from the center of town, all of it orbiting around a circular park that is both affectionately and appropriately called The Circle.  Our two-year-old son, Finnden, loves The Circle mainly for the giant fountain that sits at its heart. He loves to straddle the edge of it, his legs dangling on one side and his arms on the other, as he splashes in the water.

A few weeks ago he discovered his own personal fountain in the form of the public drinking fountain there in the park. He spent the better part of half an hour turning it on and off, watching it pool, splashing and watching the water go down the drain. He kept trying to look down the spout to see where the water came from, and he finally couldn’t resist the urge to turn it on while sticking his finger as far into the little spout as he could. Watching him from a bench a few feet away, I suddenly found myself soaked. He had managed to make the water shoot eight feet or more by plugging most of the spout with his little finger.

Sometimes that’s how my creative mind works. Sometimes it seems that the new ideas are flowing and even if I wanted to try and stop them they’d just burst forth anyway.

Sometimes I don’t have any new ideas. Sometimes there doesn’t seem to be anything novel rattling around up there.

And sometimes I just haven’t made the margin. I haven’t taken the time or done the work to turn the fountain on and off, play, splash a little, watch the water pool and finally discover that I can stick my finger into the spout and make magic.