It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the process of writing. There are so many things to remember, so many different rules to keep straight. Find a distinctive voice. Write what you know. Show, don’t tell. If we’re not careful, we may get so lost in craft that we never actually get a chance to do what we love: create.
In this week’s guest blog, 2014 Claymore Award winner Dana Chamblee Carpenter draws upon her expertise as a creative writing teacher in reminding us all to take a step back. Not just away from the keyboard, but away from our sensible grown-up selves, back into a time where it was possible to just play.
Find the magic again. Isn’t that why we do this, anyway?
Filling the Well
By Dana Chamblee Carpenter
Often, we writers talk and blog about the WORK of writing—the craft, the discipline, the marketing, and the industry. We all know that a relentless assault on mastering this work is what leads to success.
But PLAY is as vital to a writer as any work we do.
When I taught my first Introduction to Creative Writing course, I really hammered the idea of working on craft and discipline, and my students turned in pieces that were polished and on time—every teacher’s dream, right? Not really. Not for me anyway. None of the stories took risks; none of them took me anywhere I hadn’t already been.
I wanted my students to write with courage, not to play it safe. But they were coming to the writing process with empty wells and looking at the world in the way they had been taught to see it. I wanted them to see it the way a writer should—uniquely, imaginatively, playfully.
Despite the many cranky, old memes out there suggesting that “kids these days” don’t know how to work, I realized pretty quickly that my students didn’t know how to play. But play fills our wells, lets us look for the magic in the world, frees us to see and feel and learn in new ways.
A.A. Milne’s Christopher Robin confesses this secret of childhood to Pooh when he says his favorite thing to do is “Nothing,” which he defines like so: “It means just going along, listening to all the things you can’t hear, and not bothering.” Immediately after embracing this nothingness of play, Christopher Robin discovers an enchanted place that no one else has been to, that is not like the woods he and Pooh thought they were in, and in this new place “they could see the whole world spread out until it reached the sky, and whatever there was all the world over was with them.”
That’s where we want to be as writers.
But that kind of inspiration takes a certain kind of play—unstructured, aimless, without boundary or expectation—the play of “Nothing.” So I set about teaching my students how to play this way.
We discovered that we had to be intentional about setting aside time for play, just as we set aside time to write. Play won’t happen spontaneously as when we were children, because there are so many THINGS we do that there’s little unstructured time left (sadly this is true for many kids today, too). So we rearranged activities, pushed back against social demands, and took vows to constrain our tech time (email, texting, social media) until we had at least a couple of chunks of unclaimed hour-long periods each week just for play.
Ideally, playtime for writers should be solo time. Kids can play together and it stays play. Put a couple of grown-ups together and pretty quickly talk turns to serious matters of utmost importance that will scare away any playfulness.
My students were out of the practice of playing, and wrestled with the idea that they were wasting time when they could be doing SOMETHING. So I made them pretend at first—pretend to be kids full of wonderment at the world.
But soon, they were kids again. My students came to class talking about colors and coloring books, bubbles, silly string, playing on the playground, and making clover crowns. They talked about adventures at the zoo, the triumphs of eating a snow cone down to the syrupy good stuff at the bottom, of discovering some hidden path on a once-familiar walk.
They were alive, awake, and seeing the world like writers—beyond what was, imagining what might be; all the world over was with them.
And the stories they wrote—wow. Uniquely their own and most definitely inspired. (And we still worked on craft and discipline. They were still polished and on time.)
Too often I forget what I learned that semester. I let deadlines and word counts and worries over keeping up with all the social media and publication evolutions consume me. I give over solely to the WORK of writing, and my writing suffers. So do I.
When I was writing Bohemian Gospel, I sometimes worked myself into a frenzy, pushing life to the margins and focusing solely on crafting perfect sentences or burying myself in the historical research. At those times, I would get so frustrated because I felt like I wasn’t making any progress despite my frantic endeavors. And then one of my kids would come tug at my hand and ask me to play. We would go dance in the falling leaves, paint silly pictures, or build masterpieces with Legos.
When I went back to the work, I realized that what had seemed like stepping away from writing was actually stepping into creativity, into story. I had fresh ideas and new energy.
Even if you’ve never had kids or if the kids have grown up and moved away, you can still go play like a kid.
Remembering to PLAY is hard for most of us managing writing lives alongside all our other duties and distractions. But it is crucial that we fill our wells back up again, that we equip ourselves to see the world new every day.
Anyone up for a little bit of Nothing?
Dana Chamblee Carpenter‘s award-winning short fiction has appeared in The Arkansas Review, Jersey Devil Press, and Maypop. She has a short story in the new anthology, Killer Nashville Noir: Cold-Blooded. Her debut novel, Bohemian Gospel, won Killer Nashville’s 2014 Claymore Award, and Publisher’s Weekly called it a “deliciously creepy debut.” Bohemian Gospel, published by Pegasus Books, releases on November 15, 2015.
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