Learning to Play
Published in the May/June issue of The Word Weaver.
My grandfather grew up playing on an island on Georgian Bay. He lived in a lighthouse. My great-grandfather was the lighthouse keeper.
A light provides hope for boaters when they lose their way. Lives depend on seeing the light beam through the fog and the waves and the darkness. Some describe “light bulb moments” in learning. I have lighthouse moments.
As a teenager, I wrote poems about heartbreak and tragedy. Like a young child playing dress-up, I tried on different scenarios through the writing. I learned how to use emotion for effect in my writing. I learned the therapeutic benefits of writing about what I feared. And I learned how to create without audience.
Play is process. Children know how to play. When children play, they use imagination, build social and intellectual skills, make new connections, learn from the inside-out, and problem-solve more effectively.
We play when we engage in a project without expectation, experiment with alternatives, and embrace the moment. We know the rules to the game, but adjust the rules to make the game more fun.
In 2003, I began a novel. Midway through the project, I crossed paths with an editor and pitched my idea to her. She loved it!
I imagined my debut as a ‘chick-lit’ novelist. I dreamed of book signings, million dollar contracts, and a glamorous life. Then, writer’s block walloped me.
I had lost a sense of play. Julia Cameron explains the dangers of fame: “Fame is a spiritual drug. It is often a by-product of our artistic work, but like nuclear waste, it can be a very dangerous by-product…The point of the work is the work” (Cameron, 2002, p. 171).
I needed a lighthouse moment to guide me through the fog.
Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way encourages play. The exercises reminded me of childhood adventures, suggested fun artist dates, and insisted upon writing Morning Pages.
I filled journals with wordplay, babblings, stories, and thoughts. I relearned how to engage in the process of writing without getting lost in the potential glory of a finished product. Slowly, I learned how to let go of expectation.
The routine of playful writing acted as a range light guiding me home. I learned how to create with joy. My creative life was richer than ever. My journals glowed with an abundance of ideas. I had learned how to take the lid off the jar and play with the sunshine that danced all over the page. But, when would I become a writer?
When a boater is lost in a storm, her best defense is to focus her attention on the range light and seek shelter at the lighthouse until the storm passes. My novel was not working, so I decided to shift my attention to another writing project. Then, when the conditions improved I could return to the project.
I decided to write a play. The lighthouse, and a fictional story about the effects of a young girl’s rape there, became a central storyline layered over the stories of the women at Girls’ Week.
The writing streamed out of me with the intensity of a fire hose. I welcomed inspiration, trusted my ideas were sound, and let the play unfold without expectations. I played with character, structure, technique, and setting.
The two big lessons I had learned about inspiration and playfulness allowed me to finish “Once Upon a Rocking Chair,” my first play. And when I learned how to finish one project, I began to finish more.
Writing is a process, a moment, a relationship between me and the words on the page, a relationship between the words on the page and the reader.
In becoming a writer, it was important to me to finish a project because it would signal my capacity to generate an idea and communicate it.
Playwright. Play write. These two words have come to identify my work as a writer. Play. Write. And they are my wish for you: play, write.
By Jessica Outram