Friday, August 23, 2013

The Writing Life: Just Because It's Fun

True confession: I am not a particularly playful person. Blame it on school gym class, dim memories of recess, or being a last-one-left-at-home child of older, non-game-playing parents, but whenever someone starts choosing up sides for softball or reaches for the Parcheesi set, I feel out of my element.

Thanks to a stubborn bent toward learning, no one is better than me at turning a fun time into work. A game of tennis becomes a grueling exercise in improving my swing and footwork and, frankly, just trying to make contact with that infuriating little ball. Volleyball at a picnic--no thank you. I rather like the idea of croquet, but when the opportunity to play is presented, I tend to stay rooted in my lawn chair, cool glass at hand, rather than risk looking foolish with a mallet. At parties I'd rather enjoy a good conversation than play Pictionary. And forget reading for pleasure--as a writer, even the most delightful, absorbing book soon becomes an object for dissection and analysis to lift the curtain on the author's magic.

That's not to say I'm a dour killjoy (at least, not all the time), but when someone suggests playing a game--or worse, makes a nonspecific suggestion to "go outside and play"--I'm never the first to jump in. What does that mean, really, "to play"?

This odd aversion to play is, I feel, a shortcoming, a fault of character. Research shows that play is a healthy and necessary component of mental health. But recently I came across a new-to-me definition of play that, I believe, will throw wide the doors of my reluctance to let the good times roll.

In Write Within Yourself: An Author's Companion by William Kenower, a thought-provoking set of essays on the writing life, the author describes a magical evening of serendipitous backyard play with friends that he experienced as a child. He concludes, "We weren't free that night because we didn't have to do dishes or homework, we were free because we were living the gift of play, the search for the current pleasure in everything."

"The search for the current pleasure in everything." Yes! When I read that definition of play, I understood that playing has less to do with games and teams and rules and physical coordination, and more with finding and relishing the golden moment in even the most mundane task. I felt released from the tyranny of "having fun" to something much more satisfying. I felt free to appreciate the delightful squish of mud while gardening, the cascade of rainbow bubbles while washing dishes. To feel the sheer pleasure of taking a walk on a starlit country road, instead of calculating how much it would contribute to my daily 10,000 steps. Instead of finding the chore within the fun, I began to look for the fun within the chore.

For writers, play can mean enjoying words and language, literally messing around with them as an artist messes around with paints or modeling clay. Get giddy with plays on words, puzzles, limericks, double meanings. Form phrases out of fabulous words you find in the dictionary--words that mean something wonderful, or that merely have a pleasing arrangement of vowels, consonants, and syllables. Don't do it because you're striving to create the cleverest limerick or most evocative metaphor. Do it just because it's fun. Search for the current pleasure in whatever it is you're writing.
Now go inside and play!

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