Learning To Play: A Writing Lesson
Not long ago, I was agonizing over my inability to make progress on a writing project when I had to stop agonizing long enough to attend a meeting at the local international school. Still, even during that meeting my mind remained busy with worry. As others discussed serious matters I thought: Why can’t I make headway on this project? What is it that’s blocking up my writing? Why can’t I stop thinking about this? What’s wrong with me? What am I missing?
I excused myself, went out into the hallway to clear my head, and was looking at this display of work done by some primary school students when it hit me.
Playfulness. That’s what’s missing. Playfulness. How do I become playful and become – even at 55 – like a little child again? I got a drink of water, went back inside, and enjoyed the rest of the meeting. A little light had come on.
Later, a comment my university writing teacher, Winston Fuller, had made about my writing long ago floated up through my mind. He’d written something about playfulness, but what? I dug out the folder of writing that his comment was written in and read what Winston had written to me almost 35 years ago. He wrote …
“An intentional person is too effective to be a good guide in the tentative activity of writing. It takes a certain amount of irresponsibility to create. I think now that you have begun to take yourself seriously, you should also begin to take yourself playfully. What you need now is to play, to write for the joy of writing. You need to permit yourself to write foolish, insipid, revealing, and unoriginal junk. Stacks of it. For this very good reason: there is no way to get to the good stuff except by wading through mounds and mounds of the bad stuff. At this point, Charles, if you’re not writing a lot of junk, you’re not doing your job.”
Why did it take almost 35 years to come back to this comment, and why did this all come together on an agonizing evening during my 55th year? Well, maybe it’s because I haven’t been doing my job, have gotten even more serious than I was back then, and having reached a crisis in my writing am finally ready to learn this lesson. I could say more about all this, but instead of digging deeper and getting all serious again, I’ll show you the notebook I got started playfully writing in, share some writing activities I’ve been doing, recommend a few books, and tell you a story.
Ten Playful Writing Activities
For each of these activities you’ll need a notebook, a pen, and 10 minutes. Do them alone, with friends, or with students. The mission is to write for 10 minutes without stopping, erasing, or crossing out. Don’t worry about being original, clever, or correct. Just write. No one’s going to see what you write unless you want to share it. This writing is yours and it’s just for fun. If you’re still having fun after 10 minutes, skip a few lines in your notebook, and do another 10-minute writing activity. Ready?
Write these words in your notebook: “I’m thinking of …” and then give yourself a moment to think. What is it you’re thinking about? Go!
Begin like this: “I’m looking at …” and then have a look around where ever it is you are. What captures your attention? Focus on that. Look some more. Then, start writing. 10 minutes. Go!
Try beginning with either “I remember …” or “I don’t remember …” and see where this gets you. If you get stuck along the way, start again with “I remember” or “I don’t remember” and keep writing. Don’t stop. 10 minutes!
Paint a word picture of an elementary school teacher you had. Use this person’s name. Start with “I remember” as in “I remember that Mr. Denz smelled like a campfire and I yet I never understood why until …”
When was the last time you were really happy? Or afraid? Or embarrassed? Or angry? Or in love? 10 minutes. Get your pen moving.
Write about coffee, ice cream, peanut butter, cheese, or oranges. Feel free to start with “I’m thinking about” or “I remember” but if you’re tired of those prompts try “I’ll never forget …” or “I can’t live without …
Now that you’ve gotten used to 10-minute writing sessions, try reducing the time and see what happens. Is five minutes enough? How about three? Try both and see what works for you. Write about a song you can’t get out of your head, something you can’t forgive, a scar you have, a difficult student, something you can’t give up, somewhere you always wanted to go but didn’t.
Write a 10-line poem. Begin with “I’ll never forget _______” or “I wish I could forget _________ or “I try not to remember ______ ” or “Who can forget _______?” Don’t think too much. Just write. You’ve got 5 minutes. Go
Write a 12-line poem in which each line begins with “I used to _______ and ends with “but now I _________.” Take 10 minutes if you’ve got 10 minutes. If not, five is enough. If that’s enjoyable for you and you’ve got some more time, try again but this time change the pronoun to we, they, she, he, or it.
You’re standing in a hallway. You’re looking at the top of a dresser. You’re sitting at the kitchen table. You’re looking up at the sky. Chose one. Prose or poem. It’s up to you. 10 minutes. Get started and see where you wind up.
A Few Good Books On Learning to Write Playfully
You’ll surely come up with some writing prompts of your own, and if you’re doing this work with friends or students, they’ll have ideas, too. For dry times, though, I’ve found these books to be great sources of ideas, activities, and advice.
Writing Alone and With Others by Pat Schneider is a marvel.
Old Friend From Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir by Natalie Goldberg is full of writing prompts, common sense, and playful writing practice.
Although Rose Where Did you Get That Red by Kenneth Koch is really about teaching children how to read and write poetry, it’s also about how to teach yourself to do these very things. It’s fun, full of great ideas and rich with poetry.
My latest favorite is The Year of Writing Dangerously: 365 Days of Inspiration and Encouragement by Barbara Abercrombie which not only inspires and encourages, it also provides 365 mostly wonderful writing prompts.
Whether you’re interested in learning to write playfully yourself or wanting to incorporate fun writing activities into your classes, any or all of these books are worth exploring. They provide me with hours of fun, and I think that fun is helping me become a better writer. I’m certainly writing a lot and finally doing my job.
A Way Forward and A Story About Beginnings
Once you’ve done enough playful writing that you’ve got a stack of it done, start going through what you’ve written and pull out a few pieces you’d like to either develop further or edit down. I took one 3-page-10-minute-writing activity I wrote some time ago, cleaned it up, and edited it down to about 10 lines I posted on Facebook a while ago. Today I edited it down a bit more. It’s not a particularly good piece of writing, yet, but it’s true and it launched me into who I’m now becoming as a writer, a teacher, and a person: A beginner again who’s still learning his lessons:
“Be willing to be a beginner every single morning,” writes Meister Eckhardt. I underlined that line in the book I was reading. Then I thought, “Hah! How’s that supposed to work? I mean I’m 55 years old. Begin again? Doing what?” I set the book aside and busied myself in the garden. I trimmed branches. I cleaned out muck. I raked and bagged leaves. Ideas started coming. I sat down and made a list. Then, looking out I noticed a tiny bit of green coming up from under a dead plant in a cheap pot. I cut off what had died, set the pot on my table, and wondered what this little bit of green would become if I nurtured it. Would if flower? Would it even bear fruit? No telling, really. Not yet, anyway. I opened the book I’d set aside and found Meister Eckhardt saying “and suddenly you know: It’s time to start something new and trust the magic of beginnings.” I laughed and underlined that, too. OK, I get it. New beginnings. I’m ready and I’m willing.
How about you?