The Importance of Play
Several posts ago I mentioned that the best way for me to capture writing-related thoughts (rough scenes, plot points, timelines, etc.) was to staple several blank pages together and sort of free-form scrawl on them, with perhaps a wavy line between scenes as the only semi-official delineator. My theory is that this works for me because it allows my brain to believe there’s no special importance attached to whatever I’m writing.*
* Notice I used the terms “for me,” “I,” and “my brain.” Your mileage may vary. As always.
I believe the creative mind functions best when it’s actively engaged in an activity without stress. Not coincidentally, I also believe the opposite of love is not hate, but fear. So when you’re doing something you enjoy—without any feelings of stress or fear wrapped around the outcome—you’re more likely to find yourself in that magic zone where ideas come more readily and are executed at a higher level. (I’d say you’ve “set yourself up for success”—and you have—except the concept of “success” is the opposite of what you want on your mind.)
So we might consider replacing concepts like “success” and “winning” and “stress” and “competition” with terms like play and fun and creativity and enjoyment. All of which can add up to us operating at a higher level. It’s ironic, but trying to do well often leads to doing less well. Because when you’re doing X, you should be thinking about (wait for it…) X. Or even better, you should be so immersed in doing X that you’re not consciously thinking about anything. The last thing you should be thinking about is “doing well at X,” which is not about X at all, but about the negative consequences of failing at X. Which of course takes you out of the flow of actually doing X, instead taking you down the fear path and increasing your odds of poor performance.
Once upon a time I was working with a team of men and women who had been doing performance drills with a spirited attitude (and great results) for a long time. Then along came an extra-important federal inspection, the cornerstone of which would be “evaluated exercises.” (i.e. more drills, only with lots of extra focus and extra observers, etc.) I gave them a pre-drill briefing, as per usual. But not as per usual, near the end of the brief a high-level administrator came in and “wanted a few words” with the team. I figured a little cheerleading couldn’t hurt so I let him talk. My bad. He proceeded to tell the team how important these exercises were, how a lot was riding on the results, how they had to do their very best, and how they couldn’t afford to make any mistakes. After pulling the pin and tossing that into the briefing, he left. Everyone was dead quiet as they gathered their gear and got ready to head out, the stress in the room palpable. “Guys, hold on,” I finally said. They stopped. “This is just another drill. Just like last week or last month or last year. You guys are the best in the country at what you do, you’ve already proven that. So don’t change a thing—go out there and kick ass, like always… and have fun!” (Okay, there might have been a few f-bombs inserted here and there, but that’s the gist of it.)
They ended up doing well, but that’s not the point. The point is: Don’t be that administrator inside your own brain when you’re creating. While it’s natural for us to want to perform well, we ironically perform at our best when we’re not worried about performing well… and ideally, not even thinking about performing at all.
As creatives, we need to do whatever we can to set the stage for our muse to arrive and do his/her/their magic. And part of that hinges on putting ourselves in a worry-free/fear-free state of mind as much as possible. My experience around adult learning is that humans don’t do inductive reasoning well under stress, they don’t do creative thinking well under stress, and they don’t retain well under stress.
In other words, they don’t write well under stress. Especially creative writing, and especially self-applied stress.
One way this can manifest with writers: Someone writes a book with zero pressure while enjoying the process, and then has huge, unexpected success with it. Then—when it’s time to write a follow-up—they have all these thoughts swirling in their brain about how important it is, how their career is riding on it, how lots of people are waiting for it, how they can’t blow it, etc. Is it any wonder it sometimes takes them years—and sometimes multiple “throw it away and start over” rewrites—to finish their next work? (Which—when it finally does come out—is sometimes seen as disappointing.)
I can’t think of a better recipe for creative disaster, and I feel for anyone who has to create under those circumstances. They would almost certainly do better if they could convince themselves that no one was waiting for their next book, that it didn’t matter at all, and that they were just writing for fun.
So how can we apply this to our own writing? Three strategies:
1. For starters, we can consciously not think about who might read whatever we’re writing at the moment. Yeah, your evangelical Aunt Betty might not be that into your uber-dark sexy/bloody/demonic urban fantasy. And that’s fine—it’s her choice. But if that’s the story you want to tell… that you need to tell… then you have to do whatever it takes to keep her the hell out of your writing brain while you’re drafting it. Tell yourself she’ll never read it or tell yourself you’ll warn her off or lie to yourself that you’ll remove all the stroke-inducing parts during revisions. Whatever it takes. Or—better yet—tell yourself it’ll never be a book at all… you’re just writing it for yourself and it’ll never see the light of day.
(I know a writer who did exactly that. He wrote a ‘labor of love’ book he really wanted to write—with no plans to ever publish it because he felt it was too outside the box—but after finishing it he was convinced to submit it. He did, and it went on to become an award-winning bestseller.)
2. When you come to a juncture in your writing where there’s a choice between “practical” and “fun,” go with fun whenever possible. When I wrote Road Rash I actually sat down to write another book entirely. A book that made much better business sense—a non-fiction book—because I’d been there/done that and was familiar with the process. But while creating the proposal (with non-fiction the usual business process is reversed—first you sell it, then you write it… a topic for another time) the voice of a seventeen-year-old drummer started talking to me, telling me his story. It made no real sense to drop my “logical” project in favor of this novel. I had no idea if anyone wanted to represent, edit, or publish a book of this type, or if anyone would read it/like it if it were published. But I listened to that little voice and it turned out to be one of the best writing decisions I’ve ever made. And—more important—the writing of it was so much fun.
3. As you’re writing, remind yourself that the final result will undoubtedly be different (and better) than the story as you’re originally drafting it. This will help keep you from becoming too precious about your actual words (if you love them like a mother loves her new-born baby) or too twisted up with frustration and anxiety (if you hate them like a colony of rabid hyenas nipping at your heels). Trying to determine “how good” something is while in the middle of the creative process is like looking down a road you’ve never taken before and trying to tell what’s over the next rise. You have—at best—only a wild-ass guess, and the only rational answer is that you’ll find out when you get there. In the meantime, enjoy the stretch of road you’re on and don’t worry too much about what may show up in a hundred miles.
If writing is important to you…
And if doing your best is a priority…
Then the most important thing you can do is…
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