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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

If creativity is play, how can we make it work?

I figure you’ll find as much truth in humor as anywhere, especially in this age of “The Daily Show”; and Ricky Gervais has posted a good essay on the Huffington Post's humor page that’s about the vital link between creativity and play. “You have to let yourself go to be creative,” he writes. “... If you’re writing or directing, give yourself enough time to play. Play the fool. Goad. Shock. Laugh. Trip over something that isn’t there.”

This advice is excellent — but it also made me wonder. When your livelihood depends on your creative output, how do you still make it about play?

I’ve been writing for a living independently for over 30 years. I have no complaints; I haven’t gotten rich, but I’ve been lucky to do the work, and its challenge often comes down to just this issue. When what you’re producing in any kind of creative work has to be good or you can’t pay the bills, yet its quality depends on your willingness to mess around in playful ways ... how do you do that?

It’s easy to be so earnest. It’s natural to bear down and try real hard to do important and meaningful work; but what if that actually gets in the way of what might make the work really good? And yet, and yet ... with all the pressure on our production, how can we let ourselves take the risk to play the fool, to trip over something that isn’t there?

I used to be really good at tripping over things that didn’t exist when I was about 14, but never mind. No, actually, let me go there. I often do creative-writing workshops in middle schools these days, and this gets really interesting. Young adolescents are in the bewildering crux of a critical transition, from being a child to becoming a young adult. Their English teachers tell me they will not revise their writing; they don’t see the point. This is considered a big problem, because until you learn to revise you can’t write effectively ... in a grownup way.

Writing a second draft, checking spelling and grammar, listening to feedback — all that stuff is, if you think about it, part of the more adult-like side of creative work. Most middle schoolers still have some of their childhood inventiveness and spontaneity left. And they would never articulate this, but I think on some level, even as they try so hard to be powerful cutting-edge young adults, they still don’t want to lose all of that precious kid nature. And that's smart.

“Pablo Picasso summed it up well,” Ricky Gervais writes: “‘Every child is an atist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.’”

The way I try to work with this in a positive way, in writing workshops for young teens, is to encourage people to have and use their kid selves, their playful selves — in generating the first draft. That is the phase for messing around, in writing. It's in rough-drafting that our child sides should play, so we can generate something new that is inventive and full of living energy. Along with a mess.

Kids leave a mess, when they play. So I’ll say, don’t worry in this phase about spelling or grammar or anything; don’t clean double back and clean things up. Just let loose and try stuff. I’ll urge them to experiment, in the drafting phase, with writing a little faster than usual. This is a trick many working writers use, to help us loosen up and let it fly. It’s like the child who plays, knowing there’s a grownup nearby to clean up (or help us clean up) after. Writing fast and loose, the drafting writer knows there’s a grownup ready to step in. And that grownup will be us: the writer in the revising and rewriting phase.

We all have child- and an adult-oriented sides of our brain. The child side, the right side, is more playful and creative, while the adult or left side wants to bear down and get things right, be successful, do something that matters and is the best work we can do. Our adult side will rewrite and rewrite, again and again until it all clicks together solid and right. Our adult side will check spelling, break up and clarify tangled sentences, ask for critical feedback ... and actually listen (in theory, at least) when it’s offered.

So they key to me isn’t just to be kidlike and play, or just to be sober or professional. It’s to work with the phasing — to call on each side of ourselves at the right time in the process of doing creative work. Of course, it’s much easier to explain this than to actually do it. I say write your rough draft fast and just push ahead, don’t go back and revise until later. But do I do this?

Well ... I do try. I suppose that's all any of us can do, in the end. 

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