Monday, 21 May 2012

When Writers Play - by Rosalie Warren

How often do you play? In your work, I mean? In your writing, if that's what you do?

Most writers start out, I think, by 'playing' at writing - however young or old we may be at the time. In those early days, writing is probably a hobby - perhaps an escape from real life in the form of a dull or demanding job and/or a challenging home life. At the beginning, we are often bursting with enthusiasm and ideas, and what we lack is the space, time and (perhaps) expertise to get them into shape.

If we persevere and have a hefty dose of luck, we may end up earning something for our efforts. In the past, if not so much so today, some writers could make a part-time or even a full-time career out of it. If they were very lucky, they might even become rich, though of course most never did, however good they were.

The danger is that as our writing careers progress, it's so easy to lose that intial sense of fun and play. Writing becomes the thing we have to do - either to please a publisher or even just ourselves. I'm all in favour of self-discipline - the 'sit down at your desk at 9am (if only!) so the muse knows where to find you' and the 'minimum word count per day' frame of mind. Mostly, these things work for me. But it's when I lose that sense of play that trouble looms.

I've experienced this before, way back in another life, when I studied for a PhD and then became a researcher and, eventually, a university lecturer. As a student, my research was mostly fun. OK, I was lucky - I know that PhDs can sometimes be a terrible slog. But I happened upon a topic that fascinated me, had a good supervisor and made encouraging progress from the start. My main problem was combining this with caring for two young children. Not easy, but still, on the whole, satisfying and fun.

The fun continued when I gained an EPSRC research fellowhip for three years to do postdoctoral research. In fact that was eaiser, as it was actually a 2-year fellowship spread out over three years, which suited me fine.

The trouble started after that. My marriage broke up, which didn't help. I spent a year looking for a job in the city where my ex worked so my children could see us both. After months of struggling to get by, doing tutoring and gardening and PhD supervision, often all at the same time (well, in the same morning, anyway), I managed to get a lectureship at a unviersity. Perfect - except that I was now so busy, with several hours' commuting each day, a high teaching load, masses of admin, supervising students, giving pastoral advice, etc etc etc - my research slid into the back seat. It was no longer fun - and all my creativity dried up. It became something I had to do - in order to keep my job - and something I had to do well. In the odd hour or so between other commitments, I had to come up with earth-shaking new projects and theories. Hmmm....

The human brain just doesn't work that way. Or mine doesn't. A move south (the children older now) and a new job helped a bit at first, but the pattern was soon reestablished and the commute even longer. What's more, I now had an invalid mother-in-law waiting for me with all her demands when I got home - and two teenage step-children. Then my mother died and my father (110 miles away) became very ill. Something had to give and it was my health. I had a breakdown and was very lucky to be offered early retirement on a small pension, which put me in a position (just) of being able to fulfil my lifelong dream and spend my time writing.

That was wonderful - and still is. But just recently, six years on, writing has begun to feel like work. Like something other people expect of me, rather than a game I play because it's fun. And yes, there's bound to be some of this. I have obligations to my publisher and I want to help and encorage other writers as much as I can. And anything worthwhile is sometimes sheer hard slog. But I'm very wary of losing that sense of play.

Last week, after a month or so of hard work, I decided to give myself a few days off. Just a couple of days' messing about at home, not trying to do any writing at all. I even gave myself permission to stay in bed all day (bliss!) Catching up on reading, listening to Radio 4, dozing on and off...

Heaven. And then, after an hour or so of this, a little idea popped up, which I hastily scribbled down. After half an hour's scribbling I got out of bed and transferred it to my computer.

I kept writing until 11.30pm and at the end of the day I'd done 6500 words (very unusual for me! Possibly an all-time record. Usually 2K a day is my maximum for new work).

It all goes to show - take the pressure off and the ideas will bubble up. Maybe not always, but often.

Of course, finding time to play is not easy, for many people. But if we can - and if we can give ourselves, even occasionally, whole mornings or whole days just to mess around, with permission not to produce anything - who knows what might happen?

Man is most nearly himself when he achieves the seriousness of a child at play.
— Heraclitus 500 BCE, philosopher

The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct.
—Carl Jung

Happy playing!
Best wishes

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Sue Purkiss said...

Really interesting post, Rosalie, and the quotes fit perfectly. I think you're absolutely right about the importance of playing, or keeping the joy. I've been reminded of that since I started teaching a writing class in the community - they just love what they do, and having fun with writing (as opposed to seeing it as a sometimes agonising slog!) rubs off very nicely!

JO said...

It's sad that so many of us - like you - have to learn this the hard way; and even then we forget and have to learn all over again. I hope you can carry on playing - whatever life throws at you.

Stroppy Author said...

So true that the creative ideas bit can't be forced. But getting the thing written and working IS work, and is supposed to be. Still, work can be fun, too....

Anonymous said...

Great blog post! What was your research area back then?

I find the same thing happens with ideas when you take the pressure on and look at it in a "let's have fun" attitude.

I'm glad things worked out well for you in the end - sounds incredibly difficult.

Sue said...

It's important for all writers, and particularly so for children's writers. If the spirit of playful creativity isn't there in the writing, it'll be hard work to read, too.

Sue said...

It's important for all writers, and particularly so for children's writers. If the spirit of playful creativity isn't there in the writing, it'll be hard work to read, too.

Emma Barnes said...

Oh dear, Ros, you've just given me yet another excuse to avoid my desk and take to my bed in order to recover my spirit of play!

Rosalie Warren said...

Thanks for comments, all.

Freya, I did research in cognitive science, specialising in language processing, specialising further in temporal adverbs like 'then'! And, later, metaphor. But had to teach computer programming, which I did not enjoy.

Happy playing/writing everyone!