Playing in the toolbox

But do we really play? Just have fun with the sport, the musical instrument, the piece of writing we’re working on? Do we improvise for the sake of improvising?

When I was in kindergarten, my classroom, like many of its generation, had a sandbox and a wooden jungle gym. Children were encouraged to play in the sandbox, and to climb the jungle gym. It’s hard to imagine having a jungle gym inside a classroom nowadays, but it says something about how adults viewed childhood when I was a kid. Back then, children were meant to play.

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As adults, many of us seem to forget how to play. And when I say play, I mean it as an activity in and of itself. Maybe we play tennis, or golf. Maybe we play guitar in some corner of our basements. But do we really play? Just have fun with the sport, the musical instrument, the piece of writing we’re working on? Do we improvise for the sake of improvising? Are we comfortable colouring outside the lines, and discovering where those colours will take us?

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I’ve been re-reading Julia Cameron’s work recently, and she’s big on play. In her book, Walking in This World, Cameron writes that “We’re so respectful of ‘great’ art that we always, chronically, sell ourselves short. We’re so worried about whether we can play in the ‘big leagues’ that we refuse to let ourselves play at all.”

Right now, I’m working on a new novel, and worrying if it makes any sense. That’s because the novel is experimental and has characters who don’t make much sense to the everyday world. But they’re funny, and working on this book makes me laugh. As I sit down to work on my novel each day, I feel always like I’m just playing with my literary toolbox.

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And so, Cameron’s point speaks straight to my art. What if I became so worried about the quality of my novel, that I just gave up in despair of writing something “worthy”? I know this happens to folks sometimes, but fortunately I have Julia Cameron and others to back me up. What if we just all played?

Thinking in this way reminds me of one of the most interesting poets I encountered back in graduate school. Reading Gertrude Stein’s “Lifting Belly” for the first time was like an exercise in frustration:

Dear me. Lifting belly.
Dear me. Lifting belly.
Oh yes.
Alright.
Sing.
Do you hear.
Yes I hear.
Lifting belly is amiss.
This is not the way.
I see.
Lifting belly is alright.
Is it a name.
Yes it's a name.
We were right.

--"Lifting Belly" by Gertrude Stein, from The Yale Gertrude Stein, Selections, with an Introduction by Richard Kostelanetz, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980.

“Lifting Belly” was frustrating until I realized how it plays with language, with rhythms, with ideas about poetry. Stein’s poem challenged me to challenge my own thinking, and forced me to re-evaluate the nature of play.

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So I’m heading back to a kind of intellectual kindergarten classroom. I’m heading back to that literary toolbox, and performing mental gymnastics all over my literary jungle gym. I’m heading back to play. Because, as Julia Cameron asserts, “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.”