Writing Practice as Play

Pencils and pads of paper for journaling

Why is writing so serious? Put another way, why is it so hard for writers to play when we write? Janet Burroway, in her excellent, highly recommended, oft-assigned text, Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft describes how her creative writing workshop students experienced a class exchange with student choreographers.

The first time we came into the dance theater, we writers sat politely  down in our seats with our notebooks on our laps. The choreographer-dancers did stretches on the carpet, headstands on the steps; some sat backward on the chairs; one folded herself down into a seat like a teabag in a teacup. When they started to dance they were given a set of instructions: Group A is rolling through, up, and under; Group B is blue Tuesday; Group C is weather comes from the west. The choreographers began to invent movement; each made up a “line” of dance. They repeated and altered it. The bumped into each other, laughed, repeated, rearranged, and danced it through. They did it again. They adjusted. They repeated. They danced it through. Nobody was embarrassed and nobody gave up. They tried again. One of the young writers turned to me with a face of luminous discovery. “We don’t play enough,” she said.

Indeed. I can’t recall the last time I approached my writing as play. The next deadline, the next submission, the next essay lurks with cudgel in hand, ready to beat my nose to the grindstone. Keep calm and struggle on. Each sentence must participate in a larger goal or else why bother.

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Ms. Burroway is something of a calm jester, directing the writing student back to a place we existed before we decided to be writers. Back when we delighted in “one fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish.” (Am I the only one who still adores Mr. Seuss? Such joy through playing with language!) She teaches us how to play again.

Like Natalie Goldberg she urges us forward using a combination of freewriting, focused freewriting, brainstorming and using the world. She writes:

Freewrite. “Either on a regular schedule or at frequent intervals, sit down and write without any plan whatsoever of what you are going to write.”

Focused freewrite. “Pick a topic and focus on it. Write for five or ten minutes, saying anything at all about it – anything at all – in any order.”

Brainstorm. “Start with the question What if…? Finish the question and then free-associate around it, absolutely anything that pops into your head-ideas, situations,  connections, solutions, and images, no matter how bizarre.”

Using the world. “A journal is not a diary. Your journal may include your own feelings and problems, but training yourself to observe the outside world will help develop the skills of an imaginative writer.”

Burrow has a much longer range plan for these prompts, trigger lines and ideas for “playing in your journal.” Indeed, in later chapters she takes us through the process of using these prompts to flesh out longer pieces, including an essay and short story (both about 15o0 words), three poems and one ten-minute play. Whether one chooses to pursue fiction or not, Ms. Burroway believes all forms of writing cross-pollinate. Playwriting, for example, teaches fiction writers about dialogue and spatial movement of characters; poetry about the density and sound of words.

Again, I highly recommend this book. If you can afford it, it is well worth the 60-ish dollars for the fourth edition. If that price is too budget adverse, consider a used copy, an earlier edition or your public library.