Don’t Bother Me. I’m Playing.


On Monday, I told you the story of two little girls.

You probably guessed that both of them are me.

I was raised in a well-ordered, disciplined household with two intelligent parents committed to my success. They gave me a lot of good advice: “Make the most of every opportunity.” “Don’t waste time.” “Playing gets you nowhere; perseverance gets you everywhere.”

In many parts of life, this was very helpful . . . Until I pursued creative writing.

True to my roots, I made fiction my serious business. I put blinders on and worked really, really hard. No playing around. No false starts. Nothing less than a masterpiece would do.

Funny thing was, even though I improved, my progress fell far behind other writers I knew who were (in my mind) a lot less disciplined.

I felt frustrated for years.

But then, just in time for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) this year, I finally figured it out.

You see, my parents had taught me organization and work ethic and focus. I had learned their lessons well. But in the process, I had forgotten how to play.

I realized this while reading two articles for work. Both authors were exploring the phenomenon of genius, and both emphasize the role of play—exploring and tinkering with wildly disparate concepts, in a spirit of fun—as a key factor in creative brilliance.

“Like the highly playful child with a pailful of Legos, a genius is constantly combining and recombining ideas, images and thoughts into different combinations in their conscious and subconscious minds.” – Michael Michalko, How Geniuses Think

“The only way you can do breakthrough research is constantly to play with phenomena . . . If you don’t have that playfulness, you’re never going to have the breadth of experiences necessary to run into something, in a sense, by accident.” – Robert Root-Bernstein, The Genius Who Plays for a Living

Stunned, I decided to pull my inner playful child out of the mud and invite her back into my over-planned brian.

So for NaNoWriMo, I tackled an idea I’d had over TeslaCon weekend, which I had barely fleshed out. (Any of you who know me well know this is sacrilege!) I told myself that for once, I didn’t have to know where the story was going. Instead, I gave myself just three rules:

  1. The story had to be funny.
  2. It had to pull together the wildest possible concepts.
  3. While writing it, I had to feel like I did as a fiver-year-old, when the teacher dismissed me for recess.

We’re almost halfway through NaNoWriMo now.

So how well am I sticking to my own rules? Have I discovered new things about myself as a writer and my creative process? Beyond that . . . am I really playing?

More on that Friday.

In the mean time, how do you incorporate play into your creativity? And what do you think of Tim Brown’s TED Talk on play, below?

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