Writing As Play: The Importance of Keeping Your Writing Playful

7 minute read
Author: SarahWHQ

Writing As Play: A Masterclass with Anika Carpenter >>

Here’s a super important thing for you to remember: you write because it’s fun and because you enjoy it, and that is enough. You don’t have to get published, you don’t have to be critically-acclaimed. You don’t even have to finish a story if you don’t want to. You can just write because it feels good.

This is the problem with productivity culture, or hustle culture, or whatever you want to call it. The culture in which everything is measured or scored or gamified or has to be a side hustle. It strips away the pointlessness of things, the glorious playfulness of things.

And before you say, “but wait you literally have a course called The Writers’ HQ Guide to Productivity”… yes. Well. We do. But in our defence the first unit is called Productivity is a Lie and goes on to dispel the idea of ‘good’ productivity as a goal in and of itself and pivots towards finding your way to a more joyful writing practice. And also don’t let’s get started on the retreat score boards. Hypocrisy is fine when we do it.

In his brilliant essay What’s the Point If We Can’t Have Fun?, anthropology pinup David Graeber suggests that play doesn’t just come pre-installed in humans, it’s built into the structure of the universe on an atomic level. Essentially, he says that play is our natural state of being, like Brownian motion is for molecules.

And what happens if molecules are forced into a state of stillness? They take on a different form: solidity, rigidity. A lack of freedom. We need play like we need air; because it gives us life.

We tend to define the idea of play in opposition to the idea of work — that play is the thing we do with no point, and is therefore unimportant, and work is the thing we do which has a specific point, and is therefore very important. (Although tell all the people stuck in busywork careers that there is a point to their endless bureaucratic tedium and they might have something else to say on the matter).

But it’s incredibly well known that both social and academic learning happens best through play, that great discoveries and ideas often come about through play, so the idea of it being unimportant is, frankly, butts.

There is a real risk of this kind of narrative though, and that’s the idea of play being weaponised into some good old fashioned contemporary LinkedIn super-productivity crap — that we must play because it’s good for our mental health or will help our productivity or work ethic or whatever. At which point it immediately stops being play and starts being some more bullshit in among all the rest of the bullshit. We can’t give play a point because then it becomes work. Goddamn words and their stupid meanings.

Here’s a perfect example: Lego Serious Play. Yup, it’s a thing. Look, I’m loath to criticise Lego, who are generally pretty groovy, but Serious Play is a next level grift. This is from their website:

“LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® began as an experiential process designed for use in guided workshops with adults to prompt dialogue and encourage reflection, as well as develop problem-solving skills and use of the imagination. However, SERIOUS PLAY® sets such as the Starter Kit are also suitable for building critical thinking skills in kids aged 6+. Each set is designed to enhance different skills, such as reflection and dialogue. This innovative approach to interaction is a valuable asset in business as well as education and helps participants open up through the approachable medium of play.”

Are… are we playing now? Is this fun?

I know they have to make money, and flogging Lego blocks to corporations for inflated sums under the guise of team building is a genius strategy and full props to the marketing team who came up with it. But it’s not play and there’s something quite sinister about the idea that this most sacred, most human, of human pastimes can be packaged in this way.

But! You know what is play? Filling your billiard room with earthworms.

So, Charles Darwin, right. He’s the dude with the evolution and what have you. But he was also absolutely obsessed with worms. So much so that he filled his billard room with earthworms, which is exactly what I would do if I, too, had a billiard room.

He spent years letting them live rent-free in his home, during which time he composed music especially for them to see how they would respond, shone lights at them to see if they danced, generally hung out with them like they were all friends.

Anyhoo, over the years, many people have pondered that what this actually means is that we should all do more stuff, just like Darwin. “Slow motion multitasking” is what economist and author Tim Harford calls it. But I’m not convinced. I prefer to think what Charles Darwin was doing is what we at Writers’ HQ like to call dicking about.

He was curious about a thing and so he kept exploring and poking at a thing with no specific end goal in mind. His curiosity was enough to warrant years of intense and weird exploring and poking. I like to picture him having a jolly nice time in the process, hanging out with his wormy friends and just, ya know, vibing. In a way, it’s almost unfortunate that his decades of earthworms-in-the-billiard-room led to a seminal book in the history of human understanding of the world, The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms, With Observations on Their Habits, often shortened to just Worms.

Because this kind of dicking about can lead to Really Big Good Things, it’s very easy to lose sight of the directionlessness of the original dicking about and, much like Tim Harford, LinkedIn-ify it.

Of course, it’s interesting to ask why we play, but it also doesn’t really matter. In his essay, Graeber says: “Why does the existence of action carried out for the sheer pleasure of acting, the exertion of powers for the sheer pleasure of exerting them, strike us as mysterious? What does it tell us about ourselves that we instinctively assume that it is?”

I’d like to add: what does it tell us about ourselves that we struggle to conceive of acting out of sheer pleasure without desperately trying to ascribe another purpose to it?

We can ask ourselves why we play, but to set out to play with a purpose is counterintuitive. We play because it’s fun. That’s the long and the short of it.

And so then, when writing stops being fun or becomes stressful, or when we find ourselves in the downward spiral of hating what we write and feeling bad when we write and then feeling bad for not writing, it is worth coming back to this original place: we write because it’s fun, because we enjoy it, because it’s playful, and you are allowed to enjoy things for no other reason than you enjoy them.

Writing shouldn’t be a chore. Sure, sometimes it’s hard but writing is an exploration of the deepest parts of what it means to be human. It’s at once absurd, ephemeral and vital. It’s powerful work and it’s all too easy to get bogged down in our own sense of seriousness. But when we bring the joy, the rest follows easily (ish).

All of which is to say, somewhat confusingly if you’ve ever read our logo: start dicking about and go write.


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