Since this blog is mostly about writing, I’m going to try to turn this anecdote into a writing tip, but you’ll have to bear with me for a minute. A few months ago I joined the local Unitarian Church. As a card-carrying atheist, my choices in the Sunday morning worship department are are rather limited; fortunately, the local UU’s, as we’re supposed to call ourselves, are an active congregation, very inclusive and welcoming — and I get to practice my sight-singing with the secular humanist hymns.
We have an excellent minister (he’s leaving in July — boo, hiss!), but sometimes the services are presented by members of the congregation, or by guests. Yesterday we had a guest, an aspiring Unitarian minister named Claire Eustace. Her announced topic for the sermon was “Let’s Play!” Now, I’m one of the more playful geezers you’re likely to run into, so I was ready to be inspired.
Except, not. Ms. Eustace began her sermon with a long list of the awful things that are going on in the world. Our alleged president was mentioned. Global warming was mentioned. Discrimination against LGBTQ people was mentioned. I’m sitting there thinking, if you’ll pardon the phrase, “What the fuck?”
After a couple of minutes she suggested that we all wave our arms and make silly noises while we paint the sanctuary with imaginary colors — quite silly, but at least she’s getting onto the topic now. But no. After that we’re back to another litany of misery courtesy of the really awful world we all live in. I’m dyin’ inside.
And then, mirabile dictu, she mentions how important it is to be spontaneous. This was my cue. Fortunately, I was on an aisle seat. I jumped up and started dancing down the aisle snapping my fingers, back to the back of the sanctuary and out the door. I wandered around outside for ten minutes and went back in just as she was finishing.
It’s not often you get to make a post-modern editorial statement on the spur of the moment while also saving your sanity, but I was locked and loaded. I wanted to get out of there!
My read of the situation is that most likely Ms. Eustace is a painfully serious person, and was trying to apply somebody’s advice (perhaps the advice of a therapist) that she lighten up. But here’s the thing about play: Play is not — repeat, NOT — a way of giving ourselves a break from the soul-destroying crises to which we’re exposed in the daily news. Play is just play. That’s all it is.
A baby goat does not frolic to distract itself from the knowledge that it may soon be eaten by a puma. It frolics quite simply because frolicking feels good. That’s all play is, Ms. Eustace. It’s about feeling good. It’s not a response to anything; it is an end in itself.
Consider how we humans use the word. We play board games and card games. We play music. And sometimes we go to a play, where the people onstage play parts. Why do we do all this stuff? Because it’s fun.
The lesson for me, as a writer, is that if I’m not having fun writing, I’m doing it wrong. Writing is not about making a point. It’s not about proving anything, or inspiring people. Nothing like that. Writing fiction is a form of play.
That doesn’t mean it’s always easy! Sometimes writing is painful. But I would hope that it’s painful because the paragraph or the chapter is going badly, not because I’m writing about things that are inherently painful. I know some writers devote themselves to exploring painful emotions, impossible family conflicts, and so forth. I have nothing to say to those writers, other than to misquote Fleetwood Mac: “You go your way, I’ll go mine.”
For me as a reader, if a novel doesn’t shine with a spirit of playfulness, I’m going to set it down and not pick it up again. We can’t all be Terry Pratchett, but life is too short to spend it grinding around in the muck.