By Kellye Crocker
Memorial Day has always struck me as a bit odd. It’s a national holiday honoring the US military men and women who gave their lives for our freedom. Their sacrifice—and that of their families, friends and communities—is unfathomable. At the same time, it’s a three-day weekend (for many) that unofficially kicks off summer. Even as an adult, I feel giddy anticipation. Summer is the quintessential season to play.
Recently, I’ve given serious thought to play, including how it can help me reach my writing goals. That may sound counterintuitive, but I’ve come to believe play is integral to the creative process—and not just for feral first drafts.
For me, play means ditching my Inner Critic, stripping off the pantyhose of perfectionism, and, as literary agent Holly Root advises, keeping my eyes on my own test paper. (It doesn’t have to be about mixed metaphors, but it can be. Loosen up! Break some rules! No one is going to die if you add another exclamation point! Or another!)
It’s about embracing your weird, as Alexander Lumans advised in an excellent talk at Denver’s Lighthouse Writers Workshop this spring. Because that weird stuff that pops into your head—say, the naughty fairy who flies into your Serious Literary Art—can breathe energy into your writing if you let it stay and play.
Disclaimer 1: I’m not saying you should throw the rules away, write badly and then try to traditionally publish that dreck or put it out yourself. Unless, you know, it works for readers. On the other hand, maybe allowing yourself to write awfully badly (!!) might propel your writing into cool, new places you couldn’t have imagined before you became a playful rule-breaker. For me, play means taking my work seriously, but approaching it with a lighter, more joyful, grateful heart.
Let me tell you about my play role model, my dear friend and Vermont College of Fine Arts roommate, Sarah Aronson, who has published a picture book, a middle grade novel and two young adult novels. I know a lot of hard-working, talented, successful and generous authors, and Sarah is one. But I have never met someone more willing to try things with her writing, more willing to start over without ego, than Sarah. In a keynote lecture at the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrator’s Wild Wild Midwest conference this spring, Sarah shared how she’d played herself out of a dark place. Although many editors admired her latest YA manuscript—an edgy project she’d worked on for two years and considered her best work—they couldn’t get it past their acquisitions committees. Sarah, of course, is far from alone.
This was fall 2014, and Sarah’s response was to give herself six months to focus on creativity or, as she put it, to live like David Bowie, who not only wrote songs and stories, but also painted. “I had one rule and one rule only,” Sarah said. “I was going to write without any expectations.”
She would write what she’d somehow convinced herself she couldn’t or shouldn’t: Picture books, humor, essays, an adult novel, poetry, and most important, a light-and-delicious project she thought of as “peach sorbet,” a chapter book about a very bad fairy godmother. She also took long walks along Lake Michigan, read books about creativity, doodled, worked with clay and read poetry aloud. She played with writing exercises.
She let go of fear, shrugged off mistakes, and relaxed. And, happily, Scholastic plans to publish that “peach sorbet”—“The Worst Fairy Godmother Ever!”—in 2017, and Beach Lane Books bought Sarah’s picture book biography “Just Like Rube Goldberg.”
I started my current project—a young middle grade novel—after a phone call with Sarah. I was new to Colorado and feeling down about my writing. Give yourself three months to play, she said. I did and still am. I’m having more fun writing than I have in years.
Disclaimer 2: I’m not a paid promoter for Sarah Aronson. She’s just awesome. Her Monday Motivation newsletter is a quick, thought-provoking read with tips and prompts that help me start my writing week right. (Sign up is at the bottom of the tips page.) She also writes about play and “eating dessert first” in this guest post at The Greenhouse Literary Agency blog.
When you think about it, the opportunity to play is a gift, a luxury that many people in the world don’t share. I’m grateful to those who serve and have served in our military, as well as for their family members. How do you plan to celebrate the holiday and make the most of your summer? How do you want to play with your creativity and writing? I’d love to hear your thoughts.