On Creative Writing As Grown-Up Playtime

I have a fear. Actually, I have lots of fears. But this specific fear is about writing.

I spent a lot of time reading and writing as a child. I learned to read well at a young age, and I started devouring books. I read at the dinner table, in the car, on the couch, in my bed, at other peoples' houses. And then I wrote. I wrote long stories, short stories, poems, and piles upon piles of character descriptions and plot outlines. My head was full of ideas, and almost all of them made it onto paper in some form. I have notebooks full of words that I wrote buried in the closet of my childhood bedroom.

And then, at some point...I stopped. I've been trying to pinpoint exactly when and why this occurred, but thus far I've been unsuccessful in that endeavor. I do, however, have a theory.

The first part of my theory has to do with a change of habit. My creative writing track record was still remarkably good all the way through at least early high school, but it was around junior and senior year that we started being asked to write actual, lengthy papers as homework for school. Obviously I'd been writing school papers for quite a few years, but they'd always come fairly easy to me, even if I never made the biggest effort to write anything amazing. But in my senior year of high school, I signed up for three AP (Advanced Placement) classes: Literature & Composition, US Government & Politics (I know, what?), and Spanish. Enter: the busiest year of homework of my life (college included). Worksheets, online exercises, vocabulary lists, and papers, papers, papers consumed my every waking moment. My interest in other kinds of writing began to wane along with my free time. And then came college (when you get a degree in sociology, you write a lot of papers), and then the real world, and, burned out on all of the "scholarly" reading and writing I was doing, my creative writing habit never returned.

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The second part of my theory can be summed up in three words: fear of shame. I am afraid of being ashamed of my creative endeavors. I have not always had this fear. As a child and teenager, I was proud of my characters and the worlds I had created for them. I personally liked them, and I got positive external feedback from my friends and family as well. But as I got older, almost without realizing it, I became increasingly critical of myself in all areas of life, and I learned that there will be opinions about the things I do that come from people other than my mom and best friends - and they will not always be encouraging. Thus began my fear of inner and outer critics. And that fear, coupled with the aforementioned lack of creative writing practice that occurred as schoolwork took over my life, has caused me to shrink away from creating much of anything.*

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So here I am, fearful and stuck about words I haven't even begun to write.

What originally brought this post about was (yet another) fantastic article (out of many) from one of my favorite web sites, Brain Pickings. This particular one was about Sigmund Freud on creative writing and daydreaming. One quote from Freud really popped out of the page at me:


"[A] piece of creative writing, like a day-dream, is a continuation of, and a substitute for, what was once the play of childhood." 

When I am nannying, I spend a lot of time observing the boys as they play, and they often invite me to join them. Of course, I have to learn the rules first: this car can't be friends with that car, no Rachel, that marble is the bad guy, etc. The world they create has its similarities to ours, and yet it is completely made up, a product of the imagination of children who shamelessly create and then build on those creations and let them run free. It's beautiful. And I used to be like that. I played creatively and I wrote creatively. The one factor that has truly changed from then to now is my level of shame. Not shame because of anything I've done; not guilt, or regret. Instead, it's a kind of pre-shame. Maybe what I want to write is stupid, or wrong, or might be taken the wrong way. What if the world I am creating is shot down, or people will see the real me, and realize they want nothing to do with me? What if I hate what I write down, and I want nothing to do with myself? That kind of shame.  The kind of shame that never really crossed my mind when I was younger. 

Essentially, what I want is a revival of thinking about writing as playtime. Not in a frivolous sense, but in a way that frees me up to write anything, even one sentence, in the first place. Because nothing will get written if I don't write. And I won't write if I am berating myself for every thought that begs to be let out. I need to replace my inner critic with young Rachel and give myself permission to let my imagination run wild, fearless in the face of even hypothetical repercussions or scorn. I want to become that "creative writer [who] transcends [shame] to achieve pleasure in the disclosure" of my daydreams and stories. Because according to Freud,

"...our actual enjoyment of an imaginative work proceeds from a liberation of tensions in our minds. It may even be that not a little of this effect is due to the writer’s enabling us thenceforward to enjoy our own day-dreams without self-reproach or shame."

I want to be that enabler, but first I have to enable myself.

Happy Monday!

Photos via Austin Kleon ::: Inspiration for this post via Brain Pickings

*Photography is the notable exception to this. For some reason, I got over the fear of sharing my photographs with the world fairly quickly. In part, I believe this is because technology makes it easy to create a beautiful photograph onto which people can project their own analyses and therefore get self-tailored enjoyment from - no criticism needed. I don't use photography to portray my emotions or experiences - most of the time, I use it to portray others' emotions and experiences. And that's an entirely different ball game. For me, the purpose of photography is to share with others, and help freeze a moment in time that someone else will be able to enjoy. It's much less personal, and in my opinion, writing, even fiction, is completely personal.