Maybe because my dining room table is plastered with paper dolls, cat toys are scattered across the living room, and Gwyn is almost constantly pulling at my sleeve begging me to play with her, but play has been much on my mind lately. Or maybe I’m thinking about it because I’m wrapping up my book about revision and realizing that the gist of 200 pages and six years of work is don’t forget to play.
Play is anything done spontaneously for its own sake—according to Stuart Brown, psychiatrist and founder of the National Institute for Play. Kids are pros. Artists are those who preserve this basic childhood capacity into adulthood. Artists are also ambassadors for play; by actually doing it, we witness to our communities and audiences that this basic human inclination is valuable.
Is it? So much around us says otherwise. By kindergarten we’re putting kids in desks and teaching them to read; we pack kids’ summers with organized activities; and by high school we hope their work ethic is sufficient to launch them into productive, economically viable jobs. By adulthood play is relegated to vacation. We can’t wait to escape the grueling routine, the mandated activities and proscribed productivity, for anything—anything!—“done spontaneously for its own sake.”
This productive whip-cracking is one of the biggest threats to making art. In the adult world, writing for writing’s sake is unconscionable. We need an audience or money or recognition or accomplishment or sales records or do-gooding or any number of recognizably productive reasons to validate our work—to make writing work and not play. New writers and even experienced writers are terrified that their creative lives are “just play,” as though play is the antithesis of worthiness.
“What can we do with our days,” Garnet Rogers sings, “but work and hope that our dreams bind our work to our play?” It seems to me that the preservation of play into adulthood—along with the maturation of our understanding of play—is the marker of a creatively engaged person. Picture mathematicians going to town on a large blackboard or a tree-trimmer swinging from the topmost branches of an elm or a city planner brainstorming with her team. Within the structure of socially acceptable productivity, we grown-ups can preserve pockets of spontaneity, absorption, and love. Painter Robert Henri called this the “play of maturity.” The poet Michael Dennis Browne says, “In writing, as in prayer, we often need to become as little children.”
The freedom of play isn’t superfluous; it’s not to be saved for vacation or retirement. Without carving space between and within our necessary activities to engage the world spontaneously, for its own sake, there’s no life-spark. Play is how we come spiritually alive. Play makes art. Play is the essential ingredient. –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew