On the necessity of play

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When I began blogging ten years ago, I would never have considered that such an unserious side project would become one of the primary tools to unblock my “real” writing. I was finishing my first year in a prestigious MFA program where I was supposed to be honing my craft, refining my voice, generating the work that would form the foundation of my thesis (and with luck, my first book). Because this is what you’re supposed to do if you want to be a “real” writer, right?

In truth, I wanted to teach as much as I wanted to write. Perhaps even more so. I should have known that this made me different from the usual entrant into the program — writers that come to MFA programs don’t necessarily love to teach, but they learn to because it’s a way of supporting their work (and often a requirement for financial aid). I, however, entered with the express intent of coming out credentialed to teach at the university level because I believed that was exactly what I wanted to do, period. I had loved my undergraduate years in the creative writing department. It was where I, an introvert to the core, found my voice, and I wanted to help other writers find theirs.

But no one would hire me without a book.

With little more than a semester and a half behind me, I had run out of inspiration. Motivation. Energy. Night after night, I stared at paragraphs on my screen that were technically well-written but contained no life. They were dead because I felt dead. I was also missing my husband. When I applied to graduate school, he started looking for a new job. His dream employer and my dream school ended up saying yes — in cities two time zones apart. The challenges to our relationship were too fresh to write into thesis-worthy form, but somehow they were all I could think about.

I related this to a classmate one evening as we stood in knee-deep snow outside the English department. Why don’t you start a blog? he said. Write about your commuter relationship there.

I thought about it on the drive home. Back at my apartment, I opened my laptop. Stared at the Word document where my next workshop essay was supposed to be taking shape. It stared blankly back.

Oh, why the hell not? I thought — and signed up for a Blogger account on the spot.

For the first time in weeks, I was able to write. Tiny, episodic letters sent into the void — letters to the couples (or halves of couples) who were also doing what we were doing. Talking about the cadence of our cross-country flights, the rituals that helped us connect, the misses in some of those attempts. Nothing bookworthy. But it was by necessity tight, focused, and just as carefully crafted as the work I was supposed to be doing. It kept me writing when the “real” words wouldn’t come, and it made room for them to flow, even if they still felt less compelling.

By the end of the semester, with more blog posts than pages in my final workshop revision, I began to realize that the microessay — because what is a blog post, if not just that? — was a form I felt most at home within. But that won’t amount to anything, I still insisted to myself. You’re just playing.

I thought no further about it and went home for the summer — two all-too-brief months with my husband in the Pacific Northwest — and returned to school no more inspired. But in those few weeks without other assignments, the blog had become a creative space I could escape into, adding another post every few days without needing to know how it would all connect just yet, or perhaps ever. Somehow, having a place to play — having writing that was, by definition, a perpetual work in progress — was sustaining my larger practice.

What does play look like in your creative work? What might looking at your work with an eye toward play free you to try? Where, outside your writing, do you play, and what, if anything, do you notice about your work when you make time for this activity? Share your thoughts by clicking the button below.