Day 4: Unicorns…why not?

When we talk about writing, we often talk about work.  I can hardly think about my novel without ordering myself to “get to work.”  We even use the word “work” to refer to the novel or the poem itself: as in, “Here is a sample of my best work.”  We “work” the prose (and sometimes over-work it), share our “work,” “work” on our stories and, when we are feeling uninspired, we “work” through it.  There are also a handful of writing tidbits that utilize the work metaphor.  Here’s a handful:

      • Writing is 1% inspiration and 99% work (or some variation on this theme)
      • Your job as a writer is to show up
      • Writing is work
      • Since writing is work, you should dress for the occasion

This sign sits by a jungle gym more elaborate than any jungle gym I've ever seen (and so elaborate I couldn't get a decent picture)

Sometimes, however, I wonder if we think of writing too much as “work” and forget about other words…like “play” and “joy” and “wonder”  These words aren’t associated with  words like “I have to” (as in “I have to go to work”) or “I don’t want to” (as in “I don’t want to go to work”).

And so, friends, on this Monday, instead of work, let’s think about enchantment.  My computer’s dictionary reminds that “enchantment” is “to fill (someone) with delight” and isn’t that a better way to approach our writing?  To let the project both “fill us” and “delight” us.  I think of enchantment, and I think of child-like wonder and awe.  I think of magic.  I think of being put under a spell or a charm.  I think of being charmed.  While I often resist going to work, I always want to be enchanted.

When I was nine or ten, I wrote a story about a girl who met a unicorn. She fell asleep against the moss of a tree and slept without dreaming. In the margins, my teacher had written, “why not have her dream of more unicorns?”  I still remember the scene I wrote: unicorns playing in the clouds.  Tumbling about in the stars.  And–dare I say it?–baby unicorns were also involved.

If I wrote that scene today, I would be embarrassed by it. I might have lead the same young girl into the forest, and she might have imagined meeting a unicorn, but no way would I have actually written a unicorn in.  Furthermore, if I had read my teacher’s comments, I would have thought, ‘this is so contrived.’ I would have thought, ‘dreams are messier than that.’  I would have thought, ‘of course there wouldn’t be unicorns.’  And then I wouldn’t have had the joy in writing that scene (which i still remember 20 years later–why is that?)

And so, here’s a suggestion for today, an exercise in play aimed at reminding ourselves of past enchantments. The general idea was taken from a Ted Talk given by Young-ha Kim (that I posted about on the 20th of February):

A sideways view of swings

Take a simple theme. Here are a handful to choose from:

  • Your favorite childhood memory
  • Your favorite childhood toy
  • Saturday mornings
  • Your favorite game
  • Playground politics

Set a timer for 30-45 minutes and then, “write like crazy.” This part is important. As Young-ha Kim insists, we need write fast and furious to keep the devil from filling us with doubt.  “Art,” Kim insists, “is about going a little nuts.”

When I think about work, I think about that thing I have to do when I’m not at home writing. And so when I am at home writing, why not let writing be something better than work. Why not let ourselves go a little crazy? Why not let it bring us joy? Why not tap into our sense of wonder and awe? Why not write about unicorns?

Exercising Play

…and speaking of play, here’s a writing prompt for the afternoon:

Take a scene that you’ve been having trouble with.  It could be a scene you need to write or one you need to revise, but whatever you choose, it should involve more than one character.  Write out the scene in play format (including stage directions).  Force them to talk to each other for at least 3 or 4 pages (or more).  You’ll probably cut most of this dialogue out, but let your characters take the conversation somewhere you hadn’t anticipated.  The most important thing to remember is there should be action (people are watching them and, therefore, they’ll need to be doing something.)

Now transform the scene back into prose.

And you thought I meant the other kind of play…