FINISH was my word of the year for both 2020 and 2021. Each year I was determined to complete a different novel. Each year my health issues loudly laughed at this goal.
Really in the last four years, since I earned my MFA in Writing at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, whenever I’ve been healthy, I’ve focused more on submitting short stories for publication or trying to plan out a story or novel that’s “worthy” of publication, rather than writing for fun.
Even though several of my stories made it through the first hurdles in the publication process, receiving positive rejection letters, I fixated on my failure to publish. Whenever I did manage to write, I became overly perfectionistic, shooting down any idea I didn’t think was a shoe-in for publication, or spinning my wheels, planning out a story or novel — over and over— to ensure it would be just right.
Writing had become a sense of anxiety about whether I measured up, instead of an act of expression. So, I began reading books and watching shows to help me think about making art in new ways. I also watched a good friend try something new with her blog and loved what she did.
As my health improved, one word began to sing loudly in my head: PLAY.
The Power Of Being An Amateur
The most powerful example that helped me rethink how I approach writing and art comes from the book Art and Fear by David Bayles & Ted Orland. They tell the story of a ceramics teacher who divided their class into two halves. One group would be graded on quantity (measured by weight) and the other group would be graded on quality.
“Well, came the grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of the highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity.” (Art & Fear)
As the authors say, “One of the basic and difficult lessons every artist must learn is that even the failed pieces are essential.”
The realization that failure is important in art gave me the courage to do something I’ve wanted to do for a long time — draw. As a kid I loved drawing but stopped around junior high, when I realized I didn’t draw perfectly. In the era of Instagram and Facebook, I’ve admired my friends who post their art online—some highly polished pieces, but also some rougher pieces they’re using to learn a new skill. I love seeing each and every piece.
For years I told myself that if I ever became a vampire I’d take up drawing in the daylight hours when I was stuck inside. What I find amusing is that it was more believable to me that I would become a vampire than that I could just take up drawing as a human adult and not worry about being an amateur.
In his reassuring book, Show Your Work, author Austin Kleon says, “We’re all terrified of being revealed as amateurs, but in fact, today it is the amateur— the enthusiast who pursues her work in the sprit of love (in French, the word means “lover”), regardless of the potential for fame, money or career — who often has the advantage over the professional.”
Why does an amateur have an advantage over a professional?
Kleon says, it’s “Because they have little to lose, amateurs are willing to try anything and share the results. They take chances, experiment, and follow their whims. Sometimes, in the process of doing things in an unprofessional way, they make new discoveries.”
As Kleon says, “The world is changing at such a rapid rate that it’s turning us all into amateurs.”
I imagine the ceramic students, who were graded by weight, might have felt like they were able to be amateurs in their art, free in the ability to take chances and make new discoveries, and this allowed them to create a higher quality in some of their pieces.
In the few months since I’ve started drawing, I’ve embraced being an amateur and have had more fun than I’ve had in a long, long time. It turns out I love drawing!
I’ve been listening to memoirs or music while I draw. Recently I started listening to the Beatles again. After listening to the many songs they wrote, I realized some of them are kind of mediocre. However, like with the ceramics students, they created so many songs that many of our culture’s highest quality songs are Beatles songs.
I’ve heard people say the Beatles success was because they were musical geniuses. While there’s no denying they were skilled musicians, I think there’s a better lesson in studying their work.
What The Recent Documentary The Beatles: Get Back Taught Me About Play
What surprised me about watching the eight–hour documentary of 1969 Paul, John, George, and Ringo trying to write an album in just a few weeks was how playful they were. Yes, after twelve years of non-stop playing—including long sessions in Hamburg clubs — the Beatles were skilled musicians, but their love of music and their fondness to play around is evidenced in almost every scene in Get Back.
Paul and John sing “The Two of Us” in silly accents while they wait for the recording equipment to be ready. Another time they sing with clenched teeth. John often sings his answers to his bandmates or plays around with the established lyrics, just for fun.
At one point, Paul tries out various rhythms on his guitar until he comes up with the riff for the hit song, “Get Back”. He passes it by a couple times, playing mediocre stuff in the middle, but keeps coming back to that riff. As someone watching in 2021— someone who knows the fully written hit song — I wanted him to keep playing the riff I knew, but 1969 Paul didn’t know that riff. He just plays around until he decides that’s the one he likes.
I noted that Paul wasn’t bothered while he played the mediocre stuff. He didn’t stop and say, Ug! This is so mediocre. I’m mediocre. He just played until something he liked came out.
This idea of play was reinforced when George plays a couple lines from a song he was working on, one that would later become his hit song “Something.”
George plays the line, “Something in the way she moves, attracted me…” and then asks, “What attracted me at all?”
John answers, “Just say whatever comes into your head each time. ‘Attracts me like a cauliflower’ until you get the word, you know?”
George says, “Yeah, but I’ve been through this one, like, for about six months. Attracts me like a pomegranate?”
Then George sings the line, “Something in the way she moves, attracts me like a moth to candlelight, pomegranate.”
John replies, “Cauliflower is better.”
Eventually, on the album Abbey Road, the line is “attracts me like no other lover” but cauliflower and pomegranate probably got him to the rhyme he wanted.
As I watched the Beatles play over much of the eight-hour documentary, it became clear that their willingness to play, more so than “genius” is what allowed them to create such a diverse array of songs over the years.
Another thing that amazed both Paul McCartney and me was how the Beatles were able to write the entire album Let It Be, and many of the songs for Abbey Road in just a few weeks. McCartney realizes it’s because they had a deadline.
It’s amazing what having a deadline can do for play and creativity. Ever since I finished grad school I’ve been trying to figure out a way to give myself deadlines, since —unlike the Beatles — it’s not like I have the whole world just waiting for me to write a short story.
What Playing Offers Over Publication
After watching friends and classmates publish I’ve come to realize very few writers actually live off of their writing earnings. Most writers live off of their teaching, their day job, or their partner. Also, many of the published writers I know don’t seem that happy being published.
I’ve heard so many nightmare stories about how the author had communicated to their editor they’d be on vacation for one week of the year, way ahead of time, but that after months of waiting to hear back that’s the one week the editor insists the edits must be done. I’ve also seen friends receive unfair bad reviews for wonderful novels they’d spent years working on, or worse receive little attention of any kind for their magnificent work. As one friend said, “it was like my book was just a pebble dropped into the ocean.”
The more I watched my friends and classmates publish, the more I questioned my goals. I never wanted to have a book launch party or be in the spotlight. What I most wanted was to write and create and have my friends and family be able to read and see my work.
In 2021, my friend Joan tried a five-month experiment with her blog What the Fluff, where she posted a short story and blog post each month. I fell in love with this model. I thoroughly enjoyed getting to read her short stories and blog posts. She’s a horror writer, a genre I usually don’t typically read, but her horror stories are so engaging and human that I read them happily. This made me realize I don’t need traditional publishing as motivation to create stories or blog posts.
Joan’s model showed me what I most want is to be able to PLAY.
Using my blog as my own publication means I can create my own deadlines. As Kleon says, “The best way to get started on the path to sharing your work is to think about what you want to learn, and make a commitment learning it in front of others.”
I love learning! It’s total play for me. It’s not like I have decided I never want to pursue publishing, but for now I think what I most want to do is have fun and share with my friends and family.
As Kleon says, “Share what you love and the people who love the same things will find you..”
Yes! That’s what I want, to find the people who love the same things I do and to just have fun for a year.
So for 2022, I have decided to use my blog to PLAY. I’m going to play with four different kinds of posts. Each month I’ll post:
- one traditional essay-type blog post (like this one)
- one post where I play around with graphics (like my 2021 reading roundup)
- one short story
- one comic (to play with drawing)
If my health falls apart again I’ll obviously have to play around with a slightly easier version of these posts or do a lot fewer posts or something, but I plan to try to play for all of 2022 and see what unfolds.
How about you? What’s your word for 2022? How do you use play in your creative life? Comment below so we can continue the discussion.