The bell lets out a shrill “Brrrrrrrrring,” releasing us from our desks and out into the hallway. Our teachers remind us to not run as our legs pump with squiggly anticipation to get outside. Hands placed on the large metal push bar on the door, we press down, shove our shoulder into it, and we are released.
Red and yellow balls fly overhead as classmates arrange matches of kickball and four-square. The smell of pavement and woodchips is pungent, infiltrating our senses as our shoes carry us by screaming games of tag, friends dangling from the monkey bars, and teetering on a seesaw. We smile at someone careening down a slide, but we do not stop. We head to the swings. Digging our toes into the earth, we push off and launch. Up, up, up we go into the sky, leaning back, hair blowing in the wind, feet almost touching the nearest cloud.
Do you remember how it felt? Do you remember the fine feeling of heart bursting, cloud-catching and dream-building? Did you pluck dandelion puffs for the sheer joy of blowing a wish out into the world?
Recess was our designated time of day when we were forced to play. It usually did not end at school for most of us either. When I arrived home, I would blaze through a snack and get pushed back out the door by my mother. In the backyard or in our bedrooms, more stories would unfurl like the pages of our favorite books. I chattered away about goblins and ghosts, white knights, princesses, and pioneers. There was no limit to my creativity, no cap to what I could create from nothing. Playing was an essential life-force.
If we are writers, creators, makers, and world shakers, then it is time to change our tenses. Instead of thinking that playing was essential, let us start to believe that playing is essential.
I began to learn how to play again after my husband returned from his fifth deployment. We had faced two back-to-back deployments while also welcoming our first child into our home. The military always has impeccable timing, doesn’t it? I cloaked myself in motherhood, comforted by duty, setting routines and rising to the challenge of keeping our girl safe and well cared for. I devoted all of my energy to her in his absence, and a piece of me was lost that year. My fingers tingled with the hope that creativity and passion could once again be reignited, that I could dig out the writer I once was.
Every morning at my computer I would play with words. It was my own personal recess at 5 a.m. The steaming pot of coffee lived next to me and stories as strong as the caffeine knocked at my mind. It felt like a joyous race, toying with how to make thoughts connect in a way to which others might read and relate.
I wish I could say that energy still taps on my door every single morning, but the longer I have worked at writing, the more I have learned that being creative means investing in a creative life. Creation is pulling new ideas from the thinnest of air each day -- and it can get difficult to breathe up there. Take heart knowing that you are not out of inspiration. You are not out of ideas. You might just need to stoke the fire somewhere else. If you feel stuck or are looking for a unique edge in your writing, it is time to go to recess again.
The following tips go against the common writer advice to get in the chair, and stare at a blinking cursor. Instead, force yourself out of the seat and onto the playground.
STOP WRITING, START NOTICING
“Writing starts with living,” decrees author L.L. Barkat in her book, Rumors of Water: Thoughts on Creativity & Writing. We have to live to write. This does not mean we need to sweep off every weekend on a lengthy otherworldly vacation, although that would be nice. No, we simply need to start noticing the minutiae. There are beautiful details all around us. What does the rising mist in the morning sunlight stir in your thoughts? What silly smile and anecdote did your child give you, or what kindness did a stranger extend? There are stories everywhere around us, but we have to be a keen observer, a master at noticing, to uncover them.
READ VORACIOUSLY AND JOIN A BOOK CLUB
You may not be in a time of life when you can read books at length -- I know during my first year of motherhood and in that heavy deployment chapter, I could barely make it through one novel. But I could sit and peruse lovely essays. I could even draw from the scrumptious language and pictures in my child’s books. If you are in a season when you can dedicate time to reading, put books on your menu and devour them. Reading will make you a better writer. Feeling the flow of written text, watching the rise and fall that authors choose to set in their tone can inspire your own craft.
It is easy and fun to read what we are naturally drawn to. However, it will stretch us as writers to challenge ourselves with books outside our interest and comfort zone. A book club is great for this. You have the encouragement and accountability of the other readers in your group to finish the selections, and the delight of meeting up to discuss when you’ve completed a book.
LISTEN TO WRITERS TALK
Podcasts are wonderful for bringing new inspiration directly to your earbuds. It is fascinating to hear other writer’s processes, and also motivating to know that many books took years to write. Writers on Writing is a good place to start, and Read Aloud Revival not only covers great books for kids, but has wonderful author interviews.
100 DAY CHALLENGE
Try a 100 Day Challenge to shake up and sharpen your skills. It can be a writing challenge, working to meet a certain word count each day, or you can stretch yourself by exploring another creative realm. I recently completed my second year of The 100 Day Project, a Global Art initiative in which anyone can participate. The first year I wore everything in my closet, and as an avid vintage shopper I uncovered the stories behind the items. In the second year, during the middle of a PCS, I ordered myself a set of water colors and spent my spare moments sitting with my daughter, badly painting art.
Working to be creative over 100 days is not an easy feat, and both years I felt myself being pushed with new directions and ideas. Being creative is a discipline that can be honed like any other skill, but we have to be willing to show up and play.
PLAY IN NEW MEDIUMS
Albert Einstein said that “play is the highest form of research,” and we should set that as a mantra by allowing ourselves the freedom to explore. If you do not want the pressure of 100 days to launch you into a new medium, simply stroll around a craft store and select something to play with. Attempt an embroidery piece, pick up a birdhouse kit, or try your hand at weaving on a small loom. There are hundreds of ways to play with creativity, and as you work at a new craft you might just free your mind to tackle another tough writing piece.
You are not a bad writer if you escape words for a bit and explore new ways to expand your creativity. Recess is necessary! Become an expert at noticing the world around you. Explore different mediums. Read great books. Delve into understanding that writing time can be play time. You might indeed make a hundred crappy first drafts before you have one solid one, and that is okay. After you graciously give yourself time to dabble and reignite your spark, do get back in the chair and get to work. Writing is one of the few slow processes left in a fast-paced world. Take delight in capturing the plodding of your own voice