The Artist at Play – (Why so serious?)

I’m going to admit to something that will categorically and forever define me as a nerd: I was a Dungeons and Dragons player.  And not just a player, I was the Dungeon Master!

For those unfamiliar with D&D, the game requires an orchestrator, called a Dungeon Master (or DM), who prepares the materials and story line which the other player-characters follow.  Sometimes the DM writes their own material (and, yes, I was that kind of DM).  The rest of the game consists of endless lists of equipment, monsters, magic, mayhem, and a heavy dose of rules that govern the world.  Players use dice to determine outcomes of action, and the whole thing is flavored with role playing – or acting – according to the traits and personality of the player’s character.  The DM, naturally, plays many parts.  It has been several years since I played a real “paper and dice” game and I kind of miss it.

I mention this little secret of mine to highlight the fact that role playing is storytelling, and storytelling is really little more than play.  If you watch children (or perhaps remember your own childhood) you will note that youngsters have an unabashed, fluid way of creating a world in which horses talk, dolls have wants, and inanimate objects perform amazing feats beyond the laws of reality.  Children do not sit for hours and ponder the events of their play.  In fact, the most time a child spends pondering anything is when selecting the toy (or toys) used to populate their world.  After that, it’s all ad hoc, ad lib, ad infinitum . . .

Natalie Goldberg speaks of this free flow approach to creativity when she states, as her number one rule, that when writing one must never stop the hand from moving across the page (or over the keyboard).  By participating in unfiltered writing the writer engages the intuitive, “first” mind, the one which is uninhibited and most creative.  As with children there is a natural process in the imagination which creates a proper order to things, and even if the order and details must be altered later this freedom in first expression allows room for the changes to come during a later editing process.  But to stop in the middle of the creative process to “think” is to risk derailment and the rush of negative voices eager to say that what you are doing is trivial and amateur.  To spend much time thinking at all is molasses and tar in the river of creativity.

In considering children, creativity, and the whole writing process I find myself asking (yet again) why do we write (or paint, act, sing)?  To say that we create for fame or recognition or money is to accuse the symptom of being the illness.  No, I believe the real reason we create is for play.  This may well be the reason we feel guilty when we take time away from “responsible” things to write.  What intelligent and well-adjusted adult, after all, would lock themselves in a room to play with paint or make up stories that have no real value anyway?  And our children pine and our spouses moan and our families fret because we are dilly-dallying around instead of being serious!  Well, yes, we admit it!  We are playing!  We are making up stories and creating worlds and putting colors in the wrong places and making animals talk and causing nakedness and telling truths that are supposed to be secret and on on on . . . and if others don’t like it perhaps it is time they who should ask themselves why they do what they do?  Do they like their work?  Does their sports addiction solve any problems? (I love sports, mind you, I’m just saying).

The point to be understood here is that the life of the artist is essentially one of play.  Artists spend their time creating and then they spend their time discussing the creation, the creative process, and they dress funny and have long hair or hair too short and have bad habits and are generally odd.  In short they are like children.  We are like children.  The heaviness of law and politics and death are just subjects for us to explore creatively.  We try to bring levity even if we do it through heavy works.  The saddest story in the world would not elicit one iota of emotion of the storyteller could not weave the tale of it artfully, with color and energy and specificity.  No matter how heavy the story, the artist approaches their work with a playful mind — a generous, wild mind.  Even children tell sad and serious stories, but they don’t often think “I should not tell this.”  They make their world and they stand by it.

In the end children are simply unrefined artists.  Adult artists are refined by experience, but they reject the shackles of adulthood and the guilt over spending time creating.  Adult artists keep at play with the goal of perfecting their art.  Long after their peers have grown tired of life and give in to routine, conformity, and status quo, the artist is still playing, still coloring, still imagining a place where ten foot tall horses talk to four inch tall people and it makes sense.  In play the artist discovers the purpose of their creation.  The adult part serves only for efficient editing later, and this is where grown up experience comes into the mix.  But until that time we are children at play, and when we are finished with the project at hand, with all of the work of editing and revision is done, we will go back to being children again.

In our time of creativity there are no adults allowed, and no adult responsibilities.  We are playing, and we should celebrate the fact that we still know how to do this, long after childhood has passed us by, because we have not given up in life.  We know how important magic and fancy are, and we’ll be damned if we’ll ever let that go.

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7 comments on “The Artist at Play – (Why so serious?)

  1. TamrahJo says:

    Hear, Hear! and Bravo!
    Let’s Play!

  2. Great post. Often, I fear, we writers take ourselves too seriously. I know I sometimes lose sight of creating for the sheer joy of creation. I have to remind myself that “goals” and “success” are fine, but not only will the quality of one’s work suffer if he/she perceives the craft as labor alone, but also the experience itself will lose its luster.

    During a recent slump, I got back to my roots — my earliest forms of storytelling: http://david-michael-williams.com/2012/12/05/storytelling-can-take-many-forms/

    P.S., I might even be nerdier than you: I always wanted to play D&D but couldn’t find anyone who would subject themselves to my dice-driven adventures!

    • emperort says:

      I actually still have a whole box full of gaming materials for about six different RPGs including AD&D books. I also have all of my dice

      • Nice.

        I’ve forced myself to stop saying/thinking things like “Some people have too much time on their hands” because who’s to say I’m spending my time writing, editing, blogging, etc. any more wisely than someone obsessed with comic books, fantasy football, soap operas, scrapbooking, etc.?

  3. I fully agree with what you say about play. I think play is actually a very basic human need, also in adults. It is just not recognized or appreciated in our society. Artists are the only lucky ones who are still in contact to this very basic aspect of being human.

  4. Marisa says:

    “the very basic aspect of being human” IS, IN FACT, relishing the time we have on our hands! Being human is NOT being busy taking kids to sports. It feels SO good to say “no” to commitments. As it IS human to be involved and not isolate and as I enjoy ‘short term projects’ I enjoy this aspect of my life, selecting the ONE thing I am going to be involved in for X-amount of weeks and saying “NO” to everything else. I’m currently doing something for others 1 night, something WITH my son 1 night something for ME 1 night, something as a family 1 night and then it’s the weekend–when I make NO PLANS just fly by the seat of my pants. First come first serve, and if nothing comes…well I grab a book, or just set my son to play and watch him create all of his little stories with all of his toy critters. It’s amazing to see what he comes up with when the TV is off. I was talking to my neighbor who has 2 kids, they have both been in tai kwan do for years, the boy plays baseball AND soccer and the girl plays soccer and she was trying to squeeze in swimming. The kids are 6 & 8. 🙂 I just never felt the desire to go that route…I have tailgate dinner before my son’s thing and we just sit quietly eating whatever I grabbed, we look at the stars at night we snuggle in bed and read and many days, we have no place to go and nothing to do. And yet, my son is driven, social and often begging me to go next door–just like daddy!

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