Writerly Play: Exploring the Studio
A note to new readers: This post is part four of a seven-part series. I’d highly recommend starting at the beginning as each post builds on the last.
Take a moment to picture your personal Writerly Play hideout. We ended our tour yesterday in the Attic. Put yourself back into that room with its boxes and memories and ideas. Imagine the sensory details—the smells, sounds, sights and feel of the room. Once you have your footing, let’s mozy over to the Studio. Filled with more art supplies than any one project could require, the Studio offers a possibility-filled space. The floors, tables and stools are often made out of rugged, easy to clean material, inviting you to go ahead and make a mess.
I started my personal creativity quest because of the Studio. When I thought, “I want to be an artist,” I meant I wanted to be someone who had no trouble rolling up her sleeves and experimenting. However, most of the time, I found myself watching from the sidelines. As I watched, I realized I had two choices. I could either figure out how to open myself to spontaneity or I could stay on those sidelines. Fortunately, my stubbornness won the day. I decided to believe that letting go was a skill that could be learned.
That determination was the seed of Writerly Play. Along the way, I learned creativity was a skill with many parts, all of which could be strengthened. Whether you’re strong in the Studio, or like me, you have a tendency to hold back, there’s something in the Studio for you. Play takes place throughout the creative process, but it happens intensively at the beginning of any project, and involves brainstorming, drafting, and improvising. Play is what moves us past the blank page and into the work of creating.
Let’s do a quick self-assessment of the state of your Studio.
- Do you have a comfortable process for drafting, sketching, improvising or brainstorming from a blank slate?
- How natural is it for you to say yes when someone offers an unexpected suggestion or idea?
- How often do you engage so deeply in an activity that you lose track of time?
- How often do you laugh or do something just for the fun of it?
- Do you have strategies or tools to help you generate more ideas than you need?
Learning to Play
Whether play is relatively natural for us, or a stretch, it’s one of those muscles that can easily atrophy. To be creative, we must be able to play. In general, play is the bridge between our Attic and the Workshop. We sort raw material in the Attic until we come up with a compelling question. Then, we take that question into the Studio where we play with it until we have a draft, sketch or plan. Afterward, we take the draft material into the Workshop to shape and revise.
Improvisational actors work for years to achieve the apparent ease that shows up when they hop on the stage and create before our eyes. What kinds of things do they do to build their “play” muscles?
On Your Feet
There’s a reason that acting classes start with a call to stand up and enter the “space.” Moving our bodies in a space designated for play helps us push past initial resistance. Once in motion, actors transition into various games that require them to say yes to unexpected ideas and build upon them. Your project may not require performance skills, but the approach actors take is one that you can adapt to your own purposes.
A First Step
Go for a walk in a setting that appeals to your senses. As you walk, choose a project you’d like to explore further. Define “project” in the widest possible terms. You can choose a novel, a song, a room remodel, a gift … anything that’s on your mind that could use a creative kickstart.
As your heart rate rises, imagine that you are an absolute expert with regards to your project. There’s an improv game called “Expert Circle.” In this game, the actors become experts on a topic such as cheese or Mars or dragons. Even though they’re not experts on this topic, they speak as though they are. After each “expert” speaks, the other actors nod seriously and say, “yes, that is very true.”
Similarly, even if you’re not an expert on your project right now, imagine that you are. Find a safe place to perch, take out your favorite idea-capturing device, and brainstorm ideas for three-five minutes. List everything that should be done with regard to this project. Support your ideas by thinking, “Yes, that’s very true,” as you write each one down. Now is not the time to worry about specifics. That said, take yourself seriously. You probably know more about your project than you realize.
Once your time’s up, put the list away and finish your walk. This is an exercise in divergent thinking. The goal of the activity is to suspend judgement and generate a plethora of ideas. Later—in the Workshop—you can apply convergent thinking, paring down your list to the most valuable ideas. Separating generative, divergent thinking from analytical, convergent thinking will supercharge your creative productivity. Rather than coming up with ideas and immediately blocking them, you allow ideas to flow freely, while also giving focused attention to the critical thinking phase of the process. In the end, you end up with more novel ideas and make better decisions about which ones to carry forward.