Writerly Play allows you to personalize, map, and problem-solve your creative process. The invitation is to step into the story of your creative development and to play your way through. Creativity requires you to venture into uncharted territory. What if, instead of feeling like you were always in the messy middle, you could use story as a map?
The map of your process might look like this:
You can see your story as a set of nesting dolls:
the story of your week
inside the story of your current project
inside the story of this season of creative growth.
When you’re feeling lost, it might be time to narrow your focus or, on the other hand, time to zoom out. Either way, by looking at the story from a different vantage point, you’re likely to gain new perspective. When you imagine life this way, and visualize yourself as a traveler on a journey, you’re already using a playful mindset.
What if we took play a little further?
What if we used visualization and storytelling to see the different kinds of thinking required in the creative process, and to furnish and style mental rooms for each one?
Picture a studio, filled with toys and space for ideation, next to a workshop with a well-organized toolbench for crafting beauty out of that mess of possibilities. And how about rooms for reflection, learning, and collaboration, too?
Like story, play is a tool that works big picture and also in the fine detail. A quick warm-up game can shift your Tuesday morning energy from “I can’t,” to “Let’s see where this question may lead!” Each of those mental rooms can be stocked with a range of playful tools that invite you to approach the task at hand with a sense of curiosity and wonder.
When we dig down to what’s at the heart of Writerly Play, when we ask ourselves what’s possible and what’s at stake, the answer is: the beautiful and unique work that only you can make.
Doing your real, wholehearted, brave work requires you to set down your armor. For me, when it’s time to walk unarmored into the dragon’s cave, I choose play over perfectionism as my tool of choice to face that fiery beast.
Writerly Play invites you to play your way to the page, courageously, wholeheartedly, boldly. Just like the main character of any worthwhile story, you can count on facing challenges. Real ones. And when you push on through, those of us cheering you on will celebrate and then lean in asking, “What’s next?”
If you’re just starting to explore Writerly Play, welcome! And in case you’re excited about the possibilities and wondering where to start, here’s an excellent place to begin.
In love and creativity,
You already know how a well-told story feels. That same pattern, the pattern of story, can be your real-world compass. You are the hero. Your creative development is the plot.
Curious to see how story can be a compass through your creative process?
Join me for a 15-minute Writerly Play experience that guides you step-by-step into your own story, defogs whatever you might find there, and points you toward sure-footed momentum.
Here’s how to make the most of this Writerly Play experience.
STEP ONE: Grab a notebook and pencil, and head somewhere quiet where you can watch the video.
STEP TWO: Use your insights to design a Writerly Play prototype.
STEP THREE: Below, let me know where to follow up with you. As I mention in the video, this activity is a first step into a larger story. Over the next few weeks, we’ll walk together through steps to refine your prototype. In the longer term, you’ll receive experiences, coaching, and tools to support you as you tap into that next-level potential of yours.
What does kidlit career success look like to you? The first question I ask students when we start a new book publishing project at Society of Young Inklings is: What will make you feel like a published author?
At first, they might tilt their head in confusion, or they might grin and say, “When I sell a million books!”
Then, when we dig deeper, we find that they might hope for:
- Seeing a reader with their nose buried deep in the book
- Giving a book talk at their favorite bookstore — with readers in the crowd asking genuine questions
- Reading a real (and positive) review from someone other than their mom or best friend
Over time, I’ve learned many lessons from these conversations, lessons that I’ve taken to heart with regard to my own writing career.
Here are three reasons to paint a clear picture for yourself of kidlit career success:
1. A vague definition of success leads to dissatisfaction.
When we set out to achieve a goal, a misty idea of “I don’t know what I want, all the good things,” can lift our hearts and spark our imaginations. As the prism of possibilities shifts into shape after shape, excitement shivers through us. Ooh, and maybe this might happen. Or maybe that …
Later on, that same openness leads us to say, “Yeah, that happened, but what about …” The minute we cross one finish line, we dismiss it because we’re now focused on the next. Or, we obsess over one beyond-our-control goal—say, winning the Newbery, and instead of taking action, we wait and wish and ultimately, give in to discouragement. Who did I think I was, anyway?
2. Clear goals, within our control, focus our efforts (and the efforts of our supporters).
When we know that success might look like giving a book talk at our favorite bookstore, we can then identify the challenges between where we are now, and where we want to end up. Maybe we need to practice answering questions on the fly, or we need to network to find someone who knows the bookstore owner.
Also, when people ask us how they can help, our answers are more specific. Maybe we’d appreciate our friends and family ordering the book in that particular bookstore, so that our title is top-of-mind when we follow up with our ask. Perhaps we’d prefer that they put their energy toward saving the date for our event, and inviting a friend.
3. Success feels more meaningful in small, relational moments, rather than in pie-in-the-sky impersonal wins.
What will it feel like when your 10,000th book sells? Will you even know it happened? How about receiving a fan letter from a reader who was so inspired by your book that they started writing their own? Or, what if your writing mentor reaches out, completely out of the blue, to tell you how much they loved your book and how proud they are of you?
Sales goals, winning a big award, or landing a movie deal, may seem like meaningful goals. However, in my day-to-day experience, letters from readers and feedback from people I admire have a bigger impact on my overall happiness and motivation to keep writing.
Here’s what dreaming and then achieving a specific success looks like:
At a recent kidlit night out, I found myself beaming as I told my author friends, “Society of Young Inklings is collaborating on a contest with Stone Soup!”
I’ve loved Stone Soup magazine since I was a young girl. For me, designing video lessons and teaching on camera to help youth put their best foot forward when entering a big-deal writing contest is exactly what success looks like. In fact, about ten years ago I wrote my dreams, defining what success as a kidlit author and as founder of Society of Young Inklings might look like. Working with Stone Soup was high on the list.
What does kidlit career success look like for you?
Try this. List all your dream scenarios, even the one about sailing away on a yacht and never working another day in your life. It won’t take much more than a scratch beneath the surface to get to the substantial dreams, the ones that truly light you up. You may even realize that you’ve been measuring your success against a goal that isn’t your heart’s desire. I mean, if you could sail away on that yacht, how long would you sleep and sunbathe before becoming a little restless? At what point might you start dreaming up your next novel?
Inspire us! Share items on your success bucket list, because you know your ideas will spark all of our creativity and resourcefulness. You never know, by putting it out there in the world for all to see, you may just take the next leap toward that dream.
Have you said (or thought) something like this recently?
“I have plenty of ideas. I don’t need more creativity.”
“Creativity isn’t the issue for me. What I need is progress.”
“Creativity is actually my biggest problem. I’m always chasing whatever is shiny and new and never finishing.”
If so, you aren’t alone. I’ve been hearing this sentiment from writer friends and students often over the past several months.
I’ll be honest. When I started hearing these comments, I felt flummoxed. What in the world did these writers mean: “I don’t need creativity?” Fortunately, I was stunned speechless. Instead of arguing my own point of view, I listened to their explanations.
“I need to develop my writing craft—you know, character arc, subtext, tone, things like that.”
“I’m trying to be more consistent about writing regularly.”
“I’m studying other writers’ work and learning from them.”
Okay, I thought. We’re clearly defining creativity differently. To me, creativity is the full set of emotional, intellectual, artistic, and physical skills required for starting, developing, problem-solving, and finishing a project. For others, creativity seemed more narrowly focused on starting a new project or generating new ideas.
I would have left the point unchallenged—I call it creativity, you call it something else. However, many of these same writers added:
“I don’t need to play. I need to work harder.”
If the issue were semantics, I’d accept that creativity is a word that has lost its richer meaning because of how often it’s thrown around these days. I’d find a different word to capture the robust set of skills writers need to thrive artistically.
However, if the underlying assumption is that growth comes through clenched fists, gritted teeth, and painful effort, I absolutely must object. These writers are getting in their own way. The most likely result from “trying” to achieve something is to try for years and years. Or in other words, you spend so much time trying, you never do the thing you mean to do.
Here’s an example.
I’m not a natural actor. So, when I started my BFA in Acting, I buried my nose in books. I could have elaborated ten different ways to show a character’s thoughts and emotions through gesture. I understood the concept so well, I orchestrated my movements. As a result, I resembled a hula dancer running through planned movements rather than a real person reacting to my scene partners. My effort kept me from letting go. Over time, I discovered what that whoosh of moving into true creative space felt like, and slowly learned to get out of my own way.
I learned the way most actors do: through play.
When I say I learned through play, I mean I learned to breathe, walk, speak, memorize, and more through games. I also gained my understanding of character motivation, relationships, action, reaction, gesture, pacing and other advanced story concepts by stepping into creative space and following a game where it led. I did read many books which prepared my mind. However, on their own, the books never would have been enough. The games were where my learning experiences—from basic concepts to nuanced discoveries—actualized.
As writers, we don’t learn our craft this way.
We learn to read, analyze, ask questions, think, form sentences, shape characters, worlds, and plots. We learn to think as a writer. Unless we’re very fortunate, no one teaches us to step into creative space, to let go. If we are taught to let go, it’s in the context of brainstorming or generating ideas. Once it’s time to revise, receive feedback, learn new skills, or problem-solve, we settle into our writer’s chair and let our intellect run the show.
Thus, when we hit a block, such as discovering our characters are hula dancing instead of transforming into living, breathing characters on the page, our minds kick into overdrive. We make plans, set goals, toss around accusations about all the ways we’re failing, bully ourselves into working hard.
If you’re learning writing craft, strengthening your writing consistency, analyzing strategies in masterworks, building your courage for receiving feedback, or developing other challenging creativity skills, first of all, you’re on the right track. You’re tackling the meta skills that go far beyond the current book you’re writing. In the same way that actors learn to breathe and walk, you’re mastering foundational tools that show up every time you write, whether you think about them or not. Secondly, to move these skills from your mind into your subconscious, you must practice them.
One way to practice, of course, is to write.
However, many writers are in the habit of writing with their minds. They labor over each sentence and word, rarely losing themselves in the practice or the flow of the story. Two problems emerge. First, the story lacks the energy and passion the writer knows it can have. Second, the writer’s creative skill set languishes. Stamina, courage, spontaneity, vulnerability—to name a few—simply don’t grow at the rate they might otherwise.
Another way to practice is to play.
Games offer quick application opportunities. They offer a low-resistance way into tasks that are otherwise “hard work.” When you play a game, you often spontaneously find yourself opening up and tapping into vulnerable places in your heart. In short, play takes you where you need to go quickly, effectively, and deeply.
Especially when you are frustrated, stretched for time, or blocked, I realize that opening up to play can be a stretch. To begin, I recommend choosing a simple game, giving yourself a quick win against a significant pain point.