Sunday, January 13, 2013

On the Importance of Play

The idea of play has been whispering to me lately. I've reached a limbo period where new words aren't in the offing. The novel is in the hands of the copy editor. I've been ill and teaching like a robot since returning from break. For an educator, these are the cruel weeks when student motivation is as low as the temperatures outside.

All I want to do is play. And in this desire I find a connection to writing and story.

Perhaps a little clarification is in order. Two of my favorite pieces of art my parents collected during their Air Force travels depict groups of men playing games. One is from Korea and shows several Asian gentlemen sitting on their knees playing with set pieces I have always assumed were dominoes. The lead figure leans back contentedly, puffing on his pipe and smiling out beneath a cheerfully wrinkled, long whiskered face. All the figures present are relaxed and happy. The other painting is from Holland and shows a similar grouping of two figures playing cards, perhaps whist, with a third eagerly looking on, no doubt offering advice to the loser. The lead figure, complete with ruffled shirt and neatly trimmed beard, has a victorious look on his face and his hand is raised, grasping a card in what I have always felt was the last penultimate discard. Late afternoon light bathes the scene, giving it the atmosphere of a diversion, a welcome respite from a day spent in toil.

Both pieces are from the nearly the same period in history but a world apart. They show the same thing: play. Both images are frozen moments in time when the stories for the characters so placed, paused for a moment. Perhaps they were leaving on the quest in the morning, but now there was time for dominoes and whist.


It kind of reminds me of a certain dinner party at Bag End, or the expected one sixty years later, of mushrooms and baths before the Old Forest, or a punt on a river tickled by willow fronds, or a wardrobe in a forgotten room in a country house in England, or a Gather on Pern. Yes, I think Lewis, Tolkien, Greene and McCaffery knew about play. In fact, the professor's early working title for his legendaria was called in part 'The Cottage of Lost Play'. I think the BEST stories are those that remember the importance of play. It is the stuff we all capture on film and slides and forget in the mad pace that is the plot line of our lives. And then a relative hauls them out of the box and we take a walk down memory and recall what it felt like to play. It's all there: the innocence, the games, the laughter, the victorious discard, the life outside of the quest. I also think that some of those moments, both in our lives and in our fiction, are the most important times.

Let me be clear: play includes but is not just humor. We use humor. I'm told there is some of it in my "banter" as my editor calls it. No, by play I mean PLAY, the tonal lightness of being that really should be present even in the darkest stories. I mean kids running, poetry competitions (small plug), story-telling within a story, laughter, mudpies, all of the stuff that brings our worlds ALIVE in the sense that we recognize, even in alien guise, shared experience.

Think about it. Play is one of the first things we do. If we are not careful, life takes all those joyous lessons from us. The same thing happens in our stories--especially the huge blockbuster epics that create such big winds with their passing...and then silence. Sadly, I feel play is all too soon, and all too often left out in favor of the quest to save the world from the great big, bad, wolf-totem who threatens to destroy all life down to the molecule. Games, fun, laughter, play; all fade out too quickly, replaced by ├╝bercool descriptions of dragons, blue bolts of light, awesome incantations and oodles of really gross, bloody conflicts and shining swords. And I don't mean we need to drag the pace of our stories down with descriptions of the small. Quite the opposite, actually. I think we need to find ways to incorporate them into the story entire. I don't want to even consider what a tonal mess LOTR would have been if the professor had left out the hobbits. While it is true we leave the light stuff, as it were, behind in the Shire, the hobbits carry it with them through the entire quest. Even at his darkest moment, it is Sam's love for the recollections of his home in conjunction with his immediate courage that save him from the ring.

As in life, there must be a balance between light and dark. I see no reason why such rules shouldn't hold true for the subcreated world. I think we owe it to our characters and the places they inhabit to let them be as alive as possible. It's okay to weave a little fun into the mayhem. Laughter exists, even in war. I intend to use cats and mudpies as soon as possible.

How do you feel about play? In life. In fiction. In all things.

Mark Nelson


Terri-Lynne said...

Play is very important to any story. Without it--gads, I can't even imagine. It would be like a day with no sun, a night with no moon. It is the counter to all the darker stuff of life.

And there's a clue for any writer who wants to write something SUPER dark--omit play. I'm trying to remember if there is any sort of play in The Road (McCarthy.)

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Hi Mark,

Beautiful post, beautiful images! Thank you once again.

Something a lot of people might not think about, but play behavior appears to be unique to mammals. Other animals (birds, reptiles, fish, insects, etc.) don't play.

There are animal behaviorists who devote their lives to studying play behavior, and trying to understand its evolutionary significance. Pretty cool, huh?

Maybe I'll write a post about that someday...