I had just reached the point of planning an extended pity party for myself when I came across these words from Katherine Paterson, best known as the author of Bridge to Terabithia, The Great Gilly Hopkins, Jacob I Have Loved, and other novels: “Send your inner critic off on vacation and just write the way little children play. You can't be judge and creator at the same time.” I immediately thought that sending the IC on a l-o-n-g vacation was an excellent idea, but the second imperative required more consideration.
“Write the way little children play.”
It’s been so long since I was a child that my memories of play are not the freshest, but I have ample opportunity to observe the grands at play. And the three youngest at least, at seven, six, and three, still qualify as “little children.” How then do Myles, Luke, and Caitlyn play and what can I learn about writing from them?
Whether it’s Caitlin dressing—or undressing-- her dolls, Luke transforming Optimus Prime to vehicle mode, or Myles practicing soccer moves, they are completely focused on what they are doing. They are able to concentrate sufficiently to block out the noise of their siblings and cousins, to ignore calls to dinner, and to respond with only an absent nod to parental demands to gather shoes and coats.
If I could focus on my writing with such intensity and could ignore ringing phones, Tweet Deck pop-ups, the smell of chocolate, I might be able to write 50K words in a month.
Myles, Luke, and Caitlin are not discouraged by failures or jeers. Tiny fingers find it difficult to manipulate small buttons, a six-year-old struggles to pop wings back on as quickly as he wants to, and a seven-year-old can’t juggle the soccer ball with the skill of his older brother, who ungently reminds him of this fact. But these kids just keep on keeping on until the doll’s dress is buttoned, the wings are on, and even the older brother cheers the budding soccer star’s efforts.I, on the other hand, am too easily discouraged. When my imagination is less nimble than I wish, when my fingers stutter on the keyboard, when the IC’s harshness pierces my confidence, I’m too quick to think the goal is too high, the task too difficult.
They feel the joy.Caitlin’s giggle as she puts a different dress on her doll, Luke’s shout of “Yes!” as one step in the transformation is complete, and Myles’s megawatt grin as the soccer ball rolls off the top of his foot all signal their delight in the moment. They are having fun and they are fully engaged in it. Every part of them expresses their gladness not only at a goal completed but at each step toward the finish.
I become so caught up in words counts, in writing the end, and in comparisons with others’ achievements that I lose the joy of creating characters, crafting a sentence that sings, building the world of my book.
November ResolutionLittle children at play are inquisitive, inventive, open, and exuberant. Researchers have found that children who spend time in creative play experience less anxiety and depression. I think Katherine Paterson’s advice is just what I needed. November may not be the usual season for making resolutions, but I’m making one nevertheless. I’ve sent the IC to Siberia, and I’m resolved to write with focus, perseverance, and joy, the way Myles, Luke and Caitlin play. I’m determined to be creator and to jettison the judge until a later stage.
What lessons have you learned from children? The experts remind us that play is part of a healthy lifestyle for adults too. Do you need to add more play to your life?