Monday, 30 June 2014

Things I've learnt: Having play projects

To celebrate the release of Rope of Words, I'm writing a series of blog posts about its writing process and the various illuminations that came from sailing straight into the rocks at every turn. At least I have the advantage of hindsight, to know the story did work out in the end. The artist shared her process from the outset, with no such reassurance!

Rope of Words is now a beautiful, handbound book with full-colour illustrations throughout, in a limited edition of 600 books which I spent last weekend signing. Having watched the artist finesse every last detail, I felt very glad that I'd spent every bit as much care on the words. If I'd set out to write it with that degree of perfection, though, I couldn't have. In fact, if I'd set out to write it, I couldn't have. I've written before about process versus product, that tension at the heart of creativity. Even while product may be what we're ultimately aiming for (the finished story, poem, book, artwork), we need to start with process and play.

Rope of Words started as a play project, a random go-nowhere few paragraphs that needed years of rest before I could pull them back out with any objectivity. I came back to it as a play project too, when I needed to find a way back into my own writing, with something less significant than my magnus opus / magnficent octopus to work on.  Even then, it stayed a play project, and went back into the drawer for another year and a half. It reminds me, constantly, of the value of play projects: not everything has to be perfect, not everything has to have a purpose and a plan, not everything even has to be finished. Some of those play projects may, in time, grow into finished products which we feel proud of, but not all of them. Some are just doodles, sketches, midwives for other ideas.

The idea of the finished product, of perfection, is so luring and tempting, though. It's easy, even when you're playing, to start secretly thinking, Ha! And because I'm playing, this will be brilliant and perfect and the book will look like... And that thought can freeze you up, just at the moment you were shaking loose to play. Play projects are vital, though, because they're the place you can try things out, make mistakes, explore new ways, or just stretch a skill that your current work-in-progress isn't using. Or even dump out the rubbish idea that's clogging the pipes, keeping the good ideas back.

I have various tricks and shenanigans, to keep a sense of play space for myself, whatever else I'm working on. One is to always have a project on the go that is just for me. Another is to write for someone else, as a gift, instead of for publication - a King's-Quest-inspired story for my nephew, set in University Parks, where the elegance of my prose is thrown out of the window in favour of swords, pirates, giants, witches, and the rest. (You can download King's Quest III, by the way. Just saying.) Another is to have an "ideas book" where I can start scribbling the scrap of an idea and keep going as long as I like - or leave it at one sentence. I have two of these at the moment: a beautiful little Paperblanks notebook just the right size to fit in an evening bag, and a £1 sparkly notebook from Poundland which lives in the living room for all those epiphanies one has in the middle of Doctor Who or Game of Thrones. For a while I kept a "sketch book": an A4 book with a seahorse on the front, in which to put anything from stick-figure drawings to poems to the beginnings of stories that could safely go nowhere.  (My usual notebook had become contaminated with too many to-do lists and too much work-stuff, so the seahorse book was the new "safe space".)  Another way is to have play time, out at a coffee shop on a Saturday morning or home alone in the evening with candlelight, music, and wine. Pull out the notebook, unlid the pen, see what happens. Follow it, see where it goes.

Last year, as I talk about in The joy is in the doing, I had a play project for the entire summer and well into the depths of winter, learning afresh exactly that: Follow it, see where it goes.  Keep it secret; keep it safe. It doesn't matter if this bit is rubbish. No counting, no measuring, it's the sitting here writing that counts. That play project is now creeping into the realms of Things That Might Turn Into A Real Thing, but that's fine - so long as I find somewhere else that gives me space to play. I think that's the oxygen that keeps all the other writing alive, and free.

And speaking of play spaces - here's me, signing all those copies of Rope of Words, with dinosaur. Courtesy of my brother's play space!

(Seriously. You can download King's Quest III and you can paint dinosaurs and take pictures of them anywhere you like. FOR FREE. Your childhood self is hitting the roof with excitement right now. There's really no excuse not to play.)

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