The conventional wisdom is that when a writer needs to write, she must go sit in her chair and place her hands on the keyboard. She must show up to work. I fully agree with this notion. I believe waiting for inspiration to strike is foolish. Writers who refuse to show up at their desk unless they "feel ready" are comparable to marathon runners who only run when they "feel fast." How can a runner become faster if they don't train? And how will our ideas begin to flow if we don't tap into them regularly?
That said, I know I personally don't allow myself enough room to play, and that lack of play is also foolish. Just as inspiration is unlikely to strike if I never write, it's even more unlikely to strike if I brow-beat myself into droning away, word after word at my desk. And yet, often I fall into the trap of refusing myself time away from my desk. In fact, this is such a problem for me that when I attended Hamline's MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults, I wrote my critical thesis about my personal struggle to learn to let go and open up to surprise.
Viola Spolin, beloved teacher of improvisational theatre, defines spontaneity as "the moment of personal freedom when we are faced with reality and we see it, explore it, and act accordingly." Consider her statement for a moment. In order to achieve spontaniety, we must face reality. We must see it, explore it, and physically do something. None of these actions have anything to do with a computer screen. In fact, a computer screen is almost the opposite of reality. To me, computers have come to symbolize virtual reality, or reality that isn't real. We must move around, take in the sights, smells, tastes and sounds of our environment to face actual reality. And thus, time away from the screen is essential for spontaneity.
Why does spontaneity matter? I think a moment of spontaneity, that flash of inspiration for which no artist can plan, elevates a created what-not into a work of art. We've all made the hand-turkey step by step at one time in our lives. A hand-turkey might be a created object, but we'd hardly call it a work of art. But if spontaneity is required for art, what does that mean? We have to cross our fingers and wait for these magical moments to arise?
Nope. Here's the good news. In my research, I learned that just as runners train for speed, writers can train for spontaneity. Truly. My husband, the marathon runner, logs weekly miles, just as I log weekly words. Then, one day a week, sometimes more often, he goes to the track and does sprints to build up his speed. For writers, the parallel tool is play. Seriously. How fun is that? And what makes something the right kind of play? Here's the scoop.
1. Choose something physical: just move your body. You can bake a new concoction, dance, paint at an easel, snorkel, plant new flowers, or whatever catches your fancy. The main thing is to engage your body as much as you can.
2. Choose an activity with rules or guidelines. In order to allow your brain room for those flashes of inspiration, you need to become mentally engaged with the game at hand.
3. Let go. Spontaneity is not to be forced. One day, a brilliant idea might show up while you play. The next, laughter may be your reward. Not every activity MUST result in quantifiable results. The main thing is to remember to show up and play, in just the same way you show up to work. Work results in raw material to shape, but play results in artwork that is fresh and uniquely your own.
Spontaneity is that exact intersection of the conscious and the subconscious, when what is intuitive and invisible leaps into our awareness, ready for us to deal with it, to wrestle with it and to shape it into art. Artists need spontaneity. It's essential. Don't feel silly when you take that break and play. You're giving your intuition a chance to bubble up and over. You're giving your creative gift to yourself, and ultimately, to the world.
If you'd like to explore resources on the importance of play, check out Dr. Stuart Brown's work at the Institute for Play here.