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Words and play

When I was a kid, I was certain I’d be a writer. I wrote constantly: poems, stories, plays, cartoons, newspapers, magazines (including the cover and fake ads), and novel beginnings—many, many beginnings. I didn’t care about quality or completion. I just wrote, for the same reason I swam: because it felt right and it was fun.

In university, on the advice of my creative writing prof, I sent out two stories and got back two rejections. Today I know they were good rejections: written to me personally, with revision ideas. Back then they just said no. I packed it in and became…

A writer. Not of stories, poems, or plays, but reports, policies, web copy, manuals—anything. If an organization would pay me to write it, I did.

Over a couple of decades, I got good at a few things: key messages, logical flow, plain language, grammatical sentences, consistency. Those are terrific areas to master if you want to earn a living from the written word. But the writing, satisfying as it was, felt like work.

Fair enough, you say. It is work. To which I say, what about play?

“The creation of something new,” wrote Carl Jung, “is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct…” It’s an idea tech startups have been onto for a long time (all those foosball tables). Parents and educators, too, are concluding that while rules and scheduled activities are important for kids’ development, so is a healthy dose of play.

How can writers and editors play? How can we quickly (because deadlines don’t go away) earn the creative and rejuvenating payoff that comes from having fun with language?

Word games are one way, as partner Audrey McClellan has written. Another is freewriting. Pick a prompt—a phrase, image, song (ten suggestions here)—and let yourself go, writing whatever comes into your head, nonstop, until the timer sounds.

Freewriting is what brought me back to play. The 2004 Editors Canada conference, in Calgary, featured a session by writer-editor Virginia Durksen (“How to love your inner poet—and let go of commas”) that included freewriting exercises. I hadn’t written like that—no outline or objective, on personal topics rather than, say, forestry—for two decades. I wrote and wrote, and then I cried (embarrassing but true). Later I learned from Virginia, and writer-coaches like Writescape’s Ruth E. Walker, that writers often get emotional when they turn off their work voice and tap into their personal one. It’s about ignoring your editorial eye for a time, says Virginia, and opening your ear.

I’m not suggesting that we all need a good cry to have fun. Nor am I urging everyone to follow my path, which in recent years has included fiction again, two and a half novels’ worth, and a fair bit of blogging, little of it for pay, all for fun.

I am suggesting that once in a while, for fun, you silence your inner editor, as publication coach Daphne Gray-Grant puts it. Let the words come and see what happens. You’ll discover vocabulary you didn’t know you had, images you never dreamed of, and ideas and emotions from who knows where. Tilling your word field (as I think of it) will help you do better, more fruitful work on the page, no matter what you’re producing. And I promise, it will make the work more fun.

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