The joys of the unpublished writer: play

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For the past few weeks, my writing life has been all about waiting. As much as I knew I needed to get better at it–the waiting and the writing–I can’t say I was making a lot of progress. You know you’re in a bad space when your enthusiasm about the weekend is affected by knowing you won’t be getting any e-mails about your writing for two days.

So I asked myself a question I repeat often–if you knew you weren’t ever going to get published, would you keep doing this? The “this” at that particular moment was revising a novel draft–page by page on the couch with a pencil trying to shape the words into a coherent story. I’ve never done any sculpting, but that’s what it feels like; physically pushing the words around until they make some kind of sense. Would I do this if nothing more were to ever come of it?

Yes. Yes, I would. Take away the fantasies of fame and fortune or at the very least being able to tell all the people who were mean to you in high school that you’ve published a novel. Take away the rush of seeing your own words on the page. Take all that away and there’s still something there. With this particular manuscript, what’s there is play.

I’ve written before about how writing sometimes reminds me of the Little People I played with as a kid. You move the character from here to there. You create a world for them. It’s play. For grown-ups. Like play, there’s a satisfaction to be gained. Like play, it can be fun.

dalai lama

Delight

Would I be revising this if I were never going to be published? Yes, because there is something satisfying about getting to know these characters. Deciding what happens to them. Living the scary moments and the good ones right along with them. I read a quote recently about writers living two lives–the one all of us live and the one we create on the page. That, you have to admit, is a pretty cool thing.

There’s a pleasure in creating those worlds even if you’re the only one who gets to see them. Even if your friends and family are the only ones. It is not, as I am sometimes prone to tell myself, a waste of time. It is play.

When you see pictures of the Dahlai Lama or listen to people who’ve seen him in person, the one word that seems to characterize his perspective on the world is delight. He finds things delightful. Children and music and the questions people ask. It is all so delightful. It is life as play, which is not to say that things are not sometimes serious. Just that there is much more joy available than most of us make the effort to see.

You can certainly make writing be about the anxiety of waiting for someone to pass judgement on what you’ve created. It can be a saga of heartbreaking disappointments. Or it can be more like play. Let me live this other life and then see what happens.

I, for one, am off to play.

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