Writers who are new to the game often believe they’re at a disadvantage. They don’t have years of experience. They don’t quite know what they’re doing yet. They don’t have the connections and contacts more seasoned writers might have. They don’t understand the publishing business.
While all these things might be true, there is one very important area in which new writers have a HUGE advantage. I was reminded of this last night while I played with my three-year-old son.
I had spent the day ruminating on all my different projects. I recently started a new novel, I’m in the middle of revisions on another, and in the last stages of cover design on a third book. My mind was filled with sales copy strategies, archetypal themes, and the best way to structure a narrative. So, when I sat down on the living room floor to devote the remainder of my evening to my son, I was a bit distracted to say the least.
But my son was single-mindedly focused. My husband had brought home some Play-Doh for him and it was all my son wanted to play with at the moment. First, he showed me that although he had started out with five different colors, he had smashed them all together to make one big ball of bluish-gray with rainbow streaks in it. Privately, I was slightly horrified. I remembered doing the same thing as a kid, but now that I’m almost 40 my priorities have apparently changed because my first thought was that all the colors should be kept separate and pristine, each properly put away in the correct canister each night.
However, it was my son’s Play-Doh and he could do what he wanted with it. I decided to try to go with the flow.
I sat down and we started playing. I looked at the Play-Doh and the tools that came with it and thought about what I should make. I could use one of the tools to make something that looked like spaghetti, and then roll round balls to be meatballs to place on top of it. Or, I could build snowmen, that also seemed to be a viable option. I decided on spaghetti and started dutifully pressing out noodles.
My son and I fell into a quiet, relaxing rhythm of work. I pressed out the “spaghetti” and he gathered it up, over and over. Then I noticed that all the spaghetti he was “gathering” just got smashed into a big mound of Play-Doh at his side. He looked really happy doing this.
Confused, I said, “Hey Henry, what are we doing? We’re not really making anything.”
He stopped what he was doing and gave me a look. The kind of look that you can only get from a three-year-old who has to explain something obvious to an adult.
“Mama,” he said matter-of-factly. “We’re makin’ Play-Doh.”
I got schooled.
With that one answer, I saw a basic truth that applies to art, writing, and why new writers have the huge advantage:
New writers haven’t lost their love of playing yet.
When we start out writing, no matter if we’re six years old or 25 years old, we usually start from a place of play. Writing attracts us because it is fun. Building worlds, connecting with characters, imagining what if? scenarios turns us on and lights us up. Our stories are the happy places we return to again and again in our minds whenever we need inspiration, relief, refuge, and healing. Even if our stories themselves aren’t happy, the act of creating them deeply fulfills us.
But then, somewhere along the way, we gain experience with writing. We finish a novel and we go through the query process. We might attend a few workshops or even get an MFA. We learn all the rules and we learn how to break them. We become strongly focused on what readers—and ultimately agents and publishers—want from a story so that we can write that story and get onto the next step.
Our writing becomes a series of tasks, leading to goals, leading to five-year plans.
Tasks and goals and five-year plans are a far cry from feeling happy, free, and inspired to play.
I have done more consultations than I can count with writers who feel dead or defeated around writing. They had an idea for a new novel, and now they’ve spent the last three months mapping out a detailed outline, and none of that time writing. Or they finished a novel they’re in love with, but they’re now so focused on querying agents that they’re second-guessing the value of their book. Or, as in my case, they’re so involved with staying on schedule with writing projects, that they can’t even spend an evening with a three-year-old and a ball of Play-Doh without trying to meet specific goals, instead of savoring the experience as it happens.
When I wanted to “make something” out of the Play-Doh and felt a bit upset that this wasn’t happening, I was trying to control. That’s why making a Play-Doh snowman seemed like a “viable option” to me and I was “dutifully” pressing out Play-Doh spaghetti. I wanted to achieve a product that looked like what I thought it should look like. This took me out of the experience and kept me trapped in my head. My son, on the other hand, was just there in the moment, enjoying the feel of Play-Doh in his hands and having fun with his mama.
This is why new writers have the advantage. Because they haven’t yet lost sight of the reason they started writing in the first place: It’s FUN and they LOVE it. It’s all too easy for all the fun and the love to get lost when more seasoned writers get caught up in the story of control and achievement.
So, if you’ve been working on a writing project and it doesn’t feel fun anymore, take a step back and ask yourself what is it about the experience that you’re trying to control. And if you find that you simply can’t let go of your expectations, no worries. Put it down altogether for a while and switch to something new, something that you have no expectations around. If you normally write novels, experiment with poetry. If you normally write poetry, experiment with painting.
Do something that sounds fun and that feels like love.
Bring back the play and everything will get easier from there.
Lauren Sapala is the author of Between the Shadow and Lo, an autobiographical novel based on her experiences as a raging alcoholic in her 20s. She is also the author of The INFJ Writer, a writing guide made specifically for sensitive intuitive writers. She currently lives in San Francisco.