When Lou, my new cat, is not eating or sleeping he is playing. As any naturalist will tell you, the strings and balls Lou chases are actually training dummies for the mice and birds he may or may not be allowed to catch in the coming years. Children, hopefully, are encouraged to play for the same reasons. All the games and pretending are training for the physical and social challenges to come. Of course, once adulthood hurrumphs into the room, playtime is over, or is relegated to the weekend where it serves as a release, the chance to do something unmuddied by the burden of financial responsibility. So you paint to relax, or play golf to relax, or maybe even write a poem to relax. But let us be clear: work is work, and play is play, and if time demands something has to go, you know what that will be.
The only real difference, however, between children and adults is that all that playing has yielded a few things on which the adult wishes to focus his or her continued attention. Now we call this work, but really it is nothing more than focused play, the way one day you are playing catch, and the next you are trying to perfect a curve ball.
But the childish idea of play is useful. When you are playing at something, you are saying there is no pressure to do anything but enjoy yourself. But is there any better way to understand your place in the world? You arrived on this planet as if stepping into a vast playground. What do you want try first? Perhaps you settle on the swings, but the jungle gym hasn’t gone anywhere. Perhaps you’ll try that later.
Many writers talk about beginning their first novels on a kind of lark—they only wanted to find out what would happen if they sat down every day or so and wrote. Eventually that play becomes their work. Yes, deadlines and advances and editors and the rest can bend you toward your desk at the grim angle of duty, but make no mistake: your success at this work depends on your willingness to keep playing. Play is a search for what interests us most. Everyday, when you sit down to write, you are exploring the evolving playground of your imagination. In that curious place is where all your “good writing” waits. So play on.