On Work and Play, by Author Sara Lippmann

What can you learn about the writing process from an 8 year old?

Author Sara Lippmann.

My daughter is a writing beast. At 8, she has half-dozen projects going at any given moment. One on the desktop, a couple of notebooks, spiral and clothbound, she has Post-Its tacked to her walls, picture books bedded in an old shoe box, comic strips, collaborations with friends, illustrated series crumpled in the folds of her backpack, a novel, color-coded in alternating points of view, which she calls “my multiple perspectives.”

Topics range from child spies to bone hunts to the real time troubles of misfit friends. Her most recent work-in-progress, “Man to Man,” features down-on-their-luck dudes in the face of natural disaster.

She writes how she builds Legos or throws a football – with passion and determination and unyielding focus. When she’s in it, she’s all in, writing instead of doing anything else like eating or homework or violin.

There is nothing precious about her habit, no special pen required or lucky shirt. She writes without a windup, without ritual, finding time everywhere. Five minutes before dinner? Let me grab my notebook. Late for karate? Need to finish this part. Sometimes I overhear her enacting scenes with dollhouse people, testing out dialogue from the shower or toilet. The narration is ongoing. Stories spin and spin.

Writing is play. It’s a no-brainer. The blank page beckons and her imagination turns.

 She is not stalled by doubt  -- or spelling. She pulls dialogue from movies, a character from other books, never concerning herself with originality or plausibility or her limited scope. Why would she write what she knows when she can write about Pepperoni, the talking rat? 

But when she’s done, she’s done.

The second she loses interest she steps away. This is not called giving up. This is called: “Let’s make Shrinky Dinks instead.” Sometimes she returns to the same story the next day, a week or two later. Other times, that’s it. The moment’s gone. Unfinished projects don’t haunt her. New ideas await. 

Every day my daughter schools me. In this case, her lesson is clear: Play more. Worry less.

Maybe this is obvious. There are studies. We know the value of play in development, the myriad ways it’s integral to the classroom. Writing is the play through which my daughter explores her world and her emotions. Although she’ll read her pages aloud to any sucker within earshot, she does not consider readers or an audience. (Once, when offered publication, she turned it down.) She does not edit or revise. That is, she does not work. She is a child.

Many writers can point to a similar memory; yet, how easy it is to forget. Those early days of first love, when we read without coming up for air when we began building our own characters and new worlds, weaving fantasies, playing with words, listening to their rise and fall on the page. We delighted in language and possibility, and above all, freedom.

Writing presented an unbridled joy.  

When my students say, “I don’t know what to write” I suggest they conjure their inner child. When they hedge with, “This may be dumb/weird/foolish –  ” This, too, is cause for the reminder. Get out of your own way. There is no monkey on my daughter’s back telling her she’s no good. She’ll be the first to tell you: she’s great. 

Do whatever it takes to Ouija the kid.

In class we goof around, doodle, free write, pull word prompts out of a hat. We play Boggle and write shorts from those words. We tear pages from magazines, we write from images, we trick ourselves with exercises in the hopes of recapturing that state of play  – where we can be creative without judgment, spontaneous without self-doubt or fear of failure. 

I wrote much of my collection, "Doll Palace", from tricks, self-imposed exercises or prompts.

I jotted down bits overhead at coffee shops, on the subway, while pushing a stroller. The casual nature of this practice offered me entry into the larger worlds of stories. There was no pressure. I wasn’t thinking about a book. It removed a layer of self-consciousness, quieting the negative voices that can be deafening in my head.

Good stuff often bubbles up when we are not consciously trying. For this reason, whenever I start something new, I get up early, before my critical mind is awake. I generate longhand. Wildly, impulsively, without any preconceived notion or seriousness. My horrendous handwriting (a hindrance when it comes to transcribing) acts as another trick. Because my words are barely legible, I am somehow able to strike closer to the nerve. The near encryption grants me the chutzpah to unlock what I want to say, unearth the seed of something, something honest and true, something worth pursuing. Might not be much. The rest is often a mess. 

When it comes time to revise, my students say: “Cripes, this is hard.”

That’s when we talk about work.

When playtime is over, real work sets in. It’s funny how often this comes as a surprise. The fantasy, it seems, is alive and well, but save for the legendary few who stream immaculate novels on rolls of toilet paper, most of us are members of the long haul. We produce lousy first drafts – and third drafts. We honor the daily grind, put in hours (and blood sweat tears) and rip out pages, and plenty of hair. For many of us, the work is never quite done. We remain hopelessly dissatisfied, even after our pages our typed, bound, on shelves. 

Editing, polishing, revising – all of it requires humility. Patience. Diligence. Grit. Every once in a while we may get lucky and have a story strike through us like lightning or land intact on our pillow, requiring a little tinkering. This is the rare exception to the rule: there are no shortcuts.

All we can do is show up. It can be agonizing to wade through the muck. Sometimes there are not enough snacks to sustain me. Butt in chair. Word after word. Cut, paste. Delete. Sometimes it feels like Whack-A-Mole. Only less fun, without prize tickets, or ropes of cherry licorice to be won.

When I was pregnant someone – a mommy – told me, “Having a child is the hardest thing you’ll do.” I rolled my eyes and dismissed this mommy as smug. And she was. She was smug even before kids. But so was I – not to mention naïve – for thinking I’d somehow escape the challenging parts, for believing the whole thing would be cake. Because then I had a kid and it was so not caked. It was work. Wonderful, at times, indescribably rewarding, but there also were plenty of long, lonely days. 

Bad analogies aside, there’s no way around it. Writing can be tough. It can be slow. Isolating – but, also exhilarating. This is what we love, remember? How fortunate we are. And when we finally push through and finish a story that finds readers – that actually connects – it can make all the difference.

Like so much else, it’s a balancing act. There is a time for the jester’s bells and a place for the editor’s cap. Both are essential. Each one of us thrives on our individual blend of play and perseverance. Find yours and embrace it. Practice. That is your job. 

Someday my daughter will have one, too.

Sara Lippmann’s debut story collection, DOLL PALACE (Dock Street Press) was long-listed for the 2015 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. She was the recipient of an artist’s fellowship in fiction from the New York Foundation for the Arts, and her stories have appeared in places like Front Porch, Slice Magazine, Tupelo Quarterly, Storychord and elsewhere. Her flash fiction has been published widely and has been included on Wigleaf’s annual lists of Top 50 (very) short fictions. She teaches fiction writing for the Ditmas Writing Workshops. To sign up for her next workshop, Making Every Word Count (Mondays, beginning April 18, 7:30-9:30 pm in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn), go to www.ditmaswritingworkshops.com. For more: saralippmann.com