Nothing could have broken the spell. Time stood still. Reality seemed to pause. The world was only two carpet tiles wide and I was enraptured by everything in it. My small fingers gripped the cool, smooth metal of my favourite wet-black toy Corvette with the lipstick-red plastic seats. Intensely eyeing the steadily turning wheels, I pushed that little car over the hilly humps of nan’s slippers, drove it with a customary “vroom-vroom!” up two folded cushions and brought it to a screeching halt down the side of granddad’s armchair. When the precision parking manoeuvre was complete and the door swung open, the stick-man I’d fashioned for myself out of two intertwining hairpins climbed out (with a subtle coercion) so he could trot over to the bakery – a.k.a. the wooden leg of mum’s coffee table.
Play made me feel invisible to the adults in the household. Invented places were mine alone to explore. People in my family could cook, clean, talk, argue, snooze or watch TV and still my imagination kept me occupied in intense concentration driving those cars, separating marbles into regiments, letting Barbie dolls have ‘intelligent’ conversations and getting Star Wars figures to fight their differences out. I only occasionally let mum join in and she never got it right. I would order her around like a proper bossy-boots – “put dolly in the red dress, not the blue…!”; “No, mum, you can’t just stop a bus in the middle of the road. Push it to the bus stop…!” – because, to me, play was always the realm of the child.
But that all changed when I reached my thirties.
It’s not that I didn’t ‘grow up’. After earning a science degree, partying hard in London and taking on a job as a technical writer with a major corporation, I’d done my fair share of adulty stuff, but I also didn’t feel totally satisfied. Something was missing. Living wholly in the adult world didn’t fully make sense to me. So I decided to make a big change in my life. I reshaped my views on playtime, resurrected my childhood love of ‘being in my own world’ and took my newfound freedom to a completely new level. I became a fiction writer – and now I play every day, for as long as I can, building imaginary places, interesting characters and as many gripping story-lines as possible. Play is the key ingredient. Being able to ‘play’ in my head helps me visualise characters, plan out scenarios, think up answers to a story’s puzzles.
I don’t think you can be a good writer – one who really connects with readers – without having a strong playful streak. To play – really play – as an adult, you have to know how to let go. I’ve met other adults who’ve lost their ability to play, disregarding it as naive and childish, but in those people I see a missing link. People who are scared of playing start getting stiff and serious. Play is for everyone. You don’t need to give birth to children or get a pet to do it again. You don’t need to be a writer, either. Only last Sunday, I saw two men in their mid-thirties jumping around like there was no tomorrow on a kid’s adventure playground. Alcohol was not involved. On sighting their regression opportunity, they legged-it to the swings, demolished the climbing frame, spun themselves sick on the whirligig and finished it all off with a good solid bit of sliding, not caring that their adult bottoms slowed their initial progress down the slippery, silvery slope. None of the usual-sized kids blinked an eye. They were all far too absorbed in their own games – or as I sometimes think of it, the fiction in their heads – just like I used to be.
Writing and play are remarkably similar. Both require an open mind, unbounded creativity, a passion for invention and exploration, a deep appreciation of the sensory world, a desire to keep learning and the strength to embrace a true, unbounded spirit of risk-taking. You can’t care what people will think if you want to get serious about either pursuit. You can’t let normal adult expectations dull your inventive energy. You can’t let others shape you into their version of man- or woman-hood. You’ve got to fight against the rigid laws that keep most people in a constant state of maturity. You’ve got to pick up that Star Wars figure and start making it talk in silly voices again. A few people tried to convince me that I needed to be more grown up, do a ‘normal job’, settle down, get a safer car and some comfortable trousers. I reacted with ferocity, defending my right to be young at heart and in mind – and the harder I fought, the more my writing reached a new velocity.
Both novels and shorter pieces are immense fun to develop. Novels are, in some ways, more intellectually intense and require a deeper level of planning and control, but short stories can be wildly creative and imaginative with fewer rules and regulations – the kind of writing and reading I most enjoy. I like any piece of short fiction to be powerful, thought-provoking, distilled down to its most compelling essence. I like to be drawn in quickly. I don’t like damp squibs without meaning, stories that don’t commit to saying anything and don’t really go anywhere fast. I like stories that imbue a sense of playfulness. As a child, I was a tomboy thrill-seeker, finding friends in dark places, scouring the neighbourhood for excitement and intrigue on BMX’s, visiting other people’s houses and taking a peek inside their cupboards, their lives. Being nosy is so easy to do when you’re a child. I miss that. Observing people, listening into conversations, seeing what the neighbours are up to – all of these subtle techniques a writer uses need to be done with far more camouflage and tact as an adult. But that deep interest in people, the undercurrents of their lives, their psychology and relationships, what drives people to make a decision – or not make one – has massively influenced what I read and write.
Life is filled with adult rules, mature beliefs and serious expectations, but children instinctively know what’s best for us as human beings in both body and mind. They say a child’s posture is as close to perfect as its possible to get and it’s only as that child ages into a teen and later an adult that their optimal stance starts to deteriorate. Over time, as habitual movements take their toll and life’s challenges distract, the body begins to slouch, sinking into positions that are suboptimal, causing pain, discomfort and weakness. I think it’s the same with play. The less you do it, the less supple your mind becomes. Children play a lot without needing to be told to. Surely that should tell us something – namely that it’s natural to play and it’s good for us. Much of my fiction and the way I approach life comes from a part of me that hasn’t changed much since I was in ketchup-splattered dungarees – and that’s why it makes far more sense to me than the unwritten adult rulebook some people carry around in their heads.
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