Question: What did William Shakespeare, Friedrich Schiller, and Karl Marx have in common?
Answer: They all regarded play as the most exalted of human activities.
Two of these men were among the greatest poets England and Germany ever produced, and the third one was perhaps the most influential economic and social philosopher of modern times. All three were writers. And in the ’grown-up’ world where writers, painters, musicians, and performers of all kinds are seen as ancillary to the serious pursuit of money, all three struggled to make even a meager living by their pens. Almost as if, rather than being rewarded for their genius, society was punishing them for it.
These are only three of the writers that came to mind when I started thinking about writing as play. I could probably have named hundreds, maybe thousands if I’d had the time or inclination to Google the subject. But all I ever had to do was ask any writer why she writes, and the first thing she’d start talking about wasn’t money or fame or even making the world a better place; it always came down to childhood: good, not so good, god-awful . . . It doesn’t matter. Childhood, and more specifically, making stuff up and acting it out to no purpose other than that, giving way to the weird and liberating world of the unfettered imagination – that’s why writers write. At least that’s why this one does. I can’t help it. It’s a little like dreaming or a reflexive tic. I can go on playing all day. Like that kid in the window seat telling a story to his cat in a language somewhere between a meow and an epic adventure that only they understand.
Some writers like to talk about the ’isolation’ or the ’loneliness’ of the profession. Not me. And I’m a very social being. Raised to perform onstage, I love being surrounded by people, especially when they’re applauding my antics. But even more, I treasure that time away from everyone, alone in my room, playing—hanging out with ’imaginary friends’, as my parents used to call them. Those more than real characters who strut into my life without summoning. No need even for a whistle. Being ’the creative one’ in the family, playing with my imaginary friends was okay, as long as I did my homework and wasn’t late for school in the morning. Though my father would sometimes get annoyed and start hollering when I’d dawdle in front of my mother’s triptych of mirrors in the bedroom drinking tea with Alice in Wonderland or skipping down the yellow brick road with Dorothy in Oz.
My brother and I both have doctorates in literature. He’s the respected academic and Chaucer scholar. I’m the globe trotting storyteller—and sometime professor—who never stayed in one university long enough to get tenure. But neither of us has ever given up our devotion to play. We’re separated by two oceans, yet every time we get together in our yearly trips to New York, no conversation goes without a reference, however fleeting, to the time we spent growing up in our tiny Brooklyn apartment as astronauts launching Mars-bound rocket ships or spies muttering classified secrets into walkie-talkies. These days, he likes to play grownup: meeting other prominent academics at the University Club in his elegant blue blazer for a pre-dinner martini. While I remain the kid in floppy pants and sandals he accuses of having ’a mind like glue’—which, depending on how you choose to interpret it, can either mean I have a great memory or am too stuck in my own imaginings to remember anything correctly. But that, too, is part of the lifelong game we’re committed to playing. In Plato’s universe, my brother would assume the role of rationalist philosopher and I’d be ejected with the poets and other assorted fantasists as ’liars.’ Which, since I’m a born transgressor who questions authority at every turn, suits me fine.
There’s another advantage to play. Child psychologists find that it focuses the mind. But you don’t have to be an expert to know this. All you have to do is watch a child home in on a bug or a bean sprout and study it for hours.
Just the other day, I found the following serendipitous quote from Mavis Gallant in Michael Ondaatje’s introduction to her Paris Stories: ’Writers, I suppose, are like children imagining.’ To which Ondaatje adds: ’[Gallant] studies her characters’ behavior with gall, curiosity, with the toughness of a child looking at and studying adults. What results is a wonderful truth and, at the same time, great self-revelation.’ It’s that child’s self-revealing ’toughness’ I’m talking about here that makes for the best writing—the cold, biting gall that pierces the phony barriers adults put up between them and the magic of being, living, and interacting in this too often cruel yet compellingly fascinating world.
Award-winning author Perle Besserman’s most recent books are the novels Kabuki Boy and Widow Zion, and Yeshiva Girl, a story collection. Her short fiction has been published in literary journals like Southerly, Agni, Nebraska Review, North American Review, and jewishfiction.net. Her creative nonfiction books include Zen Radicals, Rebels, and Reformers and the forthcoming Grassroots Zen (co-authored with Manfred Steger). Perle has lectured, toured, taught, and appeared on television, radio, and in two documentary films about her work in the US, Europe, Canada, Australia, Japan, China, and the Middle East. Her books have been translated into many languages. More at: http://www.perlebesserman.net/