Those were the days! When I’d have all my toys out on my bedroom floor and we’d go on an adventure to a villain’s island to launch a rescue mission for one of our best friends who’d been kidnapped by the evil emperor and we’d climb the mountains of the bunk bed ladders and scale the snowy cliffs of the mattress to parachute in to the secret base and launch a full-scale attack to save our friend.
Isn’t it mad how, the older we get, the more we lose the sense of freedom and play we had as children? Everything becomes serious and mundane. And the pressures of adult life kick in, leaving us merely surviving day to day and not living – with more bills to pay and more rejection emails kicking our already low confidence. We grow up. Of course we do! But why do we have to grow up in everything we do? Life doesn’t require us to be serious 24/7. So why are we?
Play at lava-stones
As writers, seriousness can seep into our work as much as it does into the rest of our lives. Part of the problem is that while play exists without judgement, our work can feel so different. As adults it can be crippling. Judgement bothers us.
And it’s hard to escape, with social media and the heightened surge of people’s opinions and judgements being so readily available. It hinders us – even anticipated judgement from our agents, editors, reviewers, and readers, and perhaps above all from the critical readers we carry in our heads. All this stops us achieving what we can achieve.
Yet if I take my little man out and tell him that all the red paving stones are lava and we can’t step on them, then a beautiful game of avoiding the red paving stones will occur. We will be jumping and hopping down the street. If I was out with an adult friend and told her that the red paving stones were lava and we couldn’t step on them she’d look at me like, “Connor, get a grip!” We’d wonder who was looking. What they’d think.
I’m not saying we all have to start playing lava-stones on the street (however fun that would be). I’m saying we have to preserve that awesome childish freedom in our work. To play with it. To have fun with it. To find hope and inspiration in it too. Happiness is contagious. So is playfulness. It spreads inside us.
Free to roam
That’s one of the key elements that has stayed with me during my work with children and young people as Children’s Laureate of Wales – the ability to spread happiness and play in an exercise we do or a game we play. It spreads like a cloud of positivity over the group and smiles, laughter, and, most importantly, confidence emerge. And then our imaginations are free to roam wherever we want them to, and create what we want them to.
I’m not deluded. Of course we can’t constantly laugh things off, because a thing called life happens, and the world can be overwhelming at times, and we want to scream inwardly because it’s getting too much, and we are tired and drained and writer’s block creeps in. But that’s why it’s only more important to find those moments of play and laughter. To create space to find the freedom and joy to write.
When life happens and we feel uninspired and self-doubt is shouting at us from within, the answers can be found. I like to look up to the stars – to those constellations of gas burning in the night. Up there is a universe of infinite possibilities and in all that neverending time and space you are here, amongst it all. Your voice, your experience, you. At this point in time and space, this moment in history. One in eight billion on a planet in a constellation of constellations. You.
Life happens, but …
It might feel humbling but I find my inspiration in the abundance up there. No one in the universe writes like you. Sees the world like you, feels the way that you feel. No one can replicate you – not even the cleverest AI, though I’m sure it will try.
You don’t need to be the next Paulo Coelho, Tupac Shakur, or Michelle Obama. (Everyone has their own shortlist of writers who make them feel awestruck, and those are a handful of mine.) You only need to be you. As Michelle Obama puts it, “even though it isn’t always easy, it’s important for you to find the strength to share your truth. Because the world needs to hear it.”
It might sound like a big ask. But your truth – your authenticity – comes from the words and experiences you weave onto that paper. And that all comes from nothing else but simply you. Not the expectations of others, but you at play. You, climbing the bunk-bed ladders. You, scaling the snowy cliffs. You, launching a rescue mission for yourself.
First published in The Author, Society of Authors, Autumn 2023 vol. 134.3.