I’m excited to have Nancy Springer here today with her guest post in the importance of playing in helping us write. I love Nancy Springer’s children’s and YA books (my top favorite is Sky Rider), so it’s so lovely to have her here! Take it away, Nancy!
“What do you need those for?” asked a new acquaintance as I bought a pack of pens in all the hues of the rainbow. “Don’t you write on a computer?”
Yes, indeed, I write on a computer. Actually, I didn’t know what the pens were for, exactly, but I knew I needed them. I mean, purple, fuchsia, chartreuse, teal, peach for gosh sake -– I had to have them. Sure, I send my editors plain black words, but before I get to that point, give me color. Colored Sharpies, pencils, printer paper, poster paper, Post-It Notes -–
Mama don’t take my Post-It Notes away! Sometimes I’ll write story business on “stickies,” then arrange and rearrange them on a big sheet of poster-board to rough out a novel. I know a mystery writer who uses a story grid blocked into chapters, and color-codes her notes, yellow for setting, green for character, red for murder — but me, I just like the way spring-green stickies look against lilac poster-board, especially if I use violet pen.
Writing about Enola Holmes, Sherlock’s kid sister, needing to know my stuff about late Victorian life in London, I discovered a research playmate named Dover. Oh, my gosh, Dover, a.k.a. doverpublications.com, has big beautiful books full of Victorian paper dolls to cut out, Victorian stickers to help me organize my notes, information-packed Victorian costume and Victorian house coloring books. Those were crucial. Sure, I read reams of serious research first, but it was the coloring books that internalized the material for me. Crayoning, say, a street scene, identifying each person and object in order to choose mahogany, midnight blue or mustard yellow, I absorbed knowledge of all things Victorian so fondly and deeply that later, writing, I could focus on my story without needing to stop and think about sealing wax or slop buckets; I just knew.
It works to play. We writers get so serious about our craft sometimes, I think, so focused on important thoughts about plot and pacing and character arc and narrative technique, that we lose a sense of playfulness as integral to creativity. “Don’t play with your food,” they told us when we were kids, but don’t great chefs do just that? Don’t great visual artists need to fingerpaint now and then? I know I need to play in order to write well, and it’s not necessary to be working — I mean playing — on a specific research topic, either.
For instance: As suggested by Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge in her wonderful book Poemcrazy, and for no other reason except that it sounded like fun, I made myself a word ocean. I cut colorful card stock, the kind crafters use for scrapbooking, into quirky shapes, on which I wrote my favorite words –- in bright-colored pens or markers, naturally. Some with stickers. Some embellished with a doodle or two. As days and weeks went by and my word ocean deepened, story ideas leapt out of it like flying fish, even though I was really just playing.
Sure, I write on a computer, and it’s a good thing I can change the font color at whim. Maybe today I feel like writing in vermilion. No problem. There will be plenty of opportunity to zap my story into sober black after it is finished. I once heard renowned science fiction author Jack Vance tell how he did his first drafts: in longhand, on notebook paper folded in half into folios, writing across the lines, in a different color of fountain pen ink for each paragraph. It had to be fountain pen, green, azure, violet, not ballpoint or marker. It had to be lined notebook paper so that he could rebel against the lines. He added, dryly, that because he liked to write this way, he produced rather slowly.
My rainbow Sharpies seem a mild eccentricity by comparison.
Color isn’t the only way to play, of course. There are musical accompaniment, and rubber stamps, and dingbats, and fun fonts, and wazoo computer papers, and the stuff you clip from newspapers and magazines to stick up in the office, and…all sorts of ways to play. A lot of writers play at collecting words or faces or bright ideas the way a child collects seashells or marbles or bugs. I love that kind of collecting too, especially as it involves keeping notebooks. Colorful ones, of course, landing all over the place like butterflies.
Just because I’ve published more than fifty novels, some people call me prolific. Humph. I don’t like “prolific.” (It’s not in my word ocean!) Instead, why not color me playful? After all, that’s how I get so much work done.
About NANCY SPRINGER:
It’s never too late to have a happy childhood, or, in the case of a fiction writer, an immortal work of literature, which is why, after
authoring fifty-some books in various genres for adults and children, Nancy Springer continues to write with zest. Her forthcoming YA novel, MY SISTER’S STALKER (Holiday House, May) marks yet another hair-pin turn in a career full of them. As opposed to THE ENOLA HOLMES MYSTERY SERIES, complex and witty, MY SISTER’S STALKER exemplifies stark suspense. Nancy Springer, formerly from Pennsylvania, now lives in a wild woodsy area of the Florida panhandle.