On the last morning of a writers’ retreat I went to a year ago, there was a tiny bell lying on the seat of every chair in the spacious conference center. The weekend was unlike any gathering of writers I’d ever been to: for two days, we attendees had listened, enthralled, to one heresy after another. “Find a hobby that isn’t writing,” one speaker said. “Take walks. Do yoga. Don’t be literary. Be a human being.” Another went further. “It doesn’t take that much time to get writing done,” she said, and a gasp rippled through the audience. Here were writers who took their art seriously, but not themselves—at least, not all the time.
I was charmed to find the little trinket on my seat. What was it for? While the auditorium began to fill, people traded them, pocketed them, bounced them from hand to hand.
One of the workshop leaders took the microphone. He asked us to take our bells, hold them as tightly as we could, and give them a shake. Nothing happened, although several faces turned red with exertion.
“Now take your bell,” he said, “hold it loosely in your hand, and shake it.”
Lovely tinkling music filled the giant room up to its vaulted ceiling.
“That’s how you need to approach writing,” he told us—not with clenched fists, but with open hands.
Relaxed. Playful. Open to possibility.
I returned home from the weekend, set the bell on my desk, and told myself the next hour or two was just for fun. Then I started to write—with results that surprised me. I began to wonder if other writers knew something I didn’t. Could writing be as enjoyable at the outset as at the conclusion? Could it be—dare I say it?—something close to play?
I interviewed four of my favorite writers to find out, and, although they didn’t all use (or even like) the word play, some clear themes began to emerge. Themes like surprise, laughter, and a willingness to let go of self-consciousness and convention. These writers have discovered ways to bring joy into their work, so perhaps it’s no surprise that their writing is a delight to read.
One of the workshop leaders at the retreat was Brenda Miller. As she walked us through the steps of writing short, powerful pieces, like her much-anthologized apologia “Swerve” and the sensory-rich “What I Could Eat,” she couldn’t stop smiling. On the last day of the conference, I asked her about her generative writing group, which meets every week to do a series of unusual exercises: first, five minutes of subject-verb-object sentences; then, ten minutes of linking sentences; and finally, one long, continuous run-on sentence for twenty minutes. I was puzzled by so much prescription.
“It’s an interesting paradox,” she said.
Sometimes, the more constraints we give ourselves, the more fun we can have. Think about the rules of a sport or a game: while a free-for-all may sound like fun, we often prefer to have rules and guidelines, and to see how much creativity and mastery we can accomplish within those guidelines. For these particular exercises (which were taught to me by the artist and writer Nancy Canyon), the rules give your intellectual mind something to concentrate on, and then your subconscious mind can come out to play. The time limit quiets the inner censor and forces you to keep writing whatever comes out.
Miller said she also plays in her writing practice by trying pieces as “hermit crab” essays:
In a hermit crab piece, you are adopting already existing forms to tell your story, such as a recipe, a how-to article, etc. I’ve written pieces in the forms of rejection notes, field guides, a table of figures, and how-to pieces. I end up having so much fun developing and playing with the voices of these forms that the writing barely seems like work. In the rejection note piece, titled, “We Regret to Inform You,” I begin by cataloging all the rejections one receives from grade school on, so it starts on a lighthearted note and gets progressively more serious as the chronology goes along, including my experiences with two miscarriages in my early twenties.
Miller has talked about seasons in her writing life—writing in solitude, writing in community, and, most recently, writing in collaboration:
I’ve been doing two different collaborations over the last year: one with my colleague and friend Lee Gulyas and one with my friend Julie Marie Wade. With Lee, we’ve been trading photographs and writing to the images, sometimes together and sometimes individually. You never know what the image will trigger, how our two perspectives will either mesh or diverge.
With Julie, we’ve written many different kinds of essays, usually with one of us starting on a specific topic andlobbing the essay back to the other. In this way, the essay builds bit by bit, shifting directions, always surprising us. Sometimes, it feels like a conversation with each section referring directly to something that came before (such as the essay “Toys” in CNF #60); sometimes, it feels more like parallel play.
I asked if she had always approached writing with this attitude of play.
I can say that after writing for more than thirty years, and teaching for almost twenty, I had to find some new ways to approach the writing process, or I would have stopped writing altogether. As a creative nonfiction writer, it can be easy to feel like you’ve used up your material, so the emphasis becomes finding new perspectives and forms. And yes, this approach makes me very happy to write. I get that thrill of writing something new and unexpected almost every time I come out to play.
I first met Brian Doyle at a writers’ workshop fifteen years ago and have been a fan ever since. He had a handout that suggested writers think sideways: What does grass mean? How does winter smell? In “Playfulnessness: A Note,” Doyle argues that the essay is “the most playful of forms, liable to hilarity and free association and startlement.” I recently asked him if he thinks he brings those qualities to his own writing.
Hmm—I do think it’s true, and immediately think of my sister saying I am congenitally wonder-addled because I got spectacles at age seven and have never recovered from that wash of wonder. I suppose I am also sort of addicted to the salt and swing and song of the American language, which is a bruised dusty lewd brave vibrant language, and trammeling it carefully seems disrespectful to me, as long as I am clear. I set out with an idea and try to hammer sentences that have loose ends; does that make sense? I never know where a story or an essay or a proem is going to end up, or even go, quite. . . . I just start, and I have in mind that I want to write like people talk and think, in loose-limbed, free, piercing, entertaining ways, and things go from there—sometimes utterly to the dogs.
I had to ask: what does it mean to hammer sentences that have loose ends?
I am trying to stay open to surprise, to spin, to swerve, to deepen—I want to start and then see what happens. I suspect that if you know exactly what you want to say, or exactly how a piece should end, then you have put yourself in a polite jail cell. I have the utmost respect for op-eds and editorials and reports and journalism, but I also love and am much more deeply moved by pieces that are open to surprise. An example for me is a long essay called “The Meteorites,” which started out simply as a list of all the weird summer jobs I’d had, and morphed into a piece about being a counselor at a summer day camp, and finally into a piece very much about the spangle and spatter of light and love.
Language isn’t the only thing Doyle doesn’t “trammel carefully.” He also plays with form, and I asked him about his proems—the word he uses to describe his box-shaped pieces that are part poem, part prose, part prayer.
With the proems, I want to get to some place between prose and poems, because while poems at their best are the form closest to music and swing and rhythm and cadence, at their worst, they are artsy-fartsy selfish elusive self-absorbed muddles; can you make a thing that’s alert to music but also clear as a bell, in unadorned conversational lines? And as regarding forms, there are so many: the story that’s all one voice; a paragraph in which two stories are being told alternately, as happens in my novel Mink River; the essay that is clearly wildly hyperbolic but also totally true because you waved the hyperbole flag, somehow. . . .
Doyle has advised new writers to “type fast and tell a story with your fingers.”
Newer writers very often sit down with expectations and plans and programs and outlines and assumptions as to form, and I think all those things are little jail cells. You shut off so much possible when you insist on what must be. And so much poor writing is just news and memory and explanation and persuasion and report and data and airy opinion; whereas stories are bigger deeper wilder unforgettabler. For me, I think it was years as a journalist on magazines and papers in Boston and Chicago that made me yearn for what was under mere reporting and accounting. Could I catch and share moments, images, the deeper story? Could you use one tiny story to carry a thousand bigger stories on its shoulders?
I met David Quammen a year ago when I interviewed him about his book Ebola in the wake of the 2014 outbreak. A literary journalist who specializes in ecology and evolutionary biology, Quammen told me, then, that his purposes “are divided about halfway between education and vaudeville” as he tries to make science writing accessible to a broad audience. When I recently asked him about approaching writing with an attitude of playfulness, he made it clear he didn’t like that word:
First thing I want to say is that I distrust programmatic approaches to writing. It can’t be taught. A person is funny or playful if he or she has that capacity. Or not. It’s not a recipe. I love humor. I love surprise. I tend to be a smart aleck. “Playfulness”? Meh.
I pressed him. While playfulness may not be the right word in every case, how writers escape “programmatic” approaches to writing to keep returning and delighting in their work was exactly what I was interested in. How, for instance, does he find moments of relief while writing about infectious disease? He acknowledged the challenge:
The world right now is grim. Problems are dire. It’s rotten, catastrophic. But also filled with wonders, joys, amazing places and things, heroic behaviors. Pratfalls and ridiculosity. It’s always important to be able to laugh in the face of gloom, and in the face of time. I’ve learned that from some of the masters—Samuel Beckett; Faulkner; Ed Abbey; Dorothy Parker; my Irish mother, Mary Egan Quammen.
Quammen noted his humor can be dry and oblique. In Spillover, about the growing incidence of zoonotic diseases (infections that spread from animals to humans), he recounts an instance in which a Texas lab euthanized forty-nine monkeys as a precaution because they shared the same room as one that died and tested positive for Reston virus. Most of the monkeys, later screened posthumously for the virus, tested negative. Without missing a beat,
Quammen writes, “Ten employees who had helped unload and handle the monkeys were also screened for infection, and they also tested negative, but none of them were euthanized.”
Gallows humor is helpful, too, if you’re writing about something like Ebola or HIV or herpes B. There’s always room, if it’s done with irony about the brutality of life and with sympathy for the victims’ side. Why not laugh darkly? We need laughter as much as we need pharmaceuticals.
Surprise is something Quammen said he relishes in his work. For him, it comes not from plumbing the depths of memory, but from the people he interviews.
I get interested, immediately, in their whole lives, their whole stories. I wait and hope for them to surprise me. I never ever ever say to a source, “Give me a quote on yadda yadda.” I ask genuine questions. I wait and hope for them to tell me a story because they suddenly feel they can trust me with something they have never told any other person—or, at least, any other writer. Jack Horner did that with me, thirty-five years ago: dyslexia led him to dinosaur bones. Kelly Warfield did it more recently: working in a 7-Eleven at Fort Detrick led her to Ebola research.
At the writing retreat, Brenda Miller introduced me to Thomas’s first memoir, Safekeeping. She presented it as an example of memoir that—with its tiny micro-chapters, third-person accounts, and soliloquies from Thomas’s sister who comes in now and again to explain the action (a move Miller likened to a Greek chorus)—doesn’t follow convention. It’s a memoir about loss, and yet there are moments when it’s impossible not to laugh. I asked Thomas about the book’s playful tone.
Well, lots of my memories were hilarious, as were the conversations with my sister. Life is full of loss but also a lot of laughs, thank god. And yeah, probably because I had no set plan, no outline, no nothing, anything and everything came marching in. Or slithering. Life is so very funny, right in the middle of everything awful. That’s how we survive, I think.
The way I wrote Safekeeping was determined by the way my memory works (or doesn’t). My memory is terrible, but what I do remember, I remember well. There usually isn’t any interstitial material. After [my second husband] Quin died, these hundreds of little pieces came more or less flying out of me. It wasn’t a plan. I really didn’t know why I was doing what I was doing, didn’t for a long time think it would be a book. I was writing down moments, mostly—moments and feelings I remembered well.
I do think that if you have a memory, and you get it right, you leave it alone. You don’t need to put in the weather report or whatever else is lying around on the grass. Hit it, hit it as best as you can, and move on. And I couldn’t have done it without my sister. Wonderful, the Greek chorus description. Perfect.
Thomas is known for assigning her students “two pages” exercises as a way into a story “they may be staring too directly in the face,” she writes in her book Thinking about Memoir. She recalled a workshop in which she asked students to write two pages about a time they were dressed inappropriately for the occasion:
One woman described what had happened to her first husband. He had been helping load a truck for a neighbor, someone he barely knew, but that was the kind of generous man he was. The truck moved unexpectedly, and her husband was thrown to the ground. By the time they got him to the hospital, he was declared brain-dead. She remembered walking back and forth on the roof of the hospital with her husband’s brother, trying to decide whether or not to take him off life support, and thinking she was wearing the wrong clothes to be making such a decision: cutoffs, a T-shirt, sandals. It was the first time she’d ever written about this, and it was the assignment that gave her a side door. Extremely moving.
Two pages makes it less intimidating. If it goes longer, fine. But it doesn’t have to. We’re not on guard.
There’s a line in Thinking about Memoir that reminds me of the object lesson at the writers’ retreat with the bell: “We do better when we’re not trying too hard,” Thomas writes. “There is nothing more deadening to creativity than the grim determination to write.” How does she avoid the writerly tendency toward grim determination?
Doing absolutely nothing helps. Keep quiet. Take note of what you notice. See what happens. Get out of the way. Stop thinking. Wait for the unlikely pair to couple. Take naps. Especially take naps. If something strikes you while you’re beginning to drift off (and it will), get up immediately and write it down. For me, painting is a wonderful way of using a different part of what’s left of my brain. I just wait for the accident, wait for the thing to reveal itself to me. I’m NOT in charge.
What’s the most fun you’ve ever had writing?
The most fun I’ve ever had writing was when I wrote my first hermit crab piece, “How to Meditate.” I loved poking fun at both myself and the earnestness of the meditation community while still getting at the heart of some essential experiences. It was the first time I felt so immersed in a voice not my own, and I wrote the entire piece in one twelve-hour writing day on retreat at the Ucross Foundation in Wyoming.
Oh man, a nonfiction book about a year in a vineyard: The Grail. That was fun for all sorts of reasons, not just the wine. To write loose and free about a real place and people and science, to write a fun book about wine in a world filled with so many somber, lugubrious books about wine. . . .
In Spillover, I used the techniques of fiction (which I had once used in writing novels) to give the reader an imagined (truth in advertising) version of how the fateful passage of HIV from a forest-dwelling chimpanzee to the big cities of Central Africa may have happened. It was risky, this movement in a nonfiction book from carefully reported scientific fact into a mythic mode—and it was liberating, and maybe a bit provocative. I can still remember the thrill as my hypothetical story of that event, featuring a character I called the Voyager, unfolded for me each day on the page. It was great fun, in roughly the same way that running a Class V stretch of whitewater in a kayak is fun—dangerous, exhilarating, worth-the-risk fun.
Well, I had a lot of fun with “Sixteen Again,” the account of a date where I feel madly in love with the guy who did not return the compliment, and got over it very quickly. The essay changed in the course of the writing fro