Life, Play, and Art





How many writers played out story situations first, to experiment with physical effort, space, gravity, etc? In my many years of yard duty while teaching, I saw small kids learn real fast that cartoon bend and stretch doesn’t work in real life, which called to mind my own experiments when I was small.

I also watched kids testing cartoon social and emotional exchanges, to discover that those, too, seldom worked in real life.

Oh, I remember those from my own childhood. When I was in first grade, I saw a Marilyn Monroe movie. 90% of it went over my head, but what I did get out of it was that everybody liked her, and so she got what she wanted, and was happy. So the next day at school I walked around with my eyes half shut, and talked in a Marilyn Monroe voice. The result?

“Does your stomach hurt?”

“What’s wrong with you?”

“You look like a dead fish.”

I used to make up plays for the neighbor girls to act out. Some of these plays lasted days, and extended over several backyard, the back fences, and pockets of neglected brick and stone between walls and garages, which became Secret Places. We had a couple of favorites that we enacted over and over, while I refined bits, or sometimes they evolved their characters. That was fun . . but not so fun was learning around 11 or 12 that how interactions worked in story and how they worked in similar situations in real life differed a whole lot.

This could be especially painful when I tried a story trope in a real situation, and invariably got reactions of stupefied incredulity or scorn or laughter…or anger.

It wasn’t always childhood. There was a time when I was in my twenties and a would-be lover stalked me. When I finally got the nerve to confront my stalker, the response was a softly uttered quote from a book we both loved. I think I was meant to swoon the way the character who heard the words did in the book.

But I had to bite my lip hard to keep from laughing. My wooden face was enough to indicate that the tender pash wasn’t happening, and the ensuing conversation was both painful and painfully real rather than romantic.

The real difference is, of course, that in play, we know what comes next. Sometimes we even negotiate what comes next. In real life, nothing is scripted.

This is most dramatically obvious in emergency situations. Those who have been in these situations recognize that the instant competence of heroes in movies, the sense of everyone knowing just what to do, only comes with hard experience and practice, unless you’re one of the rare ones for whom instinctive sequencing in high-adrenaline situations works. A busily jerking steadi-cam gives the impression of high adrenaline, but the clipped, controlled voices of actors (even their shouts) are far different from the high, strained, often invective-laced, almost inarticulate barks of those in a real situation, the adrenaline-shedding purposeless moving about as people try to make order out of chaos.

Some fictioneers (movie, book, comic, manga, whatever) endeavor to show reality as truthfully as possible, but clear back in the days of Samuel Johnson, when the novel was just evolving, there was an argument that that was not art. Art required discrimination in choices of what to depict, and also, there was the debate about moral or ethical truth. I remember the debate in the late sixties or early seventies that Andy Warhol’s eight hour film of a guy sleeping was real as all get-out, but not art. Oh yes it was art, he retorted. Some argued that art is what I point at, even to you it’s a tin can on a pedestal, or a canvas with paint splashed all over.

Back to writing.

At some point, the writer realizes that no matter how much she plays, she is still anticipating what comes next. Just as on film and TV, the subtle signs are there, especially in fights, that the actors know the next move, whereas in real life, we don’t.

So the writer has to imagine the shock, surprise, dread of not knowing.

Writers draw on experience they’ve had. They draw on experience they’ve witnessed. They draw on experience they’ve read in news articles, interviews, diaries, letters, memoirs. Writers sometimes draw on experience of other art, many times because they’ve grown up seeing the trope over and over so it maps as real.

Sometimes, we want it to be real—to evoke that sense of how the world ought to work.  (Like my stalker.)

As for emulating reality, many readers enjoy the shock and surprise. Is that because they are able to maintain the willing suspension of disbelief? Or the catharsis of emotion followed by the remembrance that this is fiction? Other readers feel anxious, and so, as a safety net, they ask for spoilers. If the story is going to emulate real life, well, they are exercising the option of knowing what’s ahead, which we can’t in real life.

So, back to art. How’s this for a conclusion: art is a combination of real experience, imagined experience, and learned experience. Make any sense?


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Life, Play, and Art — 23 Comments

  1. This reminds me of when I was taking a Japanese literature course and we were reading a short story about man who becomes aware of the fact that he is going to die. The story was written during the time when realism in literature was heavily prized. In fact, realism was so important that there were tenets of what was ‘realistic.’ No coincidence, no humor, no action, no drama, I think even symbolism had to be heavily restrained so that no one could doubt that it might actually happen that way. This form of reality was so stripped down, so that no one could question the truth of it, that it resembled real reality hardly at all!

    • Oh, wow. I think German literature went through a similar stage. I recall some very dreary stuff, caught up in painful detail, adding to nothing.

  2. I winced in recognition of adults not respecting a kid’s interests or possessions. My parents regularly gave away my things without asking.
    I always loved creative play, but I knew lots of kids that did not. Acting out a story was always last night’s TV show plot.

    • Kids at school replayed episodes of shows when I was young, too. And they did when I was a teacher! (I adored watching, but I had to be oblique about it. If they thought an adult was watching, they got self-conscious. This makes me wonder if our teachers, who seemed so Olympian and oblivious, were watching, too!)

  3. I started my creation of plots and scenarios even before I was old enough to write by playing with dolls and acting things out myself, so I know where you’re coming from.

    And I like your combination of experiences as a definition for art.

  4. I winced in recognition when you described your parents giving your dolls away. My parents also gave away my things without asking me. It’s one way to negate personhood.
    I have always loved creative play, but not everyone does. I preferred to make up stories, but my mates always wanted to redo the plot from the previous nights TV show.

  5. In these days of cell-phone video and YouTube, we have much more exposure now to real-life calamity and how the victims react. (The banality of the voice-over commentary, usually confined to profane exclamations and appeals to God, is especially striking.) I have seen no sign of this realism leaking over into fiction.
    I don’t remember role-playing or play-acting when I was a child, but I have watched my daughter’s childhood play with fascination. She had an entire troupe of imaginary ducks, each named and with a salient characteristic, who had adventures around her. Later on she created elaborate epics for her Beany Babies — like LOTR enacted by junior-high school drama queens.

    • True thing about immediacy of disaster, but the lascivious dwelling on the more sanguinary aspects of such situations doesn’t convey how it is for those inside the situation. We can see people’s compassion aroused in singular circumstances–when someone is horrible to a dog, or a single act of violence–but big disasters can stun us into incomprehension.

      I love watching my grandniece and her elaborate games with her dolls.

  6. Every time you talk about how your parents treated your childhood interests and your storytelling, I feel such anger and frustration. It’s just wrong – and it’s amazing and a testament to your strength and imagination that you kept the creative fire in the face of it. (although you’ll probably say it wasn’t really your choice, I’m fairly sure others in the same circumstances would have lost it then wondered why they were unhappy.)

    I’ve said before that the whole reason I collected My Little Ponies was because, unlike Barbie, they could stand on their own, which meant they were much better for sending on adventures around the house (or with my friends; I was lucky to have at least some friends who liked to create along with me). My brother and I also had epic G.I. Joe battles with occasional actual stories, not just shooting. And I wrote stories very soon after, and he’s been running RPGs. I do see a connection.

    • There is definitely a connection!

      My parents were not monsters, but the fifties were the time of conformity, and they were young. Conformity meant comfort. Nobody else did what I did. (As for my stick-to-it attitude, the drive was too strong for knuckling under, and of course as a teen, I found extra pizazz in sneaking my writing anyway! But in any case, they stopped worrying about it when I was in my mid teens, and accepted that I was a hopeless nerd.)

  7. I certainly enacted endless stories with dolls, stuffed animals, and a host of eraser animals obtained painstakingly over many months from the St. Louis Zoo. These last, which numbered more than thirty in all when I had gotten all the ones I needed, were the most productive of plots for some reason, maybe because, not being locked into human form and being small enough to fit in the dollhouse, they were more of a blank slate. I recall with particular fondness the hippopotamus triplets who had different magical powers depending on whether it was the green, the red, or the gray one.


  8. As to calamities: one way that some people have managed to keep their head in an emergency or the like is that they’ve played over the basic scenario a few times in their heads, so the best responses are at least slightly trained in. (though for actual emergency response, they have and do full role-play for a reason). Of course, I know my first reaction in some situations is to freeze outright, which doesn’t help; even if I know what to do, it takes a bit to shake that off. Which just makes me play through potential disasters more in my mind; at least when I unfreeze, I have a response. People sometimes say this is morbid, or liable to call down trouble. I say better to think than to avoid thinking about it.

    Of course, one has to be flexible in the imagining. Or it ends up like an even worse version of the person who plans a whole conversation in their head and stumbles when the real human being they speak to doesn’t follow script.

    I always considered all fictional writing as being like a macrocosm of the truism about dialogue; it resembles conversation, but with all the “um”s and awkward pauses and pointless interruptions stripped out. Fictitious calamities have people not freezing, remembering to call 911, and speaking eloquently. (Fiction also has some interesting tricks like narrative time compression and minimizing casting.)

  9. Oh, and as to the throwing away of childhood toys: I’ve told my kids that I cannot maintain their archive in the childhood home for ever. When they move out, their stuff goes with them sooner or later! My son says he wants to keep ALL his toy cars; we will see if he feels that way when he’s 30.

  10. Another sympathetic wince of recognition at parents disappearing your creative tools because they weren’t “normal”. That happened to me too. Well-meant nurturing impulses badly misdirected.

    My favorite tool was a jar of sequins from a garage sale, a big one. It had not only the little round ones, but dozens of different shapes and colors and sizes, flat and metallic and iridescent. I would lay out a grid six wide of the basic ones, in which each sequin was a person, and start rolling the dice to represent random events. A person’s sequin would change to represent new attributes – age, skills learned, duels won, dresses (iridescent ballgown sequins ftw).

    In hindsight, much as I adored reading, my play was rarely pure story-form. I was constantly designing games, trying to invent RPGs and dungeon crawls without ever having seen a computer game or D&D.

  11. My wooden face was enough to indicate that the tender pash wasn’t happening, and the ensuing conversation was both painful and painfully real rather than romantic.

    This reminds me of a time when I was obsessed with someone, and managed even to wangle a road trip with him… but then when we came back, he said he didn’t want a longer relationship; he was going to be busy with, as I recall, tennis, among other things.

    Somewhere in the back of my mind, even though my emotional self was still desperately planning ways to win his love, I had the thought, “this is just pathetic and tawdry. It’s not romantic to be thrown over by someone who’d rather play tennis. It’s just… a waste.”

    There are a lot of ways to spin any situation, though, and we do! Spin them lots of ways, I mean. The “true” interpretation of events changes with mood and insight and day of the week and period of life, it seems.

  12. I play acted with my sister and friends a lot. I stubbornly didn’t give up play acting until I was 12, which, not coincidentally, was when I realized/learned that authors were real people and I could actually *write stories* if I wanted to. I play acted for another year or two past that, but the games had become more of joint story writing thing (usually through emails or notes in class), rather than an “play acting” thing.