Recently, I’ve been trying out an exercise with my students in my writing classes and workshops. I ask them to make three lists involving memorable experiences of creative play. The first has to do with experiences in childhood with play. The second asks them to list things they do presently they consider creative play. And the third is experiences in which they have observed others in the act of creative play.
“Creative play” is a rather abstract idea and can be taken to mean many different things. But many students get it right away. To help them, I use the adjectives, “organic,” “inventive,” or “homemade.”
I give them examples from my own childhood. I tell them of scouring the alleys of my neighborhood looking for machine parts, junk radios, TV tubes, wire, batteries, junk that I turned into what my friends and I called “contraptions.” (It was my sci-fi period, what can I say.) Or I tell them about this wild storm that split apart a tree in our side yard, out of which my sisters and I built a giant nest in one of its downed branches. Forts were big in my neighborhood: tree houses, foxholes, dens under large bushes, cardboard box towns, abandoned cars.
I like to watch their faces as they set to work, lips curling into smiles, nodding heads, eyes turning up and out as they tune into these memories. I then ask them to write down beside one experience per list, a body part, a place, the situation out of which this occurred, and an emotion they associate with it. This is to help them elaborate a bit and connect the experience to their bodies.
I have been using this exercise as a kind of ice-breaker because it never fails to illicit a story a student can tell about a creative experience that everyone feels at once connected to, often bringing very funny confessions and fascinating insights into the nature of creativity. They can use any story or experience from the three lists. As one might expect, most tell a story from childhood. But a couple chose the present and one invariably chooses an experience of watching someone else.
One student this term told of a man he watched in Chicago, who was known to stake out a street corner in a popular ‘hip’ section of the city, and with boom box, skimpy speedo, running shoes, and his buff Asian body, rocked and danced for hours, as if he were alone in his apartment. A kind of performance piece for sure, but it wasn’t any more elaborate than dancing to his own music with his own beautiful body in a public place.
I ask students to listen carefully and watch the bodies of their classmates as they relate their experiences. I want them to notice characteristics in people’s bodies and in their descriptions of these experiences. For the student who described the dancer, I asked him what did seeing this organic “performance” make him feel as he watched him? And his response was perfect, “freedom” and “rebellion” and “pleasure.”
Again and again the characteristics of pleasure and freedom of expression came up. Pleasure in both the physical actions felt in their bodies and the pleasure of their inventive use of a situation or the things around them. One woman spoke of cooking now for her friends, and how much she enjoyed the whole process of going to a market and picking out vegetables (“I just like to see the colors and go down the aisles and think of all the things I could possibly make.”) What was still most pleasurable for her was not only the physicality of cooking, shopping, chopping, mixing, but the serving of food to her friends.
Several students spoke of games they made up with neighbors, jumping from furniture, taking on the roles of make-believe people, playing out scenarios of TV shows, creating scenes and sets for dolls or in some cases making anti-dolls where Barbee becomes some character of their own invention far from the plastic All-American ideal.
Another trait students point out is the inventiveness in their experiences. Furniture, books, sticks, stones, pots, old clothes, or whatever is at hand take on symbolic meaning. With inventiveness, too, also comes a kind of power or even a kind of confidence.
I was struck by the pragmatic nature of their examples. The context or situation or a given space provide a form that doesn’t’ limit their creativity but actually serves as a foundation or impetus for their imaginative response. Even awkward situations became opportunities as one woman described dealing with guys that annoyed her and her friends by turning them into dupes by making up elaborate fictions about who their lives. One woman told of how she turned dreaded trips shopping with her mother into make-believe games where she hid under clothes racks and scared women who’d pull out dresses from off the rack. “Hey, that’s mine! Put that back! This is my house!”
Bedrooms, playgrounds, backyards, department stores, street corners, bedrooms, and alleys—any place can become a stage or starting point for our creativity.
Some experiences of students reveal not only how pragmatic and organic our creativity can be but also how comforting it can be psychologically or how troubling depending upon how it is used. One student in a workshop described dealing with death by coming back from a funeral and deciding to play “mortician” and asking all her friends to play dead so she could put make up on them and put them in a box. “Everybody in my neighborhood wanted to play dead that summer.” Another African-American woman described the awkward emotional territory of gender and sexuality and perhaps race as well as she described a well-known game where all the girls at recess in her class would go out and capture a boy, pen him down on the ground, and taunt and torture him with the threat of a kiss. “I was the one they decided should be the one who kissed the boy. I don’t know why they chose me. I can’t even remember actually kissing these boys but attempting to do it was enough.”
It was a brave example she chose to give to the class, reminding all of us of how games and creative play can turn destructive. This “kissing game” reminded me, too, of the unconscious energy that often animates our creative responses and action, which is why conscious intention plays a very important role in our creative work and play.
Creativity is often misunderstood as some special talent or in-born or God-given skill, as if we have nothing at all to do with its cultivation. When, in truth, it’s in our very nature to change and create. The mind and the body crave our conscious use of creativity. We seek the pleasure, perhaps even unconsciously, of the challenge the sensual world presents to us, not only for our own survival but for the survival of an evolving planet.