My writer friend Elise posted the other day about playing with her grandson—making up a script, changing it on the fly, having fun living the story without actually knowing where it was going from one minute to the next. It made me think about how we used to play when I was a kid.

“Let’s play pirates!” 

In the Pacific Northwest, it rained a lot, and on those days us kids (two in my family, one next door, four across the street) would grudgingly play in someone’s basement. But on all the other days, we were out in the woods with its Douglas firs, Garry oaks, and snowdrops and secret chocolate Easter lilies whose appearance meant it was spring. I don’t ever remember playing “house” in my life. Being stuck in the house was bad enough—why would you want to play that outside? Yuck! No, we played Escape From the Orphanage. Pirates. Survival in the Wild (where for some reason it was obligatory to trap and eat porcupine. I don’t know why. I also don’t know how we skinned them … but meh! Details!).

Since I was the oldest and tallest, I tended to lead the production if the others ran out of ideas as we climbed trees and bushwhacked through the undergrowth. “Say we see buzzards circling. Let’s do X” was a standard lead-in to the next scene in that day’s adventure.

“Let’s write about air pirates!” 

So as a child, I was a pantser in a brainstorming group full of pantsers. When I first began to write, naturally I pantsed my way through a couple of books that will never see the light of day. See, writing fixes things in a temporal and physical space. Play is ephemeral and you can just back up and change it if it doesn’t work out (or the ship runs aground in a hurricane, killing all aboard). But when you’re 13 and laboriously typing out your story on an Olivetti manual typewriter, it’s not so ephemeral. You have to think ahead … which is where I learned that writer’s block isn’t the lack of ideas. It’s the staring into space while tracking every idea to its logical conclusion and then having to discard it when you can’t make it work that’s the problem.

So I became an outliner, which lifted the stress of having to throw out or delete hours of work. Some outliners are hard core and do it with spreadsheets. That’s a little extreme for me. These days, I do my creative play on a paper placemat (helpfully stolen— er, provided by my writer friend Linda McGinnis). From that, I write out the story using Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet. Right-brain creative play leads to left-brain organization, which leads straight into Chapter One.

Everything in a writer’s life is grist for the mill. But what started the mighty wheels turning in my life can be traced right back to that misty forest and a gang of kids, shrieking with delight as they ran from the pirates. Or, more probably, that imaginary porcupine.


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