When I think of this category, I think of my kids in the backyard in San Diego, deeply immersed in the Warriors-inspired make-believe games that occupied so many hours when they were little. Or the long stretches of Sculpey play: elaborate scenes crafted and acted out. Epic adventures spanning hours and days. The Thomas the Tank engine set, the Playmobil stories, the blanket forts.
For myself, this category is a little harder to define. Rose and Beanie used to walk in circles (literally walk in circles!) on our back patio, making up stories for themselves. All the action was happening inside their heads. Here in the second year of the pandemic, my head is full, full, full—full of inputs, full of tasks to be done. I notice in myself a pattern of clearing a little time for my grownup version of play—or for white space, which has some crossover with this category, since it’s the soil from which imagination and creativity grow—and then immediately filling the space with yet another form of input, sometimes nourishing, sometimes fluff. An audiobook, a podcast, a show on Netflix, a screen game.
Funny as it sounds, holding space for imaginative play in my life takes more effort than almost anything else on my list of essential activities!
Where I find it is at my art table, or within the borders of an embroidery hoop. On the blank page of a notebook: a jumble of words arranging themselves into phrases, into poems.
It’s possible I’m not a minimalist
I know exactly where to find the doorway to imaginative play, but I have to make myself walk through it. To mess around with paint, not listening to a book or podcast. To doodle in my sketchbook while my mind roams. Not tuned into other voices. I find this challenging; I’m so accustomed to making the most of my minutes! Not enough time to read and exercise and make art and learn new things—better bundle them together.
Bundling is wonderful—in moderation! If every morsel of my sketchbook time, treadmill time, gardening time, has a soundtrack, I’ll never hear my own self. Even the time I spend in my poetry notebook several mornings a week can become a clamor of other voices. I’m impatient with the seed-time of my own thoughts.
Where I find the easiest ground for imaginative play is with embroidery. I think that’s because it combines a satisfying and meditative activity (stitching) with invention and beauty. You could say the same thing about painting, drawing, knitting, woodworking, but for me, a #7 Tulip needle is the key to the realm of imagination. Perhaps that’s because even after years of daily drawing and online art classes, I remain unsatisfied with my ability. When I picked up the embroidery habit, I gained skill with gratifying speed. And I found a blank round of fabric to be fertile ground for original thought and design, much more so than on a sheet of watercolor paper. Curious, no? I seldom like the original art I make on paper. (I say original to distinguish it from online course assignments, where I’m following steps and often do enjoy both the process and final outcome).
I hadn’t been stitching for long—using patterns purchased from my favorite Instagram designers—when I felt the itch to create my own designs. Ideas flooded in—but I could see that my they outstripped my ability. So I ignored the voice that kept urging me to be original. I gave myself time to practice and learn. I gave myself scraps of fabric to experiment on, reckoning that they were the embroidery equivalent of an artist’s sketchbook.
And eventually, after a long time, a project began to shape itself in my mind. It’s playful and inventive and combines elements and subject matter I care about intensely.
My challenge is holding space for it. I have an hour set aside after I tuck Huck into bed, but by that time of day I’m often too fried. This week I only picked up that hoop a couple of times.
I’m still stitching, though. I’ve found what works best for me is to have three projects at the ready, at all times: one for study (learning new stitches or techniques); one for thinking (a simple design purchased from creators like Cozyblue or Dropcloth, where the stitching is satisfying and meditative, and I don’t have to make decisions as I go); and the hoop containing my own project-in-progress.
The second type of hoop—I’ve written about this before—is an essential part of my writing practice. When I hit a point in a piece of writing where I need to stop and think, picking up that hoop quashes the urge to pop open a social media tab and “just” take a peek. Those peeks (which are never just a peek, are they) are the fastest route to utter derailment on a writing project. So I keep my “thinking hoop” handy and pick it up whenever I’m tempted to open a tab.
(I love the Momentum Dash browser extension for Chrome—it allows you to set a default New Tab that opens to a beautiful nature photo, different every day, with a blank for you to enter that day’s focus activity. Sometimes while I’m writing, I write PICK UP YOUR HOOP in that blank, so that if I do succumb to new-tab temptation, I’m smacked with a reminder before I can load another site. Other times, I write the day’s Highlight (a task or activity that I absolutely must attend to that day) or whatever piece of writing I’m working on at the moment in that blank. This has the same effect of redirecting my attention to my work. Probably one of my best workflow hacks! I also use Momentum’s built-in Pomodoro timer quite a lot.)
My time’s just about up for this morning, so I’ll close with a quick look back at the week’s imaginative play. I started, but didn’t finish, this fantastic Peggy Dean tutorial (free!) on how to draw canyons in Procreate. Except I just grabbed my notebook, not the iPad. I’d like to spend more time with that today. And Rilla and I are working on a pretty exciting art project together on Saturday nights. She’s done almost all the work so far, but last week we got to the painting stage and spent a happy hour testing our acrylic paints on a black canvas to see which colors show up best from a distance. I’m looking forward to putting in some more time on that project this weekend.
And writing this post reminds me to start my afternoon work session by threading some needles. I’m a big believer in always leaving thread in the needle—both literally for embroidery and figuratively for my writing (Hemingway’s trick). Never stop at the end of a scene! Break off mid-scene, mid-paragraph, even mid-sentence if you can. It’s much easier to pick the work back up next time.
I’ve just had a slender epiphany. For my Patreon yesterday I wrote a post about small projects—how many I have underway, and how satisfying it is to complete them—when it struck me that as a writer and an artist, nearly all the projects I care deeply about and think of as my Real Work are huge in scope.
I write novels, which can take years. Especially historical novels, with their months and months of research.
I have two separate, original, multi-piece embroidery projects underway, and if I thought novels were a slow-burning endeavor, boy howdy. I write at light-speed compared to the rate at which a stitching project develops from a glimmer of an idea to a transferable design to a finished piece hung on the wall. With embroidery, each ‘draft’ on the way to a final piece can take months. Even if, say, there’s a global pandemic keeping me housebound for a year, creating gaps of time where wandering around the science museum or meeting a friend for lunch used to live, my hands and eyes can handle only so much stitching and staring in a given day. And attempting something grand means lots and lots of iterations, lots of experimentation, lots of snipping away errant stitches so you can try something else.
And then of course there’s my epic, my life’s work—the homeschooling project, now in its 26th year, if you begin the count from the spring of 1995, when I began the read-and-research jag that has never stopped.
Pondering this, these large-scale endeavors I’m drawn to, in the context of my being a person who relishes the sudden, the new, the different, the spontaneous, the immediate—I have to laugh. We all live in various states of tension, tugged at by opposing forces (for example, you long to travel but don’t have the funds; or you’re happiest when you’re running but your knees are giving you hell); so the contrast between my nature and my aspirations isn’t unique, but it’s amusing.
Perhaps that’s why I took so readily to blogging and its later incarnations (most social media platforms are vehicles for microblogging, with twists): their quick turnaround, their perpetually changing nature. These forms of expression allow me to share ideas and experiences quickly, and to engage in immediate discourse about any topic that has seized my interest, right away, while the flame is burning high.
Meanwhile, the slow-burning project is simmering away, satisfying a whole different part of me. And it’s the determined part, the part with vision, the molten core roiling deep under the surface.
I grow sunflowers, and I grow trees.
As I said at the start of this post, it’s a slender epiphany—a morsel of self-understanding, not a revelation that changes the course of a river. But it’s a nourishing morsel, a crumb of lembas, that offers sustenance to both my practice of blogging and my larger-scale projects.
The splendid truth (to use Gretchen Rubin’s splendid term), of course, is that sometimes you discover that one of your sunflowers has grown into a towering oak. And some of your trees turn out to be bonsai. Either way, the point is to grow something.
Photo from August 2017. Not an oak.
Through this lens, I can survey my cluttered studio, my open tabs, my Scrivener files, my baskets and bins, and see the garden for what it is: abundance. Life. I grow milkweed, and I grow blueberries, and I grow river birches. (I also, let’s face it, grow a fair share of Bermuda grass.)
(Not included in the video: the two minutes of Rilla bouncing up and down in her overwhelming glee at meeting Danny, one of her heroes, via Skype just before we began the recording. She was absolutely starstruck. 🙂 )
The parent panel was surprisingly united on several points. “Makers gotta make, so if you can’t get their stuff (maker treasure) under control just find a way to live with it.” “Kudos for letting your kids disassemble, repurpose, void warranties, and explore fearlessly!” “Allow projects to take time and make room for play and exploration–even if it means lots of projects are in progress at once (if you aren’t going to work on it in the next six months maybe it can hang out in the back of the closet for now.)”
Whenever I speak to homeschooling groups, I urge something similar. Never underestimate the importance of freedom to be messy. Creativity is a messy, messy business. Art is messy. Writing is messy. Sewing, woodworking, robotics, cooking, all these awesome pursuits we want our kids to dive into, all these handcrafts and skills we love to see them develop—they require room to get sloppy. The paint-spattered corner, the room abandoned to fabric scraps and bits of Sculpey, the table overtaken by wires and circuit boards…
I know it isn’t always easy, especially for type-A parents, to live with the clutter and chaos that so often surrounds a creative mind, but there are ways to compromise. For us, it means keeping the front of the house reasonably tidy, one main room where people can count on an uncluttered space, and letting the rest of the house wear a jumble of raw materials with abandon and zest. The girls’ room is overrun right now with wand-making supplies. The house smells like hot glue. Every time Scott looks at me he finds another piece of glitter on my face—I don’t even know where it’s coming from; it’s in the air.
Along with Freedom to Be Messy goes Lots and Lots of Down Time…that’s part two of my refrain: give ’em time to be bored, time to stare into space, time to tinker, time to obsess. So much of my work as a writer happens when I’m far from my keyboard…I’m writing while I’m gardening, while I’m doing dishes, while I’m curled up under a blanket doing a crossword puzzle. I may look idle, but I’m not. Things are churning in my head. Scott used to do his best writing on the walk home from the subway. Now, far from NYC, sans commute, he stands in the backyard, his mind working while Huck runs circles around him. Our kids know that we’re absent sometimes—lost in our thoughts, working something out—and they understand, they know we try to make up for it by being extra-present, fully engaged, in other parts of the day. But also by giving them that same kind of mind-space in return: big chunks of the day unscheduled, unspoken for. Let me get out of your hair so you can put glitter in it.