Creative Play

Back in mid-December, the inward focus of Winter settled on me like a thin fog. This was a particularly surreal experience in Los Angeles, where I live, because, of course, it was still sunny and 70 degrees. Still, I had a little too much time on my hands and began to feel idle and directionless. I have a rather purpose-driven disposition, so idle is not a good sign for me. I needed a project. On the encouragement of some wonderful friends, I took myself for a walk to my local art supply store. Ok, the truth is that I had to go twice before I found the courage to actually purchase something. In the end, I have to say it was the best $9 I have spent in a long time. Who knew a set of cheap oil pastels and a sketch pad could bring me so much joy on a daily basis?

Actually, *I* knew. Not the 39-year-old me, I mean, but the 5-year-old me floating through the muscles and bones and cells of memory. She knew perfectly well what to buy with $9 - I just had to calm the rest of myself down long enough to hear her soft voice. Like many of us, I suspect, I’ve seen photographs of myself as a child scribbling in fuchsia as if my life depended on it. Yet somehow along the way, as an adult, I developed an outlandish fear of coloring. For decades, engaging in any sort of pen-on-paper sort of art triggered some deeply buried shame button and I therefore avoided it, until recently.

Julia Cameron, author of the well-known book The Artist’s Way, describes our inner artist as a child, and proposes that if we care for this child by giving her regular creative playtime, she will be much more likely to be cheerful as we fold the laundry, schedule the work week, and sort the bank statements.

I was a textbook case. Foggy and listless, I sat down and made a few tentative marks of color on the paper. Notably, I first chose the grey-green and grey-blue crayons to draw with, a reflection of my muted inner state, perhaps? Slowly, as I filled the page with - well, with slightly curved lines basically, nothing fancy, a kind of soothing comfort crept in that seemed to take the edge off. It was as if the fog was slowly draining out of my body onto the paper. So I kept doing it, and as I sat at home alone with this new task, it occurred to me that there was no one watching, nothing expected, no right way to do it - just a box of colors and a quiet, receptive page. I used more colors. I made more shapes.

Cameron also writes that even miniscule creative gifts to our artist child can spark openings in the mind and heart that were not there before, and that from these openings emerge new ideas, which can lead to greater flow and positive change. It is ironic to me that as a professional artist (I teach dance), I had been depriving myself of creative playtime, but then again, ours is a work-centric culture, in which we are often trained from an early age to associate our worth as human beings with the commercial value of our labor. In such as environment, it is easy to understand why we overlook play and constantly seek work.

My experience over the last three months with my “drawing journal” has been a much-needed wake-up call. I have no training at all in visual art, and so far I have kept it that way, preserving this creative playtime as sacred, and enjoying the simple act of making color appear on the paper, discovering shapes, swirls, and lines as I make them, and most of all not caring at all about the “practical” value of what I am doing.

That said, there is a very real practical value! I feel lighter, more optimistic, and more curious, and I notice very quickly how my mood dips when I let the playtime slide. I don’t think everyone needs to run out and buy pastels, but I do believe that an infusion of creative play of some sort is a vital part of living a balanced life. You may find your bliss in sketching with charcoal, photographing flowers, social dancing, roller skating, or any activity that coaxes the inner joy of creation to flow.

My challenge to you is an exercise from The Artist’s Way* called Imaginary Lives:

If you had five other lives to lead, what would you do in each of them? I would be a pilot, a cowhand, a physicist, a psychic, a monk. You might be a scuba diver, a cop, a writer of children’s books, a football player, a belly dancer, a painter, a performance artist, a history teacher, a healer, a coach, a scientist, a doctor, a Peace Corps worker, a psychologist, a fisherman, a minister, an auto mechanic, a carpenter, a sculptor, a lawyer, a computer hacker, a soap-opera star, a country singer, a rock-and-roll drummer. Whatever occurs to you, jot it down. Do not over-think this exercise.

The point of these lives is to have fun in them, more fun than you might be having in this one. Look over your list and select one. Then do it this week. For instance, if you put down country singer, can you pick a guitar? If you dream of being a cowhand, what about some horseback riding?

*Cameron, Julia, The Artist’s Way, Tarcher/Putnum, New York: 1992


Please share your adventures in creative play in the comments!