Playing With Words




Langston Hughes reportedly wrote out drafts of poems on napkins or whatever spare material he had on hand, often composing right in the thick of things in a club or coffee house. When someone asked him why he didn’t invest in some more permanent writing material, he responded that writing on napkins wasn’t “for real,” and it allowed him to make mistakes and not take it so seriously. And he’s right: try writing a poem or the beginning of a story on a napkin sometime, or the back of a menu, or even on your own hand. There’s a sense of play in the activity, a sense that you’re not really writing, just giving it a shot. It’s probably the best cure for writer’s block known to man or woman: change the medium, and you change the writing. 

On some level, writing is more a tactile than an intellectual experience. To make the words ‘think,’ you need to feel them first. Even as I write this article, I feel the visceral thrill of the clicking of the keys—each one snaps back into place as I touch it in a rapid-fire salute. I prefer keyboards that are ‘snappy’ in this way, rather than the soft, unresponsive keys that seem to resist my ideas. I like to imagine myself a pianist flying up and down the keyboard, playing scales and arpeggios. The touch of the sharp keys and their clacking response is a music that propels my writing forward. It makes writing not only easier, but more enjoyable, more satisfying. Change the keyboard, and I would labor, scowl, and start surfing the web—no doubt in search of a replacement keyboard. Needless to say, even though I compose on a laptop, I have nothing to do with the laptop keyboard; instead, I plug in a cheap wireless unit that sounds the way my writing ‘looks.’

Most of us began writing not on a keyboard but with a pencil on lined paper, or with a crayon on a rough sketchbook. I can still recall that sensation vividly: the slightly scratchy paper that would catch the crayons every so often, leaving less a line than an explosion of color. I loved to let the crayon glide against the paper, feeling the bumpy imperfections of the page, not knowing or caring where they line ended. I never expected these pictures to become timeless works of art. They were composed for the moment, thoughts fresh off the griddle, left to cool and be inevitably thrown away. That’s probably how I composed so quickly, page after page, whether stories or pictures of comics; they were all “just for fun,” and I rarely thought about how others would view them—or if they even would.

Sadly, the older we get, even our leisure activities have to account for themselves. A story has to have an audience. A picture has to be validated with likes or shares. We sit down to write a story and fret over the first word, then the first sentence. Laboriously, we stretch words into sentences into paragraphs, like Victor Frankenstein cobbling together his imperfect creation. Not surprisingly, our reaction is often the same: horror and dismay. Our sublime vision of beauty has been corrupted into a portrait of workaday reality. The writing groans and creaks, the story stammers, the dialogue weeps.

Perhaps the lack of spontaneity we often see in our work (or I often see in mine, anyway) occurs when we stop playing with and feeling our writing. The next generation of writers will be true “digital natives,” children raised with social media and who more likely began composing on-line than in solitude with pen and paper. A natural part of technological evolution, perhaps; but I also wonder if the pressure to always be on-line and be seen resists the very fabric of writing? Ideas have to be caught in different ways, and not every story becomes entangled in an electronic snare. Some of my best ideas came when I was writing on scratch paper with a cheap Bic pen. I didn’t take it seriously, so the Muse never considered me a threat to her realm. Before I knew it, a major idea fell right into my lap...and I had no trouble running home with it.

In short, writing is less a profession than an activity; it’s something that can be performed anywhere, in any number of ways. However, if always approached the same way it becomes a job, a routine; the magic can quickly become lost as the writer expects the same approaches to yield the same inspiration. To keep our writing fresh, we need to conjure up different ways of hearing and seeing writing. One of the most satisfying ways of writing for me is one of the least permanent: writing words on a foggy window. I love dragging my finger across the wet glass, and hearing the brassy bleat of the window in protest. The words seem ghostly, their edges dripping, fading into oblivion. Hard to write an entire story that way, but a nice way to experiment with words, or even the first line of a poem. And best of all, there’s no evidence within a few minutes of composition. You write for the moment...and then it’s gone.


Remembering that writing is tactile opens you to new experiences and ideas in writing. Collect different sounds and surfaces; listen to the way words bounce against the page; read words in different fonts and colors on screens and paper and rocks. The more you question where writing can occur, and under what circumstances, the better chance you have of telling stories no one has heard or seen before. After all, there is no one objective reality that we can all agree on. We all see and experience a different world, a different truth. Writing is how we prove to others—and ultimately ourselves—that these worlds exist, even as they inevitably fade out of existence. 

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