We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.
So that’s supposed to be a quote from George Bernard Shaw. I don’t know where I came across it first but it has a Wildean way about it that I’ve found hard to get out of my head. I couldn’t find where it came from, what play, or article but it’s not important. What is important is that it gets into what I want talk about today.
So, I’m John Fanning and this is the Create with John Fanning podcast.
How’s it goin out there. Hope all is well.
This is Episode 30 of my series of episodes on the Imagination, based around my book Create. Also, if this is your first time to the podcast please go back and listen to some of the earlier episodes to get an idea about where I’m coming from on process and everything else and especially as regards to Walls and Doors to the Imagination and creativity.
Last time I spoke about spirituality and creation, but today I want to talk about play, and a little bit about humor.
When I talked about inspiration I talked about how it’s usually the starting point for any creation, and that thereafter we hone our inspiration into a fully formed creation. But before inspiration, or for inspiration to occur, for spirit to engage the imagination, we not only need ritual, we also need play, we need fun, we need humor, we need playfulness.
Why? Because the genesis of nearly all imaginative leaps, nearly all creative leaps, is when we start to play. As I said before, for Nietszhe that was walking like so many other creators. For others it’s painting before they write, or listening to music before they start composing or sitting in a bath like Dali, or dancing, or singing or simply doodling in all its forms. Then, something comes out of the playfulness and we become inspired.
The word play usually conjures up an image of a sandbox, with toddlers, buckets and shovels. Then there’s the theatrical perspective of the player on the stage, the theater of play, play as theater. But there are other forms of play. For example, in Hinduism, there’s a word, “Lila” or “Leela”, which means “divine play”. So Lila is when we channel the godlike, again what I talked about in the last episode when I talked about spirituality – so Lila channels the godlike, when the dancer (Shiva) and the prankster (Krishna), in a spontaneous movement instead of a mind-making effort play.
This is not telling the body what to do. We simply do, whatever comes. The twirling dervish is a great example of this. They dance, turning and turning, to forget the mind, and become one with inspiration, flow, God, Brahman, freedom, play. So, play is freedom. Freeing your mind, an art, the greatest art, when inspiration flowers, when it flowers with freedom, with play.
This is why a lot of creators have practices to clean their brain out before they get started creating. They literally get all the negative trash (usual defeatist thoughts) out of their head. Some people do it by journaling, or doodling, others hike, meditate or dance. To use the theatrical idea again, they become the player on the stage, but the stage is the field they love creating in. What’s important is become the player, to let the play take you over, so that you can arrive at those magical moments of flow and inspiration I talked about in previous episodes.
Probably best that I give an example. Once, when I was walking in the woods with my boys I started talking to them about a short movie they were making. It was based on the story of a mad French priest from a hundred years ago who amassed a huge fortune and had countless stories spun about his life because nobody knew where he got all the money or why he had such big connections with the Vatican. Anyway, my boys were making a short stop motion movie about his life for a film festival and I asked them how it was going. They started laughing. And I wondered what for? They went on to explain to me that the “bad guys” were going to break into the priests house dressed as ninjas but with Star Wars swords and fight the priest to the death for his treasure. I was like, what the hell are they on about? This is for a serious adult film festival that they got a dispensation to be allowed to enter the competition because they were only twelve at the time. What? I said. You can’t have bloody light sabers. And what the hell do you mean they have to try to kill the priest. And the priest has a huge machete type sword? I went on. And of course, they didn’t listen to me. And in my head I thought, Well, that’s that idea rubbished. They’re not going to get anywhere with that movie. Fast forward 6 months later and we’re at the film festival and I’m watching these two 12 year olds climb up onto the stage to applause after winning the festival ahead of all the adults and professionals from film schools and production companies. And why? Why did they win? Play. Their riff on the priest’s life was fun, actually hilarious, and above all, playful. Playfulness was in every scene. I had a French film critic who told me afterwards that every scene was so inspired, so fun, and that he hadn’t seen such a playful short in years. Playful. Exactly. There I was being serious, too serious. Not encouraging my wonderfully creative boys, who were full of play and humor, but actually trying to stymie them with my jaded, serious adult attitude. Those light sabers and ninjas were the very scenes that got the biggest laughs, from me – and everyone else.
So play and humor are wonderful doors to creativity, to the imagination. But why? Because it reminds us not to take everything so seriously. Otherwise we might as well jump out the window. If we’re too serious we can drop into mental health problems or rigid stereotypes. For example, nothing makes me happier than seeing my little girl smiling as she reads the novels of Rick Riordan or JK Rowling. And those worlds she enters into, they were created by creators being playful, having fun doing what they do, and crafting that playfulness and inspiration into a creation. And anyway, if life is, as the Buddha puts it, that it’s suffering, then isn’t laughter and play, other than meditation et al., one of the great ways of dealing with it, to laugh at the absurdity of what we are living in?
Play. From another angle, it’s importance. Think about Google. They didn’t call their online app store the App Store. They called it Google Play. This isn’t happenstance. They know how important the word is, how it infers so much positive meaning for people. From a capitalistic perspective Google have capitalized on the word. They sell apps to us by making us think it’s a playful thing to do. And as I said back in the last episode in the Walls section of this podcast, when I talked about Capitalism, Success and Encouragement, what we have here again is the commodification of creativity. And of course, Google are not alone. There’s also PlayStation, WiiPlay, Xperia Play, not to mention all the various sports and games uses. This idea also transfers wonderfully into luxury products where the ads are all so serious. Because seriousness sells to seriousness. The serious businessman or woman who is a capitalistic success has to be sold Mercedes and ridiculously priced watches and craft alcohols, and craft lifestyles in a serious way. That’s why the ads are all so serious, so sophisticated, so bloody laughably boring, to me anyway, because they are selling seriousness to serious people. And this is a different form of play, acting. Playacting. Not playing. They’re acting the part of a successful person. They’re acting the part instead of playing. They play a part instead of playing. And the part they’re playing , the serious adult, means you have to have the right costume, the right props, the right capitalistic monologues on success while sipping the same craft alcohols, all purchased for serious amounts of money.
So again, it’s the idea of play as fun, and laughter, as an expression of emotional play that I find most inspiring. Why? Because we can harness free play, or what Carl Jung called the “free child” to have fun, to be playful, free to be imaginative and creative. Jung said people can over-identify with their own persona, becoming a stereotype. Ambition, expectations of society, and being sold artificial seriousness can turn us into stereotypes, rob us of our freedom. His “free child” is the opposite to the “Would you ever go and grow up!” rubbish we all have to hear at some stage or at many times of our lives. Being playful is frowned upon. Because we’re supposed to be serious all the time, to be a real adult. Which gets me back to the idea of the child again. The free child is the exact opposite of the serious adult, the imprisoned adult you could almost say. The irony here is that you can have very serious adults in suits who are actual emotional toddlers – we’ve nearly all met some version of this type of individual in the work place – because they take everything so seriously. And of course they will never be the ones to imagine new ideas because of that very seriousness. If they can’t joke and have a laugh, have some fun with what they are doing then how the hell are they supposed to create anything meaningful that changes and inspires people to buy their invention, their creation, not their serious object or product. So again, we have this idea of Capitalism versus Imagination, versus creativity, when we have the serious adult versus the playful free child, the destructive child versus the free child. This is why we have corporate tantrums. These specific “adults”, and I’m not saying all individuals working a serious job are like this, but these specific “adults” can’t stand even listening to someone let their free child roam. They can’s stand someone being playful or funny. It makes them jealous, because they’re lost in seriousness, because they’ve lost complete touch with their free child. So, they’ll try to belittle or demean the creative free child. Because we all had a free child when we were young. But when we go into the work force and universities we’re told to give up childish things, when ironically, it is these very childish things that inspire and create anything. And this is why so many creators are so playful, because they never let go of their free child. They could be 75 and they’re still having fun and being playful. Again, as with the serious suit, we all know the playful old man or woman who still sees the world playfully. They play, they create, and they have fun doing it, so they repeat it, and their inspiration to be around, a joy to communicate with.
My boys and girl are forever creating, “playing”. Drawing. Cutting up paper. Singing. Dancing. Creating houses, space craft, making films, igloos, now that we’re here in Maine, little rock villages by the stream at the bottom of our valley when we were in the mountains back in France. Actually, creating little villages out of little rocks was also what helped Carl Jung make breakthroughs in his work.
There’s a lovely story about Jung. He used to create when he hit emotional and professional road blocks in his life. When visitors from all over the world would be sitting down talking over a meal, Jung would disappear. They would search for him and find him down by the water creating little streams from the land into the lake with the children of the visitors with a twig. Why? He preferred playing to talking. He preferred his free child to than the serious adult.
Play was essential to Jung’s life work. He didn’t consider his books as his only creative outlet. Indeed, the very thing that inspired his books were his moments creating other worlds playing — in sculpting, mandalas, woodcarving, building towers and little streams with children. For Albert Einstein, play’s defining characteristic was what he called in Ideas and Opinions, “combinatory play” usually arrived at with the playing of his violin in between trying to solve mathematical conundrums. In part of a 1945 letter responding to a survey of the processes of famous scientists, Einstein had this to say:
The words or the language, as they are written or spoken, do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought. The psychical entities which seem to serve as elements in thought are certain signs and more or less clear images which can be “voluntarily” reproduced and combined.
There is, of course, a certain connection between those elements and relevant logical concepts. It is also clear that the desire to arrive finally at logically connected concepts is the emotional basis of this rather vague play with the above-mentioned elements. But taken from a psychological viewpoint, this combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought — before there is any connection with logical construction in words or other kinds of signs which can be communicated to others.
When I was a kid you always found kids outside playing in the street, in the fields. You spontaneously played a soccer game. You didn’t have to have a set place to do it, with adult supervision. And it was a blessing. We didn’t have adults telling us how to behave. We had to learn how to socialize, to create our own rules and how to make up when we fought or bickered. Today we’re afraid to have our kids walk down the street to get a newspaper without a parent in tow, what many call helicopter parenting. How can a child be playful if the serious adult is always around? It makes no sense.
Play has gone inside, to video games and other devices that tell us all about the latest child abduction or school shooting. What does this mean? We don’t take risks. We don’t know how to organize ourselves autonomously. We forget or don’t even know how to play. Why are so many young people anxious, depressed, suffering from self-harm, getting autoimmune diseases? Fear. They’re even afraid of getting dirty, which has only gotten worse with this pandemic.
Myself and my brother used to come home covered in dirt, flithy at the end of a day. Germs? We never heard a word about them. When we failed to score a goal we didn’t have Mammy or Daddy in the background to shout us on and say we’re wonderful. You failed. So what? You learned to try harder. You challenged yourself. You learned not to let it get you down. Eventually you scored a goal, on your own steam, after learning to deal with being let down. We learned how to deal with other kids when there was a fight, a conflict. You learned to negotiate, instead of telling an adult. How are we supposed to interact with others, ourselves, if we’re not free to play and learn from play?
You don’t have to go anywhere. There’s no road. You get to discover it. This is the fun of creation. It’s playful. The creators having the most fun, the ones immersed in their work, in flow, create the most work and the greatest work. Joy, inspiration, comes when you forget the rules. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t know the rules of your field. No. It simply means you have to play with them, after you’ve learned them. Children love creation, accept it naturally, understand it intuitively. We are conditioned to forget this wonderful understanding as we grow into adults. So forget seriousness and embrace your free child. Laugh at the seriousness so as to have fun with creating. Create from freedom not the prison of seriousness.
So thanks for listening. I started with what I think is a quote from an Irish writer, but as always I’m going to end the episode with an Irish proverb. Literally, this one means:
Youth doesn’t care where it sets its foot.
Is cum leis an óige cá leagann sí a cos.
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Slán libh agus go n-éirí an bóthar libh.