#33 How to Make Work More Fun and Tell Better Stories Along the Way
Novel excerpt two, because I also promised you stories
If you write fiction or interview people as part of your work, you’ll know that sometimes our characters or subjects can surprise us by teaching us something new and important. I’ve been thinking about the idea of play a lot as I work through managing burnout that was years in the making and will take some time to heal (according to my therapist and all the experts). I wanted to share that bit of knowledge with you and remembered a scene from my novel that deals with the idea of play as a way to better understand your medium and explore new depths of it.
In this scene Melanie, my main character, reflects on advice from her brother on play as she does just that with her own work as a ceramic artist. As you read, think about the ways in which you can dive into your medium and work in a playful way. Ask yourself, how do I play? And what might I get from it?
I’m reading a book that talks about new research in neuroscience that explores the part of your brain that kicks in when you’re not doing focused work and helps your brain process the information you’ve just worked with and plan for the future. It’s called the “Default Mode Network” and it plays a part in daydreaming. It made me think about the section of A Technique for Producing Ideas that talks about stepping away from ideation being essential for your brain to process, make connections, and come up with new ideas and approaches.
This is my long-winded way of saying, enjoy this excerpt and consider play as part of your own storytelling process.
Excerpt from As Long As We Can Endure:
Mel perched cross-legged on the old metal stool she sometimes used when working, one foot tucked under her thigh the other braced on the dust covered floor. She leaned back from the heavy wood table that ran along the side wall of her studio examining the bowls she had spent the past hours shaping. She was barefoot and the skin of her knees jutted out from the large rips in her jeans. She wore a white tank top, but it was mostly hidden beneath the oversized canvas smock she often wore in the studio. Her hands, which she stretched along with her back, were caked dry and grey with clay.
She had spent the afternoon playing—folding and kneading clay, manipulating the damp plasticine earth, with her fingers. Rolling it out, building and carving with the tools she pulled from the array of scuffed, scarred and mismatched drawers that ran under the length of the counter.
She never could work when her emotions were this choking, and Josh had left her spitting with whatever this heated vulnerable feeling of betrayal and exposure was. She was sick with it. Going back to the basics of her medium had helped a little. Ever since Malcolm, her emotions had been too close to the surface and uncontrollable in a way they’d never been for her. She couldn’t shrug away slights with a smile as often.
Even the passing thought of “that man” which she’d taken to calling Josh in her head, had her fidgety with anger. She couldn’t work, but she could play—experimenting and challenging the properties of the clay. She’d considered pulling out her wheel but, feeling too lazy for the strength and control it demanded, contented herself with a return to basics using her hands, tools and paint brushes. She’d gotten lost in the squeeze of wet brown clay, had even mixed red clay with grey, which she rarely did anymore, preferring the purity of cool whites and greys in her work.
The process soothed. It took her back to that ticklish feeling of early discovery when she’d first been given a heavy brick of plastic wrapped clay and told to create. Before it had become known to her and she’d learned all of its idiosyncrasies. She’d shear off a square with the thick wire connected by wood handles her professor had given her and just squeeze, her fist closing around the material as it gave under the pressure of her closing hand.
Malcolm had taught her the importance of play in work, preached how important it was to have fun in your creativity. “You’ve got to play with the medium,” he had drawled to her one wine-filled night in his New York apartment years before his diagnosis. “I don’t write those limericks and haikus for their artistic merit,” he had sniffed looking and sounding like their mother as he lay sprawled on the mountain of pillows that had passed for a couch in his tiny studio apartment. They had spent that night eating greasy Chinese takeout and drinking cheap wine out of teacups. She had been in the city for the weekend to tour the art school she had been accepted into and to try on the city. It was so big and different from their little city that felt more like a sprawling town cocooned by ocean and mountains than a properly grown-up place of industry and grit. They would never make a “Gangs of Vancouver.”
She had fallen in love with the city that day, with the noise and the dirt and even the delicate squalor of Mal’s cheap apartment in the northern reaches of Harlem where gentrification’s parasitic creep had yet to reach. Walking through the city all day invisible and anonymous, just another body in the crowds of strolling tourists and pushing New Yorkers had felt romantic and welcoming.
Back in his cramped, but warm apartment, which their mother would have hated, reminded her of late nights in their old room when she would join Malcolm in his little twin bed in the middle of the night, preferring the close presence of her older brother even in sleep. When their mother had discovered that Mel rarely slept in her own bed, she set about breaking the habit. It took her months to get Mel to give up her nocturnal habit. Only threatening to move Malcolm had finally convinced her to stay in her own bed.
For a moment the memory of her brother was so real it was as if she was in that little one room apartment staring at Malcolm as he pontificated on art as only her brother could. But she was still sitting in her studio staring at a now dry piece of clay. She had held onto his every word then as always like a dying flower desperate for the nourishing water and sunshine of his attention. She had committed herself in that moment to always incorporating play into her work.
Now it was part of her process. The play at times would become thoughtful, leading her down un-mined paths and new work. Today it was therapeutic.
Mel shivered, the vivid memory of her brother dulling the maelstrom that had been choking her for days. She picked up the large pinch pot she had just prodded into a bowl and examined the rough pattern her thumbs had created on its surface. Placing it in her palm she squeezed, loving the familiar give of the cold earth. A bubble of satisfaction erupted in her chest at the small act of destruction and the rare sense of power that making and unmaking granted her. The pot’s existence was hers alone to know about.
Also, if you’re enjoying this or if there’s something you’d like me to cover in a future letter—an element of your storytelling you may be struggling with, please let me know by leaving a comment below or replying to this email. I’m here to help.
Thanks for reading and I’ll “see” you next week. Whatever the world may bring, there will always be important stories that need you to tell them. I’ll be here to help.