Play or Die
I’m changing the name of the workshop I teach because Write or Die is not really about writing. We write, but that’s not the point. Focusing on the words is like focusing on the walking part of the parade instead of on the celebration, or like focusing on the road instead of on the car.
I had decided on the name Write or Die because that was my attitude when I set out for New York to finally write my book. I was thinking like a samurai: One who is supposed to be a warrior considers it his foremost concern to keep death in mind at all times, every day and every night.. (Code of the Samurai: A Contemporary Translation of the Bushido Shoshins). I didn’t want there to be an escape hatch, one I could slip down and avoid what felt like a calling. I wanted to get the flipping book done so I could finally stop thinking about it, so the thought My life will feel more complete once I write this book would stop taking up valuable space in my brain, would stop making me feel like I hadn’t taken a full swing at the ball.
If I have the choice between changing or not changing, getting my daily morning coffee or having matcha instead, going for my daily walk or taking a flying lesson, my brain clings to what it knows: coffee, walk: coffee, walk: rinse, repeat. My brain is a gerbil on a wheel. It loves to spin. If my brain had its way, I would live like a rodent, running nowhere fast. I’ve got that act down pat. It keeps me safe, just as the cages at the zoo keep the animals safe: the animals who normally would be classified as wild and who are now classified as caged.
But truly, my brain and body, almost more than anything, love to play. We were born to be wild. Hum a few bars. Remember?
If we don’t play, how do we even know what a calling feels like? How do we know if it feels different from addiction or desire? What if you were born without a funny bone. What if you were born without a calling? What if you don’t really have a purpose here on the planet? What if you don’t, if you are completely honest, really even have any dreams? This is why I teach my workshop. I get to play. When I loosen up the reins on myself, I see callings in people. I see the jewels they carry, and the best thing in the world is to point them out. Look at who you are! Look at what you can do! Look at those dreams you have in your heart!! The dreams and abilities and callings I see in people are not always about being a writer. People dream about so many things. It’s not what the dream is that’s so important: it’s that you are stretching yourself, wholeheartedly living for something that feels just slightly out of reach.
It’s called life, after all, not nap time.
The point of my workshop is getting the train of you on the tracks of you so that you can sail across the landscape and go and do and be whatever your heart most desires. I think when we lose our ability to dream or to remember our dreams, we have lost our way in the world and our bodies and minds get unhappy and/or sick. We become kids in a sandbox with bound arms and legs. Sandboxes were invented so we could play in them. So was the world.
We suffer when we don’t play, when we don’t dream. We drink too much. We smoke to burn the love or hope out of our lungs. We over-exercise, over-eat, over-spend, over-think, over-lie on the couch. Dreaming can feel dangerous or like a luxury when you are just trying to make it through the day, when you aren’t sure your paycheck will cover the rent, when you aren’t sure you still love your husband, when your friends are as stuck as you are, but dreaming is the ladder out of the pit of despair. It is the way to the best part of you.
Your dreams are your North Star. The coolest thing is that dreams are also surprises: just because you dream something, focus on it, work for it, there’s still no guarantee what you imagined happening will be the ultimate outcome. Something else might happen that you hadn’t even imagined. But you are engaged in life! You get to play with faith! You get to hand over your life to something larger than yourself with the belief that everything is and will be okay.! You are dancing with the moment and the moment adores you even when it sets your house on fire. Drop the idea of good and bad, right or wrong and suddenly everything is a spectacle made just for your entertainment! So your house burned down. Oh well. Now you don’t have to clean it.
Of course, you could also have a tantrum, stand in the corner in sulk, or blow your brains out. Free will is awesome.
But what if your house doesn’t burn down? What if you dreamed about making a movie and it happens? What if you dream about planting a garden and it actually survives your watering skills! What if you dream about becoming a teacher and you go to school and start teaching! What if you want a million dollars and you invent some newfangled toaster and suddenly you are swimming in Benjamins?
I think people are afraid of playing, afraid of dreaming because when we let ourselves do either, or both, the parts of our lives that aren’t so great come into sharper focus. Playing and dreaming can also hurt, the way a powerful massage can hurt. You know that feeling when someone’s scolding you and you feel small and weak and awful? That’s a familiar feeling to a lot of people. You know that feeling when you are on the Ted stage and everyone is standing up, losing their minds while they try to applaud harder for you then they have ever applauded before? What do you do with your HANDS in a situation like this? What do you do with your FACE? It’s almost easier to get scolded!
It’s disappointing to be a kid and to write a letter to Santa Claus and to ask for a new pair of Nikes and to open all your presents and to see that apparently Santa didn’t care enough to give you what you had gone out of your way to ask for. You can feel embarrassed and angry and ashamed and all this while being surrounded by gifts and happy people. You can decide you would have been better off not asking for what you wanted in the first place.
Or you could save your money and get the Nikes that way. You can be your own Santa and make your own dreams come true.
I went to Boston for the month of February because I’d lost my sense of play and I couldn’t find any dreams in my heart. I needed to remember how to pull myself out of habit and back into wonder. I needed to break out of my routines to get my brain recalibrated to possibility and curiosity and joy. I had grown up in the Boston area, but had left when I went to college. The landscape—the trees, the Citgo sign, the accent—is home in a way no other place is. I went home to remember how to throw myself off the cliff of myself.
I found them.
And I am so grateful to Amy Geller who reminded me that playing is where it’s at. I dedicate this post to her.