The Universal Play)
When I was young my siblings and I loved playing pretend. Obviously we were far from the only children to do this, playing pretend is something that every child seems to come up with entirely on their own. In fact it is the most universal form of play I know of. Across all cultures and all periods of time, children just gravitate to it naturally and independently
I believe that part of the reason why pretend comes so naturally to children is because they still half-believe in it all. Half of the time they aren’t trying to invent anything new, they are just processing what they think might actually be.
I remember in one of our games I was shot by the bad-guys and I appropriately collapsed dead to the ground. I waited a few moments, then promptly rose back to my feet, explaining that I had been “good enough” that I couldn’t actually die. And I wasn’t trying to make something up…I genuinely believed that if one did enough good things then they became immortal in real life. I don’t know where I got that idea. Perhaps from the story of Jesus Christ’s resurrection, perhaps from films where the hero is never as dead as he appears, but the point is that when I was younger life seemed more fantastic. Anything might actually exist out there if you went looking in the right place. In another of our escapades I wanted to play a character named Cordinial Fasmuch. That was a strange name, so I decided he was from Spain. Because, you know, Spain was so far away that who even knew what sort of names they might have over there?
It is a sad irony that our curiosity so often propels us to gain a volume of information, until eventually we stop believing that there are things we still don’t know. And once we stop wondering what is out there our imagination plummets.
Playing pretend also leads into some incredibly original material. I remember with my siblings how we mashed up genres and ideas in ways that I still haven’t seen anywhere elsewhere. I’m reminded of one piece we did in a medieval setting with a small robot that helped thwart an evil wizard until it vanished at the end. Everyone was sad, but the robot had to go away because it was time for him to be born as the princess’s new baby.
You know, as medieval robots are wont to do.
Like I said, the world was a strange and mysterious place where anything was conceivable. There were no boundaries on logic or genre and there weren’t any rules against reincarnating robots in a medieval setting. Similarly there weren’t any rules on plot structure. We didn’t waste any time worrying about whether our playtime constituted a “good story” or not, we just played.
I remember a western we did where an outlaw came to settle a score with the sheriff in town. Eventually the revelation was made that the outlaw was actually a former sheriff himself, and the sheriff was once a former outlaw. And that former-outlaw had killed the family of the former-sheriff, sending the grieving man into a quest for vengeance, resorting to any measures to exact his revenge, even breaking all the laws he had once worked to uphold. And the former-outlaw was made so afraid by this specter of retribution that he had hidden himself in the most unlikely of places imaginable: law-keeping. Thus the two had completely traded sides.
Today I would say that the plot was preposterous, with character shifts that were completely unbelievable. But at the time I never considered it. It was an interesting idea, so who cared how much suspension of disbelief was required to make it work? Back then plots were weightless, all you had to do was think of them and that was enough.
Eventually our “plays” started to shift. They were still imaginative, but they starting to be inspired more and more by the imagination of others. We adhered more closely to the genre boundaries of our favorite books and movies. We still played as knights and robots, but not in the same story. We still wielded the power of magic and science, but not at the same time. Characters that died didn’t just pop back up if they had done enough good deeds in their life. Plots were expected to adhere to a three act structure, with believable character transitions throughout.
At this point we discovered a new reason for creating stories: to help process other ones that we already enjoyed. Whenever an intriguing new book or movie came along the experience wasn’t complete until we had invented our own narrative in that same world. Harry Potter and Star Wars and Lord of the Rings were cool to watch and read about, but that wasn’t enough. We wanted to be inserted into those worlds. We wanted to experience them and make them our own. Thus our imagination was spent in crafting branches on other peoples’ trees more than in planting new trees of our own.
And this pattern generally continues for us as we grow older. We become more dependent upon the structures of others until we hardly know how to play pretend without them. A craving for that old playtime develops, though, and entire entertainment industries and cultures now cater to that desire. Video games, board games, and tabletop games. Fan conventions, cosplay, and live-action-role-play. Theme parks, and movie theaters, and historic recreations. All of these try in their own way to insert us into a different world, but they are merely crutches, still structured for us to experience someone else’s creativity and not to create our own. As adults we push buttons, roll dice, and change our speech patterns to imitate other characters, but when we were children we actually became the things we pretended.
Back to Pooh Corner)
It is a commonly asked question whether we can ever find our way back to that state of free-flowing creativity. Can adults ever relearn how to play as a child, or is their wealth of knowledge too great an obstacle to overcome? Kenny Loggins sung about this conundrum in his song Return to Pooh Corner and Robin Williams faced the same problem in the movie Hook.
In my experience it is possible to return to the land of pure pretend, but it isn’t always easy. You might be at a disadvantage, but that just means it takes extra effort. With regular exercise one really does get better and better at starting the flow of imagination. One of the best methods for easing back in is to join small children in their own games. With children you can blurt out the first idea that comes to mind, like a medieval robot being reincarnated as a baby, and they accept it without judgment. With children you can stop worrying about if you’re doing it right and just do it.
In any case, we should take comfort in the fact that creativity is a fundamental part of us. It may ebb and flow, but it never truly dies.
With my next piece I’m going to try and recapture the magic of children just playing pretend. I want to write a story that is as free and uninhibited as real children at play. Come back on Thursday to see how it goes!