That’s Why They Call It Play

As March was winding down, I was in a discord call with some friends and the conversation drifted towards our writing habits. How often we did, in what capacity, and when it came time to talk about my addiction, the only words I could really manage were “I just write. I don’t think about whether it’s good or bad, I just put something on the page and figure out the rest later.” I spent the next two weeks thinking about that in excruciating detail, and here we are in the throes of April.

During seventh grade, I had transferred to a new school midway through the semester and hadn’t gone through a lot of their county specific testing for class placements in their Gifted and Talented program. (At some point, we will find time to unpack the history and current state of the American education system as it relates to nerd media, but one topic at a time.) I had a handful of weeks of classes before said assessment occurred, and during that intervening time, I had this distinct memory of my English teacher pulling me aside after class and telling me, “Hey, have you thought about doing more creative writing?” I was then promptly handing a middle school appropriate version of Antigone saying, “You’re gonna be reading this next week when you switch classes, so you might as well get a jump on it.”

And with that simple nudge, I did end up doing more creative writing. I wrote short stories and treatments. I made a portfolio that I have somehow kept over the better part of a decade and a half, and I look back at it and go, “Wow, I really thought I was cooking huh.” But those hastily printed, poorly proofed docs are evidence of an honest love of writing that was fostered because someone said, “You seem to be having fun.”

In high school, sophomore year, my English teacher then noticed that I had free energy and introduced me to NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month for the handful of you on this site that might not be familiar). Every November, aspiring writers aim to write 50,000 words in the span of 30 days. It ends up being an average of 1667 words a day, and the length is probably more akin to the novella; however, the point stands that it is a game that we play to get us to write. The goal is not to make anything good; the goal is to make, the goal is to push past any mental barriers and just get something on the page.

Given the narrative structure, you can now predictably predict that in undergrad I was introduced to other mass production exercise that last for thirty days. This time it was in the form of April’s 30/30 (thirty poems) for National Poetry Month and Script Frenzy (100 pages). At one point, I fashioned my own MicroFiction version where I attempted to write 1,000 words of fiction each day. This ended up being a different vector of difficulty than any of the other challenges up to the point.

The point was never “winning” or finishing. The point was just trying.

And as it turns out, you become a thing by doing a thing. You become a thing by becoming obsessed, absorbed with a thing. And sometimes, we get lucky and find that thing early on before we have a proper understanding of what it means to be *good* at something. And sometimes we don’t, and we put up mental walls and inhibitions, saying that we could never do the thing.

At the tail end of 2023, Netflix released Scott Pilgrim Takes Off, a reimagination of the original story. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend it highly. One of the best scenes is when Knives and Kim are just chilling, and Kim invites Knives to play.

That line: “That’s why they call it play.” It’s been stuck in my head, a motto, a reminder, a vibe for months. And as I see the occasional 30/30 on my social media this April, I keep thinking about it. I would argue it should be the default gif for getting people into a hobby instead of the Jake the Dog one from Adventure Time (which is still a good message, but my personal pedagogy doesn’t start a conversation by highlighting difficulty).

And ultimately, that actually comes around to one of my favorite quotes from Haikyu!! (out of context spoilers for the anime-onlys. Eventually, the movies will be released stateside).

It doesn’t matter the genre or the medium. Whether it is fiction, poetry, nonfiction. Whether it’s crossword construction, game design, or streaming. Whether it is drawing, painting, photography, or comics. Whether it’s sports, swordplay, or art and crafts. The fundamentals do not change. The foundation is shockingly similar.

If you want to do something, you gotta do it. You gotta try and experiment. You gotta be unafraid to be at it for a while and be willing to unlearn bad habits. But it all starts with trying. 

It starts with play.

I think there’s an unspoken notion that childlike wonder fades with age, but I don’t think that’s actually true. I feel like humanity is a naturally curious species and societal conventions stymie that. But I encourage this National Poetry Month, that if you want to write poetry, just start writing poems. Don’t worry about being good. That will come with practice. Imitation will teach you convention, which you will fashion into something you could do, and that’s the dream. That’s the goal we’re always chasing.

And if you’re an aspiring person in any other field of your choice, the advice applies to you. Go make things. Go listen to Neil Gaiman talk about this a little more eloquently than I do. Prepare for NaNoWriMo. Take out your phone and take all the pictures. Go outside and play.

And maybe fun will not be enough to sustain it. And maybe there will be hurdles later down the line, but I think you owe it to yourself to at least start.

I don’t do NaNos or 30/30s these days, because I got what I needed from the genre and exercising, but I have continued a tradition of arbitrary rules in experimentation as I’m currently working on making one-page RPGs at a pace of once per month. I don’t do these any particular reason other than I think it’s interesting. I have no aspiration of becoming a game designer, but there’s something fun about toying with something new. About realizing how different skills manifest in different spaces. About writing for the sake of writing. 

In seventh grade, an English teacher told me, “You seem to be having fun when you write,” and (a number of years later that I refuse to calculate because that would be directly acknowledging the passage of time and require some arithmetic I don’t want to do right now) to write every day. Sometimes tech manuals, sometimes non-fiction, sometimes poems. It’s still fun. And sometimes it’s even good. But even when it’s not, I write, and that’s something I continue to be thankful for.

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  • Mikkel Snyder is a technical writer by day and pop culture curator and critic all other times.

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