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Too much work and no play makes Jack a dull boy

Creativity flourishes with a spirit of playfulness.

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This is an excerpt from Pep Talks for Writers: 52 Insights and Actions to Boost Your Creative Mojo.

There’s a moment that occurs in every writer’s life when your fingers begin to cramp into a claw-like formation as you madly type toward another word-count milestone. “Perspiration trumps inspiration,” you chant, but the problem is that your brain is so fried that it feels like a wet noodle. (I’m using clichés and mixed metaphors at the same time, so I must be in such a state now.)

Too much work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, as the saying goes. I never underestimate the propulsive powers of self-discipline in any creative endeavor, but self-discipline’s bark can resemble a nasty drill sergeant.

Self-discipline can divide the self in half, into the good parts and the bad parts. We’re often told that if we don’t conquer the bad parts — our emotions, our daydreams, our aimless wanderings, not to mention long periods of time in a Jacuzzi — we can’t truly progress. Self-discipline gives us control of our lives, leads us to our goals, and fluffs up the comfy chair of living a rational life, yet there is more to life than rationality and control, isn’t there? The heart knows nothing of grids, lists, spreadsheets, and timelines.

Too few stick up for loosening the reins of discipline to frolic in our baser selves. Socrates said, “An undisciplined life is an insane life,” but letting a mood, an appetite, a passion flow through you is as necessary for your stories as pen and paper. Repeatedly subjecting yourself to completing the task at hand can become numbing — and anything, even your wonderful novel, can become unlikable when you feel like an ox pulling a plow through clods of dirt. You are not an ox, and your creative life shouldn’t be about getting whipped every day to work harder and harder.

Every once in a while, it’s good to go the way of the insane.

Every once in a while, it’s good to go the way of the insane, leave your writing boot camp, and go to a different side of your writing life — a rollicking party, where you can revel with your inner clown, give a big hug to every wacky thought that comes your way, and put some proverbial flowers in your hair. “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing,” said George Bernard Shaw.

Do you remember when you were a child and rolled down a hill just for the sake of getting dizzy? How often do you do that now? I never do it, but recently when I was in the park with my daughter, she challenged me to a spin-off, and we both twirled around until one of us lost our balance and fell. I discovered that if I allowed my body to move in such a silly way, I actually thought differently afterward. My linear, problem-solution mindset wobbled all about, which was exactly what my writing project needed — not perspiration, but a fanciful twirl or two.

The mind needs to wander. The mind needs to feel unfettered. Answers to thorny problems tend to present themselves when you’ve stopped trying to figure them out — when you play. Have you ever seen a cockroach or a worm play? No. They’re not problem-solving animals. But dogs, cats, chimps, and humans are born with frolic in their DNA because play allows us to experiment, test limits, and jovially joust with the world.

I want my writing to be merrier, not drudgier. I want to gambol through my novel, not grind.

Laughter opens us up, physically and mentally, allowing wonder to bloom and grow. Goofiness is liberating, if only because it is unruly, nonsensical — a breath of another world where anything can happen. Mistakes and pratfalls ring with a different musical truth. When you’re laughing hard, tragedy seems impossible. We don’t think when we laugh, yet we’re at a pinnacle of life, exhilarated, and intoxicated, as if experiencing a rush of love.

“If you are writing without zest, without gusto, without love, without fun, you are only half a writer,” said Ray Bradbury.

Take that, inner drill sergeant. I want my writing to be merrier, not drudgier (which sometimes means using words that don’t exist). I want to gambol through my novel, not grind.

Discipline without motivation is nothing, and being undisciplined can rekindle our motivation. Remind yourself how to let loose, in big ways and small ways. It’s necessary to get out of the grind of daily production — to celebrate the ability to be playful, capricious, and irresponsible.

Take a respite from the work of your novel and indulge in a moment of play before pushing forward again. Build a fairy village out of sticks, pebbles, and leaves. Trade Mad Libs with your friends. Let laughter jostle you all about, intoxicate you. And then skip back to your keyboard — and write with diligence, perseverance, and gusto toward the finish line!

Try This: Make Your Day a Playground
This is a rare one. Take a day off from writing. Go to a playground and swing. Get in a water gun fight. Climb a tree. Don’t plan too much — you want to go with the wind. Carry this playful energy with you to your writing. Think to yourself, Let’s make this a playground. How does your mood shift? Do you discover other entry points to creativity.

Grant Faulkner is the author of Pep Talks for Writers: 52 Insights and Actions to Boost Your Creative Mojo and the co-host of the podcast Write-minded. His essays on creative writing have appeared in The New York Times, Poets & Writers, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer.

For more, go to, or follow him on Twitter at @grantfaulkner.