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The Art of Play

[Editor’s note: You may have missed Hutchmoot this year, but Jennifer Trafton’s session was so good that we talked her into turning it into an post so we could share it with the rest of the world. Thanks, Jennifer.]

I grew up in a book-loving family. Bookshelves oozed over the walls of our home, spreading farther and farther into the unused spaces as the years went by. We went to the library on Saturdays and brought home towers of books. One of the books my mother read aloud to me when I was ten was The Neverending Story, but this was one of those rare occasions when the movie version actually left a deeper imprint on my imagination. It was one of the defining films of my childhood—with its wonderful hint that those stories I was reading in books had an immense and fragile and beautiful reality behind them, and that I was always on the verge of falling into that other world, or seeing it fall into mine.

My father read The Chronicles of Narnia to me (many times), and it filled me with a sense of the grand Story-ness of life—a feeling reinforced years later when I read The Lord of the Rings for the first time as a college freshman. I spent hours curled up on my bed with a profound longing in my heart, as if the veil had been pulled back for an instant on the Epic that I knew the world really possessed, if only I could live always in this glorious awareness of it.

“The supreme adventure is being born,” said G. K. Chesterton. “Our existence may cease to be a song; it may cease even to be a beautiful lament. Our existence may not be an intelligible justice, or even a recognizable wrong. But our existence is still a story.”

I think there is a sense in which the story of my own life and of my vocation as a writer is the story of one who is desperately trying to grow up without ever becoming a grown-up. One of my favorite writers when I was a child was Madeleine L’Engle, the author of A Wrinkle in Time. In her essay “The Key, the Door, the Road,” she talks about the difference between childish and childlike:

A childish book, like a childish person, is limited, unspontaneous, closed in . . . But the childlike book, like the childlike person, breaks out of all boundaries. And joy is the key. Several years ago we took our children to Monticello, and I remember the feeling we all had of the fun Jefferson must have had with his experiments, his preposterous perpetual clock, for instance: what sheer, childlike delight it must have given him. Perhaps Lewis Carroll was really happy only when he was with children, especially when he was writing for them. Joy sparks the pages of Alice [in Wonderland], and how much more profound it is than most of his ponderous works for grownups. . . . But in the battering around of growing up the child gets hurt, and he puts on a shell of protection; he is frightened, and he slams doors. Real maturity lies in having the courage to open doors again, or, when they are pointed out, to go through them.

This courage to keep reopening those doors, to break out of the adult shell of protection, to let joy loose in all its childlike messiness, is a daily struggle for me. But that is precisely why I will keep reading children’s books until the day I die, and why I know that I must keep writing them even if no one ever reads them.

L’Engle said elsewhere, “My work is real work, and real work is play, not drudgery.” I have thought about this concept a great deal, because I am often asked why I am writing books for children. Sometimes it is with the implication that I have an ulterior motive—such as presenting a “message” or getting my foot in the publishing door by writing an “easier” kind of book (ha!). Sometimes people have sincerely thanked me as if I’m committing some noble act of benevolence. But the fact is, my motives aren’t nearly so heroic. I write children’s stories because when my imagination sits down to play, that is what comes out. It’s simply one of the best ways I’ve found to be myself.

As a child I spent hours surrounded by my dolls and toys, scrunched between a bed and a wall, or under a desk, or in the bathroom. Barbie got kidnapped by a witch, and the Purple Pie Man commanded a pirate ship. Towels draped over chairs and boxes became a house or a hideout. I loved that magical space of time between turning off the light and going to sleep, when the whole earth was a blanket of silence around my shoulders, and I could drift into the next chapter of a secret story. These years of childhood are the last years of true imaginative freedom (because that’s what play is), the years when pure comedy is possible, without the bite of satire or the burn of cynicism.

So it is primarily on paper now, in the act of creativity, that the child in me comes out to play again. When I am writing a story, I am back in my old bedroom, sending the creatures of my imagination off on wild adventures, stretching the universe into goofy new shapes with complete freedom, away from adult eyes and the chattering criticism of the world.

If I kept thinking, “I am doing something that could shape the character and virtue of a child, redeem the brokenness of their world, teach them important lessons about life, etc.” the playing would stop, the grown-up mind would reassert itself, and the art would end. All of those other things are happy byproducts if they happen, but that is not my business. My job is to play with the pieces of the world I’ve been given, find the delight inherent in them, make something delightful out of them. Even if the only one delighted is me.

I have read many theological discussions and defenses of the arts, and I am always torn in my response to them. For one thing, it saddens me when we feel the need to justify art by making it serve some other non-artistic purpose like teaching morality. But also, many of these defenses of art (think of Christian justifications for fantasy) seem to be afflicted with excessive seriousness, even self-importance. Do I believe that art can be a catalyst for social change, a commentator on the human condition, a conveyer of truth, a powerful agent of transformation in people’s lives? Yes! But to have to go about our business as artists while wearing that heavy mantle of responsibility seems crippling to me.

And here is where I think the world of children’s literature has much insight to offer to these discussions about faith and the arts, because, perhaps more than any other genre, it reminds us of the redemptive power of a pure and holy silliness.

Take Edward Lear’s poem “The Jumblies”, which I read regularly to jump-start the creative juices in my head. There is a kind of reckless, joyful dancing with words there that reminds me of another favorite poem by Lewis Carroll:

`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves Did gyre and gimble in the wabe: All mimsy were the borogoves, And the mome raths outgrabe. “Beware the Jabberwock, my son! The jaws that bite, the claws that catch! Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun The frumious Bandersnatch!”

I love poems and stories like this that stretch the boundaries of what could be, almost as if they were thumbing their noses at a world that insists, This is how life is, and saying instead, Not necessarily. Imagine if it were different. Imagine lovely monkeys with lollipop paws and bandersnatches and places with names like the Chankly Bore. Imagine little people with green heads and blue hands embarking on epic adventures in unpredictably leaky sailing vessels. How can we possibly grasp the mystery of God and heavenly realities unless we have first allowed stories to take the lid off of what we think of as reality so that the stuff of creation can bubble over in shapes beyond our expectations? My favorite stories—and the stories I hope to write—provoke the question, “What if there is more to the world than what I see on the surface?” They make me more open to a world where the marvelous and the miraculous are possible. And they do it in a way that is delightful.

That is what I mean by a holy silliness. Yes, there is a profound need for art that plumbs the depths of human depravity and suffering and shows that redemption is possible within that darkness. But there is also a profound need for art that creates spaces of innocence—innocent play, innocent joy, innocent beauty—in a world where innocence is violently stripped away from even the youngest children, and where adults have spent so long choking in the smog of corruption that they have forgotten what it is like to breathe pure fresh air.

I will defend and defend the belief that the deepest reality of human life that we must impress upon children is not that life is hard and death is inevitable and they need to get used to sadness and darkness and make the best of it. The deepest reality is joy. The prize hidden under the scratch-and-win card of life is a beauty so big that no happy ending in a story can even come close to approximating it. War is a horrific stain on the floor of an extravagant ballroom. Tears are temporary; laughter is eternal.

I am so grateful for art that takes us to the emotional place of the Cross—that place where we are forced to face the agony of evil in this world and walk through the door of pain to the other side. The courage and honesty of such artists is breathtaking to me.

I long for more art that offers me Resurrection . . . Eden regained.

The beauty of children’s literature is that it allows space for both—innocence and redemption, pain and silliness, honesty and happy endings. I think of the blending of joy and grief in E. B. White’s classic Charlotte’s Web, Katherine Paterson’s The Bridge to Terabithia, and Kate DiCamillo’s novels. Beside these I hold up the playfulness of Mr. Popper’s Penguins, James and the Giant Peach, Winnie-the-Pooh, and The Wizard of Oz. There is something about such books that cleanses me, like a baptism.

Jesus did say, after all, that we must become like little children in order to enter the kingdom of heaven.

This attitude of playing—does that mean writing is easy? No! It is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I am not a garrulous talker or a prolific writer; words trickle out slowly. Laughter fights every day against fear. There are many, many times when I feel anything but playful. The work still has to happen. But I work in the trust that the delight is merely temporarily submerged. The times of playing make the other times of painful slogging worth struggling through and overcoming: The joy is the fuel for the hard effort.

Every day when I sat down to write The Rise and Fall of Mount Majestic, the writing felt like trying to strain Mount Everest through a sieve. I was paralyzed by the fear of what other people would think, how the world would receive my little story that had been so private and dear to me for so long. That was the grown-up in me forgetting that I was supposed to be playing. And one of the things that encouraged and challenged me during that time was the story of King David dancing before the Ark of the Covenant—unselfconscious, unashamed, childlike, his whole being thrust into the simple joyful act of the dance, caring only about the eyes of God upon him.

I have a friend who is a ballet teacher, and she tells me about the great difference she sees between the children she teaches and the adults. Children dance as if they had burst out of the womb with the uncontrollable urge to wiggle in front of the universe; they dance with complete freedom. But as we grow up, the need to Not Look Silly in Front of Other People stiffens our limbs and shrinks our ability to express ourselves freely with our bodies. We move through the world in limited, socially acceptable patterns. We stop dancing.

Creating something, like praying, is one of the most vulnerable, self-revealing things we do in this world. And if we are embarrassed to be caught in the act in front of other people, or if we cover our raw hearts in crowd-pleasing dress, we will kill the soul of our creation. Instead, we should let our art dance with reckless abandon, and if only God sees and loves it, we have no need for another audience; all other appreciating eyes are unexpected gifts.

The moments when we achieve that state of complete unselfconsciousness—those are the moments when we are children again, innocent, naked and unashamed in the Garden of Eden.

Pablo Picasso said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” I heard a story about a college art teacher whose seven-year-old daughter asked him what he did at work. He told her that his job was to teach people how to draw. She stared at him, incredulous, and said, “You mean they forget?”

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-Stories,” he talks about Recovery as one of the things that reading fairy tales offers us: “We should look at green again, and be startled anew (but not blinded) by blue and yellow and red. We should meet the centaur and the dragon, and then perhaps suddenly behold, like the ancient shepherds, sheep, and dogs, and horses—and wolves. This recovery fairy-stories help us to make. In that sense only a taste for them may make us, or keep us, childish. Recovery (which includes return and renewal of health) is a re-gaining—regaining of a clear view. . . . We need . . . to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness.”

This recovery reminds me of G. K. Chesterton again: “At the back of our brains, so to speak, there was a forgotten blaze or burst of astonishment at our own existence. The object of the artistic and spiritual life was to dig for this submerged sunrise of wonder.”

This is why adults should read children’s books. Go back and reread the books you loved when you were a child. Dig for that submerged sunrise of wonder. Remember. Not to dwell in sentimental nostalgia, but to exercise a muscle that tends to go flabby with age. And then: Go out and be creative the way you were when you were a little girl or a little boy. Play. Make a beautiful mess.

When I write, when I play on paper, I’m practicing. I’m practicing for the day when the world will be turned right side up again. The day when God will set aside my paper dreams and teach me how to make a star. The day when human life is revised and polished and the true story finally emerges—a story of freedom, fresh air, laughter, and children playing.

[The Rise and Fall of Mount Majestic by Jennifer Trafton is available in the Rabbit Room store.]


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