Maintaining a spirit of play as opposed to laboring under the “rules” of writing is a troublesome task. There is an entire industry to teach us the rules. Play, not so much. Inside the playfulness of writing we forge our connection to the reader. It’s behind rules that distance is bred. I was reminded of this over the weekend. I was part of an audience at a gladiatorial arena, also known as a play-date. Surrounded by four- and five-year-olds at the local playground, the other parents and I gave our thumbs-up (“Way to run away from that kicking kid!”) and thumbs-down, (“Don’t kick that kid in the head!”) responses to children who would have ignored us were we not controlling the purse strings when ice cream rolled our way. I was a solo parent for the weekend, my wife having earned parole in the form of a women’s retreat, and in order to maintain my and my son’s sanity I had orchestrated the gathering with families from my son’s pre-school class. Several classmates came, the weather was Grillmaster hot, and the playground was being tested by three-and-a-half foot tall humans pounding through, on, and around it, water sprinklers and squirt guns in full spray.
Part of the fun with a group such as ours is watching four-year-olds develop game rules. The term “game” makes it sound more structured that it actually is. Running from one platform to another on a jungle-gym, down a staircase, up a ladder, repeat. That was the game. Occasionally we spin this valve wheel that connects to nothing also seemed to be a requirement, though not as critical as squealing. At one point my son and a classmate, a girl, followed one another up and down stairs and slides, repeated the “open or close the main drain” valve spin, and spoke in whispers. There was a fake door painted onto the side of a barricade that they returned to again and again, the girl knocking, calling, “Open the door.” My son, on the other side, never could figure out what door she was referring to. On one of their trips to the valve I heard my son yelling, “Kill it! Kill it,” as the girl spun the wheel.
When it was time for ice cream (why isn’t there a “whiskey truck” that could arrive outside the park, its clarion playing something like “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling”?) the girl’s mother approached the two of them and asked first if they would like some ice cream (don’t even pretend you don’t know the answer) and second, “What game are you playing.”
“House,” answered the girl.
“Pirates,” answered my son.
That they were not playing the same game did not mean they weren’t playing the same game. The rules, as they understood them, were fluid. I have seen a lot of this lately, in my son’s play with classmates and friends, at school and at birthday parties. The block tower is a building and a rocket. The garbage truck is a robot and a monster. The thing chasing them is huge, small, invisible, spotted, flying, crawling. It doesn’t alter the outcome (what is the “outcome” after all) and it doesn’t ruin the enjoyment for either. It is the spirit of play that is important, a spirit that harbors a willingness to accept the differences and hinge the hard work of caring for a pirate house on the similarities. It is that spirit that I already mourn being “ruled” out of my son and his friends.
After the ice cream had been eaten I wondered about my own spirit of play, my own willingness to eschew “rules” of what is acceptable in order to simply enjoy the moment. I realized that I find a great deal of play is at work in writing and reading. An author only provides half of the context of the work in question. The other half is brought by the reader. We have the rules of sentences, paragraphs, and expectations of form and genre. If one of the players finds the other not playing within the spirit of the game they will leave. Readers will abandon a book when they no longer enjoy a style, a genre or a conventional plot. What happens when an author abandons the game? They change styles, or genre, or subject. They adopt a pen name.
The social contract at work when a book is picked up is no different than playing Pirate House. Both parties understand a game has begun, and both will travel through the story hand in hand, knowing that the words stand in for the essences the players carry inside their heads. A character described will be brought out of an author, taken in by a reader. Is it the same character? Certainly not, but yes, enough. The thingness of objects is impossible to convey; how blue a blue, how hard a stone, how deep a river, each thing is particular to the one imagining, envisioning. One might never reach the end of possible details, nor even get to the “perfect” one to share. I tell my reader a character runs along a dark hallway. Is it the same hallway I imagine? Is the character they have the same I have? No. But, yes.
It’s that agreement to not worry about difference that makes movies and television a different experience. No matter how I might try, as a viewer, I provide nothing. As a reader, I provide the world, my life, my experience. When I am told the main character hoped for something more desperately than she had ever hoped for something before, I know what that means, even if all I ever hoped for was a really great piece of pie. I know hope. I provide it to the character. I know hallways, and rivers, and stones. And if I’ve never seen a hallway or river or stone I still bring it to the book, I still bring the thingness of objects in the story, even if, especially if, I don’t have a particular instance in me to rely upon. I fit the story into my context, the story does not fit me into it.
It’s for that reason I worry about the “enhancement” of the reading experience through linked books in e-readers. Hyperlinks to “expand” a reader’s experience of a book, connecting me to Wikipedia or Google or CNN, may provide me with data, but will they add to the reading experience, or morph it into the passivity of film and television? To link means a choice is made. No longer my experience informing the book, but data informing me. I’m no longer playing Pirate House. I have to choose. This rock, that river. Will Moby Dick be improved by links to images of sailing ships and whales? Does Huckleberry Finn require a map of the Mississippi? Do I need to know what Anne Frank looked like to understand horror, fear, suffering?
There is play and there is data.
I know which I think is more valuable.