by Kirsty Jones
There’s a point at which we stop playing. Often, it’s whilst navigating the unchartered seas of adolescence, desperate not to misread the compass, or worse. It’s around the same time we stop believing in happy endings. We want to be taken seriously, to pass as an adult – and every kid knows, adults don’t play. Adulting is about applying yourself, committing, acting with intent. But, of course, still being fun (infinitely more important than having it). We adapt to fit in, ditching long-loved hobbies to embrace sticky-floored nightclubs, vodka Red Bull and inane music. Watching the right stuff on the telly, trying to laugh at the perfect moment – with conviction, but never too loudly.
Later, when we’ve become the adults we were so desperate to be, we start to wonder if it was all a con. The bouncers get younger, the drinks get upgraded, we get brave enough to admit we never liked that band. But still, we don’t play. We work harder, longer, set new goals or wish we knew what they should be. We feel validated when someone calls us ‘driven’, pretend not to be chasing ‘successful’. We support our friends, encourage them to look after themselves, follow their dreams. Yet we try to package our own mad desires into neat little bundles that might meet someone else’s approval.
And then, maybe, family life. Surely, that’s when you start to play again? How can you not, with kids in the house? Until recently, I thought I played all the time. And yet, I didn’t. Not really. I was instigator, rule-explainer, umpire and quiz master. Involved long enough to get them engrossed, before quietly extricating myself to do whatever had to be done. I’d stay close enough to celebrate their wins, to coo over the six-legged cat doodles, the Lego creations, the Playdough squidges. If they noticed I wasn’t playing properly, I’d explain that it’s different when you’re a grown up, trying to ignore the dust settling on my soul.
“All I need to do is treat writing as the thing it has always been – a way to invent, escape, explore”
2020 came and amongst the darkness, something shifted. With endless family time and fewer daily distractions, I sprawled on my belly and immersed myself in their world. And the longer I stayed, the longer I wanted to. With one eye pressed to a dolls’ house window, the figures inside came to life. They threw a tea party for whoever could squeeze at the table (though the T-Rex had to promise to behave). Clambering aboard a bed-shaped pirate ship to catch fish and chips for dinner, I could almost taste the salt. It felt glorious to play properly. And yet… I was still playing someone else’s game. In the midst of a pandemic, it became painfully clear that life really is too short. How did I want to spend my time? What would make me feel good?
The answer was to get brave and do the things I’d been putting off. For the first time in my adult life, I ran. Just for the joy of moving. To get outside before the world woke, pushing through my own creaking resistance to feel the air rush over my skin, was a revelation. It felt deeply liberating, in ways I hadn’t anticipated. And then, with soul-warming support and inspiration from Write Like a Grrrl, I rediscovered the thrill of playing with words.
My eight-year-old-self knew she would grow up to be a novelist. She unearthed new worlds, new friends, hidden in the pages of books. Making up stories was fun and easy and never embarrassing. I’ve realised it is possible to reach that place again. All I need to do is treat writing as the thing it has always been – a way to invent, escape, explore.
I had to get out of my own way first and learn how to ignore my inner critic; the smirking voice in my head that says I’m not interesting / educated / talented enough to write. Through the simple act of writing little and often, just for fun, I noticed how loud that voice had become. And then I unplugged its microphone. It’s still there of course, always will be, but it’s so much easier to ignore the occasional squeak.
So now, I write for fun. I write every day – even if it’s just for five minutes – not because I should, or because I’m a failure if I don’t, but because it’s where I find my joy. For me, it’s the best kind of self-care; available any time, anywhere, for free. It’s no longer a silly indulgence, or a nagging chore. It’s my play time. Game on.