Playing with Intention

By Erin Keane, Professional Writing & Poetry Faculty

When I interviewed Aimee Bender in 2010 about her novel The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, she said something about her process that stuck with me: Every day, she forces herself to be bored. “I feel like sitting through boredom is a major piece of being a writer,” she said. “There’s this intense restlessness that comes up when bored.” This makes sense to me—I’ve known since childhood how to invent ways to entertain myself when boredom crept in. That’s play, really. Telling myself stories, or tinkering with language and observation in poems, is a method of play that I carried with me into my adult life as a writer. But in the current iteration of that life, as the editorial head of a fast-paced digital publication that covers news, politics, culture, science, and health, boredom is frequently in short supply.

In the early days of the coronavirus stay-at-home orders, I tried to manage my anxiety over the pandemic’s devastation by focusing on my book manuscript, which had been stuck in a mode that wasn’t working. I am extremely lucky to have the freedom to work safely from home, but suddenly, office trips were off the table. With all the outside activities that often distract me from my writing gone overnight—no more travel, concerts, opening nights—I assumed I would get bored in my off hours, which would lead to progress on my book. That didn’t happen. The internet didn’t vanish, nor the guilt I felt at turning away from its infinite scroll of doom for any sustained period of time. It turns out there’s a gulf of difference between a fertile type of boredom that creates space for imaginative leaps and a dulling sameness shaped by fear and dread that stifles the play instinct. I tinkered with the same paragraphs over and over. I made no progress on my manuscript, and with all of the suffering around me, I couldn’t make myself care.

Then a friend asked if I’d like to collaborate on a screenwriting challenge. I said yes because I missed him and needed the distraction, even though the closest thing I’d ever written was a ten-minute play. In this contest, we’d enter a handful of loglines and one would be picked for us. We’d have 30 days to write the script for our pilot or movie. We wanted to try to win, but we also had no grand illusions about what we could achieve in 30 days. We wouldn’t fail as long as we finished. The fun of working together, along with trying something new under a tight deadline, was the whole point. The point was to play.

We live in different cities, so social distancing didn’t affect us. We set up our digital shared documents and set up times for video chats. We named our characters with care and cut them without mercy. We gave our hero problems upon problems in hopes of landing on one big enough to support an arc. We made moments bigger, then smaller, then bigger again. We made up a character just to kill him off-screen to add stakes. We invented an elaborate, whimsical hiring process for a fictional company that I still don’t entirely understand. We ended with a completely different story than the one we thought we were going to write.

This project did expose some of my more irritating faults. I didn’t realize that I grant an unspoken, automatic 48-hour honeymoon period to a first draft, during which it is the most brilliant thing I have ever written. (Suffice to say I was not gracious in next-day rewrites.) I will spend hours researching tiny details to write one line of description while waving off my ignorance of screenplay formatting basics as a problem to solve at some vague later date, which created more work for my partner. And my voice and sensibility gravitate persistently toward comedy, which was unfortunate news for our hour-long scripted drama.

Somehow, I did not get dumped, though I really asked for it a few times. We made it to the end of episode one and turned our script in on time. And we did not win. But we did finish, and that achievement thrilled me. We had a tangible product, albeit one that needs a lot of work. We made plans to pick up one of the other loglines and focus on it next, but then a similar project premiered, and we tabled our efforts for now. But the game is still there, waiting to be picked back up.

My month as an aspiring screenwriter reminded me of the cross-genre writing assignments we complete each residency at Spalding. This exercise, which has been part of the curriculum since the MFA program began, provides students with a framework for learning a form outside of their primary area of study. As a poetry student, I always liked the idea of writing a short story or the text for a picture book, but when it came time to write, I would freeze, then wobble my way to the finish line and hand in something I hated. I felt like I first needed to know everything I could about how to craft a successful short story or I would fail, and as a young writer, I feared failure more than anything. I understood the theoretical value of stretching myself to write in a different genre, but in practice I was too uptight and insecure to transfer the experimental spirit of the exercise, its structured play, to my own work. I didn’t really believe it was impossible to fail as long as I finished.

Funny how lessons work, especially those we absorb in spite of ourselves: Fifteen years after finishing my MFA, I finally succeeded in a cross-genre exercise by giving myself permission to write fearlessly as a practice, not a posture. That thrill I felt when we turned in our script shook something free inside me. I went back to my manuscript, revised my proposal, and wrote a new chapter. New energy emerged for a long-term collaborative project in another discipline, too. And I even started to think about an idea for a series (could it even be a drama?) that needs to be a collaborative project. I reenergized my writing practice by jumping into an unknown form that forced me to learn and create in all new ways for a sustained period of time. And now when boredom, with all its mysterious promise, won’t carry me there, I know how to get back to playing with intention.

Photo by Alix Mattingly

Erin Keane is the editor in chief at Salon.com, editor of The Louisville Anthology (Belt Publishing, 2020), and the author of three collections of poetry. She is working on her first book of nonfiction. Erin can be found on Twitter & Instagram: @eekshecried.

#Spalding #SpaldingMFA #SpaldingSOPW