Remembering To Play Pretend

If you’re a writer, then I’m guessing you played pretend when you were a kid. Your dolls had distinct voices, your trucks, loads of attitude. Your forts housed secret heroes in hidden rooms. If you had a stick, you could have a character. Some of you may have even had imaginary friends. I did. I once begged to return to my grandparents’ house because I’d forgotten to bring home my ‘visbul friends. My parents just laughed, but the next time we visited, I was relieved to find my friends hanging out in my grandparents’ basement. I never actually pictured their bodies – personality was enough. They were big talkers, my friends. I supplied all the dialogue, of course, but that wasn’t how it seemed to me then.

So much of our creative process as adults seems to center on rules and restrictions. Writers may not mean to intimidate each other into normative behavior, but sometimes I’m concerned that we do. Use third person, not first, if you’re a serious writer. Don’t vary your point of view. Never use backstory. Show, don’t tellDon’t use serial commas. Don’t forget serial commas. The list goes on. But with first drafts especially, forgetting about the rules and being willing to experiment is essential. You want to remember how to play pretend.

1. Keep asking “What if?”

“What if?” is at the heart of all games of pretend – really, of all acts of creation. The way I kicked things off as a kid was “I’ll be….” I’ll be this lion tamer – at a circus – and the lions will secretly be my friends. We’ll go on adventures. And you – you can be a monkey who turns into a human at night. You get in trouble – no, you overhear the owner. He’s a crook and no one can stop him, but us…. Writing first drafts is like that. Free-wheeling, open, changeable, exciting. You take on a part, imagine the place, the challenges, the other players, and you go. I don’t mean you can’t outline. But you don’t want to worry if you’re getting it “right.” Instead of crappy first drafts, try thinking of crazy first drafts. Glorious, all-in, no-holds-barred first drafts. Be a kid.

2. Inhabit the moment

Inhabit the moment – be fully there in your mind. When kids play pretend, they don’t let normal things break the spell. The room or yard and everything in it become part of the make-believe world. When you’re writing a first draft, try to recreate that feeling. Be present in your work. Sink all the way in. Take on the mind set of your main character and see what’s around you, sense it, feel it, notice how it affects you. Truly hear what others say. Write it all down. This is your raw material – you can shape it later.

3. Trust yourself

As writers, we have to cycle through more than one stage in our work. We need to be open to criticism – to hear what others tell us – to continue to learn. We need to edit our own work with honesty and detachment. We need to be professionals who hold ourselves up to high standards and who can handle the business aspects of our careers with aplomb. But when it comes to first drafts, it’s time to put all that aside. We can’t edit before we’ve even let ourselves create. We have to remind ourselves that this is something we love. Trust your own talent. Let yourself be young.

You may just find the only hard part is typing fast enough.

Does a way you played as a kid ever come to mind when you write? Please feel free to comment.


  1. Suddenly so much of my writer’s block in first drafts makes sense. I have a LOT of trouble letting go and just PLAYING. I am very much a planner. Maybe I’ll start doing a couple of playing exercise with my characters before I dive into planned first draft mode. Baby steps, dontchaknow.

    Thanks so much for posting!

    1. I was having the same problem, especially after being in editing mode on another project. This helped free me to have fun creating again.
      Thanks for your comment!

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