Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine


Playing at Work

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Summer! Around my house, I can almost hear the sigh of pleasure as my kids set aside school and lessons and sports teams, and contemplate lazy days with bikes and basketballs and books. As the pressure of expectations—both internal and external—lifts, they breathe more deeply, move more loosely, laugh more quickly.

As it happens, summer is not an eased-out time in my year. I’ve barely finalized the line-up for September’s THIN AIR festival, and have only a few short weeks to write event descriptions, finalize room bookings, generate interest amongst the city’s readers, and steer my little team toward complete readiness. There are too many days when I do not breathe deeply or move loosely or erupt in laughter.

I was having one of those days recently. Caught in a whirl of deadlines and competing demands, I felt frantic and grim. My teenage son wandered through my workspace and said, “Mom, a relaxed muscle reacts more quickly than a tense one.” He demonstrated his point with a couple of basketball moves, then opened the fridge and poured himself a glass of juice. “By the way,” he added, “I’m speaking metaphorically.”

Yes, I laughed. I also leaned away from my tangle of effort for a minute, and let some of the tension drain away. When I went back to it, the tasks had shrunk to a more manageable size, and I was directing them rather than the reverse.

I think artists have a lot to show us about how intimately work and play are related. Every year, when I read through the heaps of submissions for THIN AIR, I am moved by the hours of effort and devotion they represent. The better the book, the bigger the investment, both in production sweat and skill-building preparation. As the 19th-century American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne observed: “easy reading is damn hard writing.”

Which doesn’t mean that every moment of creating a book is hell—nobody in their right mind would do it, if that were the case. But writing well is “damn hard.” It requires discipline and technique and an in-depth familiarity with the conventions that make it function.

At the same time, it’s a thrilling kind of play. Writers get to be alchemists, mixing together elements and experimenting with reactions. They set dreams in motion, then follow them where they lead.

For an artist, work and play are two faces of the same thin coin. Whether you are a writer or a musician or a dancer or a photographer, you want to be seriously committed to the work you’re doing, but always soaking up the pleasure of creation. When work gets too effortful, play grinds to a halt.

I have a lot of work in front of me this summer, but this time out I intend to play hard while I do it!

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