Creativity, Freedom and Play


I’m in a psychoanalytic kind of mood at the moment; it comes over me from time to time that way. I’ve always loved psychoanalysis because I’m immensely curious about the way people tick, and the games that we play in relationships and all those big questions about motivation and desire and identity. And of course psychoanalysis and literature are deeply entwined, as they both grow from a shared belief in the extraordinary power of stories to change the way we look at things. Just recently, mostly due to the fantasy and dream book, I’ve become very interested in the concept of play, a notion for which I have a high personal regard. I realise that I’ve been lucky enough in life to make a profession out of my hobby, and that the lovely pleasure I get from reading, thinking and writing about books comes from a sense of playing with literature and the ideas it contains. Naturally there are days when translation homework needs to be marked, and there’s a stack of student references to write, and a lecture for which I am underprepared is zooming towards me, when I don’t feel in the least bit playful. But I know the time for play will come, and I don’t know how people survive in jobs, or indeed in life, without the space of freedom and creativity it affords.


Winnicott, my psychoanalyst of the moment, suggests that it is not possible to survive without playfulness, and that when people end up in consulting rooms, it’s because they have forgotten how to play in some vital area of their life. Things, in other words, have become all too serious. When he talks about play, Winnicott doesn’t mean that we all have to get down on our hands and knees and construct something out of coloured bricks. It’s the spirit of play that he’s interested in, and that can be brought to bear on any kind of activity. The point is that play should be open-ended, unconstrained, free from debilitating rules, mutually engaging (if in involves another). A child absorbed in play is always a joy to behold, because there before us is an individual uncomplicated by desires or fears, freed from the modal straightjacket of must and ought and should, simply following what interests and intrigues them. Often such children are described as being ‘without a care in the world’, and good play takes you to that place, no matter how old you are.


‘We tend at times to be drawn towards being controlled,’ Winnicott writes, those times being characterised by fear, confusion, chaos, uncertainty. Times when we seek excitement to distract ourselves, or wallow in apathy and inertia to cripple ourselves. The things we fear lead us into power games of submission or domination where the balance between the inner and outer worlds of reality is destroyed. Either we let others control us and we accept compliance, a state Winnicott feared probably above all others for mental wellbeing, or else we resist and rebel and seek to dominate the cause of our unease. Both positions herald the end of any kind of self-development. Neither allows us to exist properly in the world. I see this a lot with students who are so afraid of the self-exposure involved in telling me what they think about a novel that they long for some kind of magical ‘right’ answer to be given them. Teaching, like psychotherapy, is a lot like playing, in that if I dominate the class with my own interpretations, and demand complicity from my students, then they will learn nothing and fail to develop their own potential. I can give them ideas, and encouragement, but they must be brave enough to put their fear to one side in order to use them, and therefore begin to play. Equally, Winnicott would suggest the need for any teacher to respect their student’s initial ‘period of hesitation’ or ‘period of suspicion’ as he called it. Resistance is in some situations the recognition that play requires a space of absolute freedom. You cannot force a child to play, just as you cannot force it to learn. We do know what we want, Winnicott says, and we also have to come to it in our own time.


As an analyst, Winnicott was always interested in the journey, never the arrival, and the essence of his method was to seek to recreate the ideal environment for development and growth. For this reason, as he grew older, so he became more and more unconcerned with the idea of self-knowledge, preferring to celebrate and respect a fundamental opacity at the heart of every individual. His concept of play remains entirely true to this ethos, as play works to the extent that it is never conclusive, never end-oriented. The point of play was not to seek knowledge or insight, for conviction makes us into convicts, prisoners of an inflexible rule of reason or logic. Playing is instead the process of finding out what interests you; it’s a state of creativity that is of necessity inconclusive, because what Winnicott privileged above all in this life is the sense of being alive, of feeling the world real and present around us in a continuous way, one that doesn’t come to an end when the right answer is reached. What is knowledge compared to the joy of vitality? I don’t mean to suggest an either/or here – knowledge is there to be used and played with as well. It’s a fine tool to be subsumed to that particular game, but it should not be mistaken for life itself. Equally, Winnicott does not seek to suggest that the entirety of life can be spent in play. But if the daily grind becomes too serious, if it feels like we have stopped developing ourselves, if freedom is just a memory and creativity an abandoned project, then the way forward is to find a little space, a little time out of time, and remember that fun is not frivolous, but the key to unlocking our vibrant sense of self.


Next week, as I’m feeling all theoretical, I think I’ll post about the critical ideas around the gothic in fiction – some thoughts about ghosts and monsters and why it is we get pleasure from being scared. Just as a little accompaniment to the R.I.P. challenge.

17 thoughts on “Creativity, Freedom and Play

  1. Hello Litlove,
    This one is a toughie. I want to comment but what to say that doesn’t make me look a little freaky?
    I think in many ways that it is impossible for an adult to have the sense of play as described above, at least not and think before each action, even in the most minor way!
    In some ways I wonder if it is even such a bad thing to be constantly in control. I know that I sometimes resent a loss of control (whether through anger, fear, happiness or otherwise) even when I am the responsible party! Clearly the barriers come down sometimes and you relax but only amongst those closest to you, but in the outside world as it were, when the pressure of social rules and norms apply, I wonder if it really is possible to play in an “open-ended, unconstrained, free from debilitating rules, mutually engaging (if in involves another)” way?
    But maybe its just me! Great post really thought provoking!

  2. Aha, I think you’re thinking of this always in terms of another person. I suppose I’m thinking of this primarily in terms of work. I don’t think you can have creativity without being prepared to play in open-ended ways with ideas and possibilities, but it’s quite likely that, as a responsible editor, your management wouldn’t want you to be playful with your author’s manuscripts!! But I’ll bet in your free time there are things you do, maybe sport, or even just relaxing with the internet, that’s not about getting somewhere, or doing something specific and that has no purpose beyond the pleasure it gives you. I suppose I’m not thinking of play as a loss of control, but rather the absence of coertion, of feeling obliged or committed.

  3. Hmmh!
    That makes more sense!
    I guess if I really admit it I play a good bit more than I am allowing for!
    I mean I do wander the internet for hours and that is rarely goal orientated as you say!
    As I say much thought!

  4. Ahhh, the joys of play. It took me until I was 50 before I gave myself permission to play. Oh, I played cricket, was involved in sport all that time and yet it was formal, it was another part of life. I also had a bad habit of punning, yet I was in some ways ashamed of that punning. I began to play with words at 50. I wrote some poor but intense poetry. I also wrote some silly poetry simply for the sound of it. It was not until I found the internet that I was able to find that nascent inner child. I found a newsgroup based on limericks. I was able to be completely childish for the first time in my life. I was finally able to play with the most important things in my life and have others respond in play to me. Words are wonderful creatures, mouldable and malleable and meaningful. I have since found other forums where childishness of situation and language are not only permitted but encouraged. Now, in this strangely impersonal yet intimate “blogoshere” I have found another place to be inventively playful. Your Winnecott is wise. Play is not about a result or an ending. It is an openended romp which may lead anywhere in the world or in the mind. I drive a lot in my life, for thousands of kilometres at a time. Yet I always have a regret as I reach the end of a journey. Truly, the journey, whether through time or space is the important part of travel, not the destination. Ooops, I am rambling. It is 3am and I now have to complete my review of “The Historian”. I am unsure just how to judge this novel. PS – is there a pill or potion I can take which will instill in me the pre-publication edit bug?

  5. I have to think about this (play with it?) a lot more before I can really know what I think about play in this context. But, after reading the comments above, I couldn’t help but think about how ‘play’ is involved in the workplace, and how it’s absence can be stifling.

    I work in a technology-related field. I frequently contemplate the differences in mindset between an engineering/scientific point of view and a creative/artistic point of view. I don’t have that scientific point of view, but am usually energized when I (finally!) understand a concept from such a viewpoint. I have had programmers look at me like I’m crazy when I have said that programming is a creative endeavor (I liken it to solving a crossword puzzle; one doesn’t just have to know the meanings of the word, but must understand the subtleties of wordplay.) I don’t think of the two ways of thinking as opposites, although I think that I may be in minority.

    One thing I’ve noticed, in workplaces where things just don’t seem to get done in the way envisioned at the onset (which in my workworld usually results in not meeting important time schedules) is that there is a rigidity about how work should be done. Such inflexibity does not allow for work that is “open-ended, unconstrained, free from debilitating rules”. Consequently (or at least I think there may be a causal relationship) is that some workers completely abandon the creative and too often fall into the trap called “But, we’ve always done it this way”. The bland, unproductive corner in any room, I think.

    I think that this concept shouldn’t be approached as an alternative to work; I think it could also be considered as a complement to the actual work or problem solving, regardless of what realm one’s “work” may be in. Work/life balance gets a lot of talk here in the States but that talk isn’t always successfully translated into the workplace. I’d be a rich woman, able to retire and focus only on ‘creative’ or ‘artistic’ endeavors (and maybe truly get my blogreading under control!), if I had a dollar for everytime I’ve heard someone, in describing their work environment, say it was a ‘fun’ place to work. If play was more encouraged perhaps that wouldn’t be an overwrought description, but an actuality. Play–the unrestrained, don’t-know-where-we’re-going pursuit–should not only be a release for outside of the work arena, but also a means of accomplishing any kind of work that involves thinking and creating something new.

    Lots to think about, Litlove. Now I’m going to go think about how this relates to reading — a hobby that is sometimes viewed as only a luxury since it doesn’t “accomplish” anything, but not in my house!

  6. Nice post! I love playing. I think people tend to see play as frivolous and a waste of time, but I think it is very important. Like Cam, I do IT. I came to it by accident from a liberal arts background and approach it as a game, a puzzle to be solved. I always know when it’s time for a vacation because I lose the sense of it as a game. A lot of my co-workers are therapists and it always surprises me that many of them take things very seriously. I always expect therapists to be a bit more evolved. We have a mandatory fun day picnic where I work and I shake my head when people complain about taking the day off to have fun and play silly games! I mean really, we get paid to eat too much and run relay races with eggs on a spoon, who wouldn’t rather do that than paperwork!

  7. I like your connection between teaching and play — it’s a very useful way of thinking about what goes on, the teacher/student dynamic. The best moments in a class, I think, are when the teacher puts down the lesson plan and the students stop taking notes and a real conversation takes place. I also like what Winnicott says about the inconclusiveness of play and about feeling alive in the world — that’s one way for me to think about why cycling and hiking are so important to me, because they are spaces for play; although the point of those activities often seems to be to get somewhere, the end of the hike or the ride, it’s really not. It’s more about returning to an activity again and again, doing the same thing over and over, to create space to just exist. It’s a freeing thing.

  8. Great post. Fascinating stuff.
    Another IT worker here, and this post made me realise how serious things are in my life right now, especially at work. I don’t remember the last time I “played”. I was brought up in private school in Surrey, UK – responsibility, dedication, “towing the line” were all virtues; playing was most certainly not.

  9. This is an inspiring post to read the evening before the work week begins. I do so believe in pleasure as an important aim of all creative effort. My own work has a lot of rules — in fact, it’s all about applying legal rules to factual settings — but that doesn’t mean that working out how to say what needs to be said, and pondering the messes people get into, can’t feel like play. There’s a way in which every operation of the brain can be fun, as long as you don’t have too many people standing around checking their watches and wondering what on earth is taking you so long.

    But what really strikes me about your post is that I thought immediately about writing on my blog and reading other blogs when you mentioned playing.

    Looking forward to hearing about the scary stuff, Lily

  10. Archie – my experience of blogging has been one of very creative play. I think it’s what attracted me so much to it at the start, the sudden sense of freedom. And if you find that pill, I’ll have some too, please! Cam – Winnicott would agree with you completely – he says the opposite of play is not work but coertion, in other words, ‘we’ve always done it this way’, which you rightly identify as being a stultifying, fossilizing response. Play ought to enhance any kind of endeavour. Stefanie – your fun dsy sounds like a wonderful idea – can only hope the doubters change their minds once they’ve crossed the line with their egg intact! Dorothy – I’ve often got the sense of freedom and playfulness from your posts on biking. I can easily imagine how giving yourself over to the countryside on a hike, or a bike ride could give you a wonderful sense of release. Andrew – I sympathise entirely. My life gets bogged down in responsibility so quickly and before I know it, everything’s deadly serious and I have to drag myself through it with the weight of the world on my shoulders. Bloglily – you always make me laugh. Having people hanging over you while you work would take the kick out of it. Your posts are always imbued with the spirit of fun, I think. Whether it’s baking a cake or clearing a room, you know how to do it with panache.

  11. Litlove, you always come up with the best posts for when I’m in a slump.

    I’m in the final days of revising my MA thesis right now and seriously lacking in a sense of “play”. Stress, apathy, horror and boredom aplenty, but no sense of fun anymore. But your post has inspired me to sit down to another day of revision with a sense of the wonder still to be drawn from my subject and the once-living people behind it. 🙂

    (Still, I can’t wait for it to be over!)

  12. You poor thing. I remember the finishing stages of my PhD very clearly, and it was a horrid, painful time of amoeba level punctuation checking. You definitely need to treat yourself to some class-A fun, nad don’t worry about the thesis – judging from your reviews it will be absolutely wonderful.

  13. Now I know why every so often, I just HAVE to get together with young friends of mine and spend an evening doing whatever they want: building domino lines to knock down, playing spaceship games, playing “witch,” etc. A lot of my “grownup” friends think I’m crazy, but, quite obviously, I’m the sane one. I also have always tried to make work a playful place, especially in my role as a supervisor. Having a sense of humor helps, as play and humor go hand-in-hand. And, of course, like everyone else, I’ve found the blogosphere to be a magnificent playground.

    Hmmm…does Winicott say anything about those who have too MUCH play in their lives?

  14. Emily – I’m sure Winnicott would say that such people are just immensely contented! And Carl – I got caught up with something else today, but posts on ghosts, the uncanny and the pleasures of being frightened are all in the pipeline for the R.I.P. challenge!

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