Serious Play Date

Man is most nearly himself when he achieves the seriousness of a child at play.

When I first learned about the idea of an artist date I thought it was a bit self indulgent.

An artist date is a block of time, perhaps two hours weekly, especially set aside and committed to nurturing your creative consciousness, your inner artist. In its most primary form, the artist date is an excursion, a play date that you preplan and defend against all interlopers. You do not take anyone on this artist date but you and your inner artist, a.k.a. your creative child. That means no lovers, friends, spouses, children—no taggers-on of any stripe. If you think this sounds stupid or that you will never be able to afford the time, identify that reaction as resistance. You cannot afford not to find time for artist dates.
—Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way, p. 33

Taking my creative child on an artist date? Are you kidding? Whatever happened to getting my creative work done? How is this going to help?

But two seconds later I gave in to it. Permission to play? Sign me up!

Serious Play

It’s pretty intuitive, this idea that creativity is linked with play. Kids are the most creative people, and their whole life is play. And they don’t even bother to stop and call it anything, they are too engrossed in playing. Play is clearly a wonderful path to full creative potential.

But as adults we often need permission to stop working and engage in play. We are responsible. We get things done. We have people counting on us to be productive. Play is not so easy.

We need boundaries in which play can take place. And practicing at play, carving out time just for playing, not only seems strange at first, we are even tempted to work at it, to turn it into something productive instead of something fun.

So why keep productivity at bay and indulge in a play date with your creative child?

Image: Filling the Well

Have visuals. Will travel.

Art is an image-using system. In order to create, we draw from our inner well. This inner well, an artistic reservoir, is ideally like a well-stocked trout pond. We’ve got big fish, little fish, fat fish, skinny fish—an abundance of artistic fish to fry. As artists, we must realize that we have to maintain this artistic ecosystem. If we don’t give some attention to upkeep, our well is apt to become depleted, stagnant, or blocked.

Any extended period or piece of work draws heavily on our artistic well. Overtapping the well, like overfishing the pond, leaves us with diminished resources. We fish in vain for the images we require. Our work dries up and we wonder why, ‘just when it was going so well.’ The truth is that work can dry up because it is going so well.

As artists, we must learn to be self-nourishing. We must become alert enough to consciously replenish our creative resources as we draw on them—to restock the trout pond, so to speak. I call this process filling the well.
The Artist’s Way, p. 36

Cross Check

This visual well-filling applies even to non-visual creativity. When the visual imagination is stimulated it can spill out into music, poetry, video, dance, computer programming, business analysis…all kinds of creative expressions.

Serious Play Date

Do you ever feel that your creative reserves are down? That you have used up most of the good ideas and can’t seem to find a good new one? Maybe it’s time for a serious play date.

In graduate school one of our music composition projects was to partner with a visual artist from MICA. The result was frustrating at first. My collaborator and I started by talking a lot, trying to find common language, trying to get on the same page. This got us nowhere. The breakthrough came when we just trusted that the visuals and music communicate directly, that they are a language. The result was a free flow of creative ideas.

If you are creating without visuals, experiment with visual play for your creative child. Let them speak to you directly. What delights your eye? What energizes you? Notice how you respond to light, texture, color, space. Look at the sky. A bug. Dirt on bark. A valley at dusk. A baby.

Entering the Mystery

Floating your boat.

Playing is not about accomplishing anything. It’s about noticing intrigue and following its path. It’s more about mystery than mastery, more about delight than duty, more about process than productivity. Have fun and take a ride. Trust that it will give you what you may later use when it’s time to create.


  • Go Alone, Just the Two of You
    You and your inner child will have plenty of company without inviting others. If you have a creative team, read what happened when we all tried a creative team date.
  • Protect the Time
    You may be tempted to also get real work done while you are there, or check into social media every few minutes, or call a friend. Later. For now we play.
  • Simple Structure
    Give yourself a single question to ponder, or a simple idea that will guide your time. One of my recent dates involved walking around with a camera to capture textures at a wildlife conservancy. Another was a visit to a sculpture garden to  explore the relationship between movement and stasis. Too much structure can kill the play, so keep it simple.
  • Flexibility
    If your plan doesn’t work, modify it as you go. Keep it fun.
  • Re-Calibrate
    If you find yourself struggling with the fun part, stop and write down what comes up for you. What’s on your mind? What’s preventing the play? After you’ve captured this (aka clearing), put down your notebook. You can always analyze it more later. Then go back and play.

Now You

Make a commitment to take your creative child on an artist date once a month for the next three months. Or if you are a full-time creative powerhouse you may need 2–3 times a month. Put it on the calendar. Don’t answer the cell phone. Just play. Fill the well. Your future creative self will thank you later for the investment in fresh ideas and good connections.

Advanced Course: Integration

Now that you are good at play dates, what would it be like to bring the spirit of play into work? What would your work be like if you approached it from the play perspective?
Then let me know how it’s going. I think you’ll love it.

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