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tflurry's picture

A small stage in a crowded room, containing a piano, a drum set, and two seats; at the moment, those seats are pushed to the back behind a small brass ensemble. The restaurant is full of happy, idly chatting people enjoying their meals, listening to the jazz music; I’m next. My first jazz performance, and my first performance with vocal improvisation; my nerves had been bad all week, terrible all day. More than once my parents assured me that they would not think less of me if I were not to go, if I were too sick to make it, and how pale you look! Even my teacher had said she’d understand- I can only imagine how frail I must have looked, for them all to worry about my first public improvisation. Far too quickly, the ensemble group before me finished; it was just myself, and three instrumentalists I had never seen before in my life. The only one of them I could see was the pianist, and I was absolutely terrified. The song was Autumn Leaves, and I was to sing it straight once through, before improving it through and then singing it a third time. The music started; there was no going back. The first verse went off without a hitch. So did the second. By the third I started to worry again; next I was to begin scatting. Then the pianist caught my eye. I sang a few notes; not the straight melody, but not too far off. Playing it safe. He took the thread and spun it around, playing it back with a new twist; he was improving as well. Emboldened, I took his idea and ran it a little farther; he took it back, and we played tag with the melody throughout. As the music ran, I relaxed; I had fun. The audience was quiet enough, certainly not upset, and here was an artist I could converse with- so I did. The audience ceased to matter, my family and my teacher ceased to matter. All that mattered was the sharing and building of ideas.


What is deep play? The precise acts of play are different for different people, but a few things remain constant. Deep play is uncommon, a transcendent experience. It involves a feeling of joy, of freedom, and often, but not always, an element of risk. As Ackerman notes, deep play is dependent on the mood of the person playing, not what they are doing.


Personally speaking, deep play in critical writing is when I hit on an interesting idea to argue, because when you hit a unique or interesting, or even just a difficult idea, the act of arguing the point becomes a conversation between yourself and the book. Your annotations and proposals form your half of a conversation, while the evidence in the book or the book’s context proving or disproving your position form the book’s half of the debate. It becomes a debate between scholarly minds, or a cat and mouse game; one ceases to care about anything but the search, and the stake of proving your opinion to another person.


If I were to rewrite my NW paper with deep play, I probably would have taken my focus on the use of the number 37 in the first section, and focused in on that even further, rather than attempt to drag the rest of the book into the conversation. The discussion of 37 was a type of play for me, a cat and mouse game; had I not worried about bringing in the rest of the book, but instead left the paper focused on the true topic at hand, then the play would have been even deeper, the paper more focused and more detailed. To truly write that paper with deep play, I should have focused on the interesting topic and the interesting supporting data, and followed that path.