How Play Nourishes Creativity for Writers

By Sophfronia Scott

The Alma MFA in Creative Writing is unusual in that the creative work we do at residency outside of the classroom is just as important as the work we do indoors. Some of this is connected to our program’s emphasis on place — understanding where we come from, the unique nature of various settings and countryside, and how we care for beautiful places. But outdoor work is also about doing and seeing different, interesting things that nurture creativity and imagination, the divine instinct that inspires you to bring new work into the world. And nurturing creativity and imagination often means you must — wait for it — have fun!

If you’re a writer and a parent (as I am) you probably schedule or once scheduled many playdates for your children. Think about this: When was the last time you booked one for yourself? I’m not talking about hanging out with your friends — although you could include them in this adventure — instead, I’m talking about a creativity playdate. This is time you set aside for yourself to do something that fills your well of inspiration.

A creativity playdate can be simple and close to home—sitting in your favorite chair perusing gorgeous coffee table books. Or it could be a mini-field trip that gets you out of the office and into a new environment: a trip to a museum or a public garden. At the Alma MFA summer residencies, students have gone on nature hikes and fly-fishing excursions. In the winter they have learned cross-country skiing and taken a workshop on improvisation.

A creativity playdate can even be a fantastic journey, and now our MFA residencies will feature these as well: We envision our January 2024 winter residency in Venice, Italy as, really, a huge creativity playdate. We will explore art, food, historical villas, and visit with local writers and artists. The site will pique all the senses, from the scent of perfect risotto to the colors of the buildings of Burano. Students will write from this well of experience for years to come.

Creativity playdates are just as important as the time you schedule for writing. In fact, your writing time can be difficult and fruitless without them. If you find you spend much of your writing time staring wordless at the screen or blank page, you’re in need of a creativity playdate. You can try it out any time.

Looking for a story idea? Ride the subway a few stops or go sit in a park and pay attention. Your next character might step on at West 66th Street or stroll past you wearing a top hat and walking a fluffy Scottish terrier sporting blue booties on its paws. I know my writing eye is awakened every time I travel the 65 miles south to New York City and take in the energy and movement of a different environment. Suddenly my senses have new sights, sounds, and smells to process. It’s exciting.

Personally, my own creative activities include watching the television show “Project Runway” because I like seeing a different kind of artist, in this case fashion designers, exercising his or her own brand of creativity. I also color in coloring books (my Harry Potter one is my favorite) and visit museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City or the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut. I can’t wait to see the “Van Gogh in America” exhibit at the Detroit Institute of Arts when I’m there at the end of the month.

I’ve toured the homes of famous artists, designers and writers. I am a big fan of Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut, and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House in Chicago. I recently learned part of the chateau home of the essayist Montaigne is open to the public in Dordogne Village in France. I would love to see his office/library and view the exposed beams in the tower where Montaigne engraved some of his thoughts, including his famous question “Que sais-je?” or “What do I know?” Perhaps an MFA residency in that part of the world would be in order.

One year I explored the Architectural Digest Home Design Show in New York City. It included art installations as well as design ideas and new home appliances and products. A bed of green apples caught my eye and sparked my imagination, as did a bizarre seating bench covered in tube-like purple velvet cushions entwined again and again. Mysterious and erotic!

I encourage writers to schedule a creativity playdate at least once a month. If you can’t think of something to do, consider this: you want to excite your five senses. Try to come up with ideas addressing each one. For example:

  • Smell: Explore perfume or incense shops; check out a store where you can sniff barrels of coffee beans, visit a florist.
  • Touch: Go to high-end stores or fabric shops where you can run your hands over rich materials or beautiful furniture. Take a cue from your childhood and visit a petting zoo or an aquarium that features touch tanks of specimens to hold.
  • Sight: Feast your eyes on works of art or go on hikes to see spectacular views.
  • Sound: Attend concerts, plays, musicals, or sit in a place with lots of people where you can pick up pieces of overheard conversation.
  • Taste: Try a new cuisine by cooking a recipe you’ve never tried before or going to a different restaurant.

Really, you could do anything you want for your creativity playdate as long as you don’t forget to have fun!

The Alma College Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing offers the opportunity to enter an artistic community in which you will read deeply, study and hone your writing craft, and participate in energetic discussions that will help you see your poems, stories, essays, and memoirs in the context of current issues and events. Learn more at