Teaching Stuff: At Play With the Universe

by Richard J. Chwedyk

ChwedykWhen I started “teaching” the Science Fiction Writing Workshop for undergrad and grad students at Columbia College Chicago, I had no idea what my priorities should be. There’s an obvious plethora of things you want to communicate – a million things you want your students to know. But I wondered: what’s the most important thing for your students to come away with?

It took half a semester for me to figure out, and a lot longer than that to articulate.

I want them to come away from my class with a sense of play – unless they had it already when they came in (and many do).

Why is play so important?

Play, in a sense, is our most natural condition, or pretty close to it. As children, we are most ourselves when we’re at play. We “pretend,” but that pretending is tethered to reality. We play at what is real, but we also play at what is unreal. We put reality to the test in the ways available to us: with toys, with the space we’re given to wander around in, with our imaginations making up for what isn’t there.

Imagination. We keep forgetting about it, either because we’ve taken it for granted or because we’ve replaced it with other things.

In the last century, many “experts” declared imagination the domain of children, and the road to maturity led away from it.

Folks believed a lot of stupid things back then.

Play doesn’t necessarily exist apart from learning. When we’re at play, at any age, we’re also learning, we’re experimenting, we’re analyzing, we’re speculating, we’re extrapolating.

All the things you want a science fiction writer to do.

Often, it’s when we’re at play that we feel most alive. We’re working hard, but it doesn’t feel like work because, hey, we’re at play.

Play is essential to every creative endeavor, and many non-creative ones, but for science fiction writers it’s a custom fit. If the profession (are we a profession? Hah!) of science fiction writing didn’t already exist, we’d have to invent it.

The difference is that we get to play with the whole universe, or universes, front to back, beginning to end. We’ve got the biggest playground in all of reality.

That doesn’t mean you, as a teacher, can’t focus on whatever eternal verities of fiction writing you subscribe to. Story structure, practical discipline, language skills, a familiarity with the literature … all those things, and more, are important. Every teacher brings a different experience and a different emphasis to what they believe their students must learn.

Your students will learn it more effectively, I believe, when you bring to the classroom a sense of play – not just in your students, but in yourself.

If we have in our charge the biggest playground in all of reality, it’s a shame not to use it and to keep it open to everyone.


Richard Chwedyk is a Nebula Award-winning science fiction writer, poet and teacher. His work has appeared in Nebula Awards Showcase 2004Year’s Best SF 7Year’s Best SF 8Fantasy and Science FictionAmazing StoriesSpace and Time80! Memories and Reflections on Ursula K. Le Guin and other publications. A collection of his “saur” stories is making the rounds. He lives in Chicago with his wife, poet Pamela Miller, and occasionally blogs at Critinomicon.