An Interview with Mary Collins

The author talks creativity, our shrinking attention spans, and how hard it is to paint a cow.

An Interview with Mary Collins

For more than 25 years, Mary Collins has been both an author and a writing instructor, previously at Johns Hopkins’ M.A. in Writing program (where I was her student), and now at Central Connecticut State University and Yale. In an earlier book, American Idle: A Journey Through Our Sedentary Culture, she looked at the serious detrimental effects — both physical and mental — of too much sitting around. Her new work, A Play Book: Creating Writers, Creating Citizens, which has been described as “part memoir-part manifesto,” explores not just why it’s so important to get outside and move and breathe and be in nature, but what happens to our creative selves when we don’t.

Although it’s also nonfiction, A Play Book is clearly a departure from your other published work. How did it come about?

I built a career as an expert in longform narrative and biography, but people’s attention spans have changed dramatically, and increasingly, they want snippets of video, audio, and images as well as text. All major publications I read in my field have had to adjust, even the New Yorker and my former employer, National Geographic. When I left there about 15 years ago, they no longer replaced employees who left the book division, for example, but moved the staff position to TV or website development. In the back of my mind, I knew I had to start thinking shorter, quicker, perhaps even mixed media.

I teach at a regional public university and at Yale in the summer, two very different student populations, but in both instances, students’ ability to wade through lengthy narrative has declined dramatically, so it’s across all classes, races, and ethnicities. Now I introduce things like zines to change things up. All of this has percolated in the back of my mind for the last five years, so I’m not surprised my latest project is a series of images and flash-nonfiction essays.

In the book, you mention your role as a writing instructor and lament students’ increasing unwillingness (or inability) to take creative risks. Can this be laid at the feet of social media, or is something else to blame?

It’s easy to blame social media, and there’s no doubt that has impacted attention spans, but I argue that the much more insidious trend has been the lack of unsupervised free play for children under age 10. We hyper-structure their lives, dictate what they do, which takes away the improvisational feel that I loved about my own childhood. You learned to work with a group with no supervision and to “float” a lot — literally hang out in a tree to watch things go by. I’m not just being nostalgic. Scientific research backs up my claim that children increasingly lack the skillsets to go off on their own and get into a flow where they make the decisions, they shape the moment.

In my classes, when I take [students] on field trips now, they are very uncertain unless given very specific directions and do not like leaving the group. Before, I had to awaken their childlike sensibilities so they engaged in playful, free-association exercises. Now, I have to actually teach them. They are being denied the fundamental right to childhoods that encourage exploration and free will.

You feel strongly that kids need unstructured outdoor playtime more than organized sports, but what do you say to parents who believe those sports are the only way to get kids outside?

I think we have no idea how much kids would move on their own if we let them because we rarely let them. I remember kids roaming all over my neighborhood on their bikes, playing tag, even the most unathletic kids, because there was nothing else to do! In American Idle, I visited the Olympic Center in Colorado, and the director at the time, Bill Sands, told me his research showed that almost all kids move way more in free play than in most organized sports. A middle-school volleyball team, for example, moved around about 10 minutes in the hour.

I acknowledge that with the huge amount of screentime and videogaming options today, kids can keep busy if left alone and not roam around outside, so I get the need for organized sports. Personally, I was a super serious athlete by high school and was invited to the Junior Olympics tryouts in basketball, so I am not opposed to sports, that’s for sure. I gained so much from being a high school and college athlete and a serious competitor well into my 40s. I do think there’s a way to balance it all better. This neat organization, 241 Sports, stands for “life’s 2 short 4 just 1 sport,” which gets at the obsessive quality of a lot of youth sports, where kids play just soccer all year round, for example. It’s so unhealthy and encourages one-dimensional development on every level.

The book is filled with your watercolor illustrations. When did you start painting, and what creative itch does it scratch that writing doesn’t?

I had become worn out from decades of churning out books and essays and other types of articles and things for hire. I thought I’d want to write when covid hit, but the lack of stimulation just made me bored. I became depressed, quiet, totally unmotivated, which is very unlike me. I picked up watercolor painting simply because I had some brushes and paints left over from a three-day class I took years ago. I decided I would intentionally only paint things that made me happy or whimsical.

Painting requires paying close attention to detail, so you must get into a flow to make any progress. The watercolor painting of the cow on the cover of the book took 15 tries (which is the point of the book and why the cow is on the cover!). I loved the fact I had zero expectations in terms of being “good” at it, and the amateur nature of it made it a lot more fun than writing. The writing came later; I did dozens of paintings before I felt inspired to pen a few flash essays in response to the artwork. I suggest taking up some sort of hands-on artwork for anyone at any level with or without skill!

What’s lost when we stop trying to create?

An inner life and capacity to reflect and process your life, which is fundamental to a functioning adult and, for that matter, a functioning democracy. I attended a concert fundraiser for the people in Ukraine recently, and I was so moved to see the people in the audience singing their national anthem, reading their favorite Ukrainian authors. They were weeping. Their culture lies in their souls and allows them to remain connected to their war-torn land. I don’t even like using the words “the arts,” because that feels too much like a category. I’m talking about the foundation of our humanity.

What’s next for you?

I want to use the book as a tool to run workshops that I’ll probably call “Come to Your Senses,” because I will use interactive exercises, such as asking participants to smell bags of various spices, free-associate memories, and then share some of them. I want to help people return to a more whimsical, flowing part of themselves, and then show how that’s tied to having an inner life and the capacity for reflection.

In some instances, I even hope to work with organizations devoted to improving public discourse, such as Braver Angels, which is the more serious point I come to at the end of the book. There’s a direct line between the huge decline in the capacity for free association/creativity and the rise in rigid thinking and toxic public discourse. The book has a whimsical look and feel to it — and it is those things — but it’s also the distillation of 30 years of my life as a creative writer and teacher of creative writing, and I feel we have reached a crisis point. I argue creative writers might very well be one of the best groups in society to lead us to new ways of being, thinking, and sharing.

Holly Smith is editor-in-chief of the Independent. She sweated bullets over — and eventually published — every piece she wrote for Mary Collins’ classes.

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