Writing Like a Chess Player

A few years ago, I was with Nora in New York, and as she was shopping at the vendors in the Union Square Park craft fair, I was watching a game of blitz chess out on the sidewalk, a full game with five minutes per player and twenty bucks on the line. A young man was in a seemingly weak position, and his older opponent charged in. The young man, having set the trap, then made a quick, unseen move, reversing the game to his own victory within the next two moves. He began to set the board for his next game, and said, “wouldn’t it be nice if it were so simple…”

I was an awful chess player in junior high and high school, but I played a lot, and still retain some affection for it even though I haven’t touched a board in thirty years. It’s like math in that way. It’s just intellectually elegant in a way that few other endeavors can touch, and you occasionally remember that you used to be able to do it, now that life has become less clear.

I just read a book about chess that actually felt like that game in Union Square: Sasha Chapin’s All The Wrong Moves: A Memoir About Chess, Love, and Ruining Everything. He lulls you in, then snaps you to attention with something you hadn’t expected.

On its surface, Chapin’s story is one of obsession, the ways in which chess becomes so compelling to him that he often loses track of the rest of his life. Work, girlfriends, food, sleep, all secondary to staying up for yet another game of online chess. In fact, he describes those other things with such a light touch that they become unimportant to us as well. Now he’s in Kathmandu, now in Bangkok, now in New York, now in Toronto, now in St. Louis. Now he’s with Courtney, now with Elena, now with Sundae, now with Katherine. None of those are shown to us in enough detail that they matter at all, and we start to zone out, wallowing in his languid inner life. Then, without warning, the easy monologue reveals the blade:

Lacking any responsibility, I went to bed at 6 am every night, watching the gelid early morning crawl across my filthy feet. Seventy percent of my diet was salty snacks in shiny bags. It got to a point where I realized that I was walking quickly around my apartment because I was fleeing my own smell. (43)

That’s the sharpest description of lonely despair I’ve ever read, its suddenness like a bishop rushed forward from the back rank to change the tone of the game.

Chapin does that quite a lot in this book, letting us imagine that we understand something—his inner life, a relationship with a coach, what chess means—and then in a bold stroke, showing us that we don’t. He plays that way, too, with a desire for the impulsive reversal, the incontrovertibly brilliant strategy. As with his writing, it means that he isn’t paying all that much attention most of the time, but once in a while, comes to life.

Badly played chess is kind of like badly played life. Real problems are dealt with poorly or not at all, while much effort is expended on avoiding imaginary danger. (34)

Being the kind of writer I am—a memoirist, I guess— has always struck me as a little sad, because it means that I’m constantly wondering whether any definable portion of my experience is marketable. I’m forever observing myself from a mercantile perspective, noting whether any of my minor melancholies or brief decomposures might be salable. Essentially, I’m a parasite on my own life. (67)

…if there’s one thing that particularly distinguishes us [as humans], it has to be abstraction. The way we take our fleshy, silt-covered world and cover it with metaphors, maps, formulas, and poems—how we incessantly make wickedly complicated models of everything we live in. According to us, the sea is wine-dark, the earth is composed of metropolitan areas, and some numbers are irrational. (89)

Los Angeles is where dreams die. All day, the waiters realize that they’ll never be actors, and the actors realize that they’ll never be famous, and the famous slowly dry out under the nearly narcotic sun that falls on all the facades of the hot, sprawling city, clustered together in bright clumps like dirty candy. (172)

Like chess and baseball and soccer and bass fishing, Chapin’s book cries out for this kind of highlight-reel coverage, a few transformative moments lifted from what might otherwise seem like drudgery. A different kind of writer would help us see the steady beauty within the quiet. A different kind of writer would play a different kind of chess.

Unnecessary Details

Some days, weird things occur to me. (“Some days” may be an understatement there.)

I subscribe to a few websites, and occasionally participate in the comment community until some moment or another of hostility makes it less appealing to be there. One of those sites has been dark through most of the summer, its author dealing with family and professional crises, but now she’s back, and the feed has reappeared.

I left that comment community a little more than two years ago, when the playground violence took most of the fun out of it. But seeing it come up again today led me to go back through those six months or so when I was a near-daily participant, re-reading my old posts. It’s really fascinating to look at something you’ve written two years ago, now that it’s nearly forgotten and you can see it from the outside.

They’re really good.

Not like Eudora Welty, let’s publish it immediately good, but they’re thoughtful, careful, tightly composed. Each of those two- or three-paragraph commentaries took about an hour, as I edited on the fly, pruned unruly ideas, thought carefully about how to shape an emotional as well as a logical path.

That’s one of the things about being a writer: you’re never not a writer. When you write the minutes to a meeting, when you respond to an e-mail, when you write a message on your local community bulletin board… every time you use words, you’re thinking with care and precision about their sequence, their sound, their second meanings that might be misread.

Gmail now has an automated feature that recommends three alternative quick responses to the messages in the inbox. For one message this morning, Gmail offered “OK, thanks.” “Thanks.” and “Will do!” I know that those kinds of clipped responses are economical, and I have a lot of friends in administrative positions who reply like that, giving quick acknowledgement that a message has been received and moved forward. I admire the economy, even as I recoil from the practice.

I value the inefficiency of good writing. It’s a truism that we write in order to find out what we think. That’s kind of right, of course, but there’s also craft involved: we write in order to find out how a sentence sounds, how it feels, how it might be rebuilt in order to sound and feel different. We write ideas to find out what sequence makes them most appealing, most engaging. We surprise ourselves. We go past the content to the meaning.

When Tom Wolfe passed away a little over a year ago, the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik wrote “as with any good writer, the mannerisms were the bearers of the morality.” That’s the best description I’ve ever read of the ineffable concept of the writer’s “voice:” that the simple organization of letters and sounds adds up to a personality, and that the personality is clearly the kind of thinker who’d be interested in that particular material. There’s a sense of inevitability to good writing when it’s read, hours or months or decades after its creation, but it’s absolutely not inevitable when it’s being made.

—*—

Nora has spent six years studying the spinning wheels of Samuel Morison (1775-1862), and she’s identified innumerable tools that he must have employed in his woodworking practice to make those wheels and their elaborate, precise components. She’s been struck by the clear joy he took in aesthetic decisions, even as he attempted to hold true to his Quaker principles of modesty and plainness.

Writers have an elaborate toolbox as well, drawers and drawers of tools ready for specific use. A punctuation drawer. A syntax drawer. An auditory drawer. A rack of scales against which we measure paragraphs. The stylesheets of headers and block quotes and section division devices. We collect tools, and admire the tools of others, even those we’d never use ourselves.

So when we compose even something as simple as a workplace email, that toolbox is right there at hand, suggesting possibilities to tune up an edge or turn a corner more gracefully. It takes a little longer, but I think it’s a gift well received, and it’s a practice that makes us more attentive to the world. It’s a gift we give ourselves, too.

Sometimes You Just Gotta Mess With It

Stout StickerAs part of my current project to build some of my work in audio format, I’ve been on a fast-paced, self-guided tutorial through the world of GarageBand, the sound mixing software that’s integrated with the Mac operating system. This would have cost thousands of dollars ten years ago, and now they just bundle it in with the calculator and the chess engine.

In the spirit of exploration, here’s an audio version of one of my stories, “Loyalty.” I’d love to hear what you think.

How Big Is an Idea?

I have Paul Groth to thank for an awful lot of things. For not throwing me out of his office when I showed up (by mistake, having gotten a note from someone else named “Paul”) to talk about Viking military camps in Jutland. For taking me seriously as an undergraduate, for letting me act as a reader for term papers in one of his courses, for showing me what a somewhat monastic intellectual life could look like. For having a church lectern in his apartment, with a gigantic unabridged dictionary open on it, and regularly used. For introducing me to the cultural landscape scholarship of Joan Didion—to this day, no one writes more compellingly about what places mean and why they matter.

But perhaps more important than any other act was that he took me seriously as a writer. I’d always been a pretty good writer, and I knew it, so by the time I was a senior at Berkeley, I knew that I was better than the other writers in the college, and I was a little (??) smug about it, and sometimes lazy. But when I arrived in Paul’s American Vernacular Landscapes courses (ARCH 169 A and B, and if Paul weren’t now retired, I’d tell you to apply to be admitted to Berkeley just so you could take those two courses), he was just ruthless about marking up papers, and I wasn’t spared. The son of a North Dakota English teacher, Paul combined the Scandinavian traits of precision and truthtelling with a love of language and a great physical pain at its abuse.

One of Paul’s aphorisms that’s stuck with me was a markup in the middle of a paper, in which he’d bracketed four or five consecutive paragraphs and written in the margin, “Ideas aren’t like piano keys. They aren’t all the same size.” I’ve carried that with me for thirty years.

Paul was talking about ideas at the scale of the paragraph, but I’ve often had to consider the size of ideas that could tilt toward article or tilt toward book. In fiction, characters who could tilt toward story or tilt toward novel. Or more than one novel. I have one character who held me for one really compelling episode, two days long. 4,800 words was sufficient to tell it. I had three other characters who held me for a year of writing that covered three years of their lives, 277,000 words and three thematically different books.

When I wrote The Adjunct Underclass, my editor was hoping that I could keep it to 75,000 words. I wasn’t sure when I signed the contract that I could be that concise about a gigantic topic. But in the end, I brought it in at 60,000, and it was plenty.

How big is an idea? How big is a farm? How big is a college? How big is a city? These are nonsense questions. They’re as big as they are, and none of us know until we’re done. (And what does it mean to be “done?” Child, cease your pestering!)

Lucy Ellmann has just released a novel called Ducks, Newburyport that’s a single, thousand-page sentence. That might be the right size for a sentence, or at least for that sentence. (I’ll never know, because I don’t care enough to read it. Bad me.) The Nero Wolfe mystery novels that I so love run about 50,000 words, as do most Harlequin romances. Karl Ove Knausgaard’s life story took him over a million words and six books, and he’s ten years younger than I am! I should get seven or eight books out of my fictionalized autobiography. On the other end of the spectrum, there are no end of “flash fiction” contests, short stories defined specifically by their word count, ranging from a maximum of 1,500 to a minimum of six.

Good writing makes us less willful, more willing. It seems to me that “how long does it have to be?” is just as bad a motivating question for grown-up ideas as it was in tenth grade English, when we were just trying to cut our workload. It’s the wrong variable to start from. If you do the work and pay attention to it, it’ll tell you what size it should be. It might surprise you. One story becomes a bonsai cypress, another an entire redwood grove. You don’t get to decide.

Rewriting for Audio

I’ve been working on the early stages of converting some of my writing to audio, which also means learning a whole new body of skills: microphone control, GarageBand multi-tracking, splicing and removing, fading background music up and down. It doesn’t help that my computer is eight years old, and I’m running GarageBand 2011. It’s easier these days, and I’ll have new software pretty soon.

But one of the things that we don’t often think of when we write to speak is that text gives us a ton of visual cues about who’s saying what. Paragraph breaks, quotation marks, block quotes in italics… it’s easy when you read text to know who’s speaking. When you write for audio, you have to do a thousand little changes to allow a listener to easily track what’s happening.

Here’s a simple example, a sequence of dialogue on a page.

He washed his knives and cutting board, put them into the drainer, and went to set the table. As he was folding napkins, Thanh walked into the apartment. “Feed me!” she said. “Feed me now!”

“Nice to see you too, honey,” Clay laughed. “You want a bowl of Cheerios, or what?”

“A bag of Doritos and three beers would work.” She sat her briefcase down. “I was on the phone for five hours today, in English and Vietnamese. My ear hurts.”

Clay took her under one wing and used his free hand to stroke her ear. “Poor little executive… I’m so sorry about your sore ear. Make us a million dollars today?”

“I either made or lost a fortune, and I don’t have any idea which.” She rubbed his chest. “I like my head on your shoulder when you talk,” she said quietly. “It’s a lot better than hearing Jon and Trung threatening each other all day. I think they’re gay, they keep saying they’re going to cut each other’s balls off.”

“They’ve probably got a collection of them hanging from the visors on their Beemers. Go change and I’ll feed you in twenty minutes.” She walked off, he rolled his shirt sleeves and started cooking.

Not one of those lines of dialogue starts with a dialogue tag, with “He said…” or “Thanh said…” In text, it’s completely obvious who says what, but read it out loud, and you’ll see how confusing it is to someone without a script. So if you were re-writing for an audiobook, you’d make a bunch of little modifications so that the listener was never stranded.

I say this because The Adjunct Underclass has a lot of interviews excerpted within it. They’re set aside in italicized block quotes, so a reader knows exactly what’s happening. But now that the audiobook is available, I can hear that there’s no lead-in to the quotes. So when I was listening to the sample, I came to a section that said “I taught as an adjunct from 2009 to 2013,” and I thought to myself, Gosh, I hope I didn’t say that, that’s not true. But of course, it wasn’t me at all, it was my interviewee “Helen,” whose interview started right after a section break. I’m glad that I didn’t mis-represent myself, but geez, what an easy fix that would have been…

I respect that the narrator and audio production company didn’t take liberties with the text, didn’t modify a bit of it. That’s really kind. But they should know that it’s going to present mighty problems for their listeners, and I’d have been happy to do an audio rewrite for free in order to get it right.

Always a million things to learn, too often after the fact.

To Only Know, and Not Imagine

Here’s today’s most awful story:

…out of 1,000 nursery workers surveyed, 72 percent percent said that fewer children have invisible friends than they did five years ago, the potential cause of which likely won’t come as a shock. Two-thirds of those surveyed placed the blame on the growing prevalence of screens like iPads and cell phones, which kids can now turn to whenever they don’t know what to do with themselves.

“I think that children are not allowed to be ‘bored’ any more,” David Wright, the owner of Paint Pots Nursery in England, told the Daily Mail.“When children have free time to themselves, they find something creative to do with their mind, such as forming an imaginary friend.”

Children are never allowed to have free time to themselves. They can’t be allowed to roam, lest they be abducted within seconds. They can’t come home to an empty house after school for a couple of hours, lest they be bored or in danger of falling or tripping or choking or home invasions or a non-optimized snack.

And by the time they get to college, they had damned well better know exactly what they’re going to study, and exactly what kind of a career they’re aimed at. Anything else would be irresponsible, would have no way to calculate ROI or opportunity cost or any of the other ways to pretend that a human life is nothing more than an arbitrage investment.

I was never, ever bored as a child. I was sad and lonely once in a while, but I used those moments to open up new opportunities, through reading or playing board games or inventing chemical formulae out of crushed dogberries and urine and an old tarnished penny. (I wanted to kill a tree. Don’t ask. Like all childhood fantasies, it both makes no sense and has acres and acres of socio-scientific backstory.)

Every episode of Gilligan’s Island and The Beverly Hillbillies fifty years ago made me a better writer today.

Every hour I spent alone in our basement rec room made me more capable of focusing my attention for long periods of time.

Every afternoon I spent alone wandering the aisles of the big discount store across the freeway made me more able to understand the temperature and fluctuations of popular culture.

Listen. I know I’m old. I know I’m at dire risk of crabby grandpa, even though I never had children. But this strikes me as the contemporary analogue to The Fall. Before, Adam and Eve were new to one another, and the world was new to them. They had to give names to every damn animal they encountered. But once they succumbed to the Tree of Knowledge, they lost their ability to imagine. Were left to lives of repeated pain and degradation, through their endless layers of begats.

The Land of Make Believe, by Jaro Hess, 1930

I grew up with this poster on my bedroom wall: The Land of Make Believe, by the Czech-Michigander Jaroslav Hes (later Jaro Hess), published in 1930 by J&R Enterprises of Grand Rapids, MI. I spent hours and hours inside this map, studying the terrain and the characters (and being both scandalized and thrilled that the mermaids had nipples!!!). The map taught me nothing factually true. It taught me instead that other worlds were possible.

Will we teach our kids that other worlds are possible? Will we teach our college students that they can be people they’d never imagined? Or will we make them all into technicians, to serve us and never become themselves?