I learned how to play chess when I was 10 years old from a migrant farmer. I had a bit of an attention span problem so I didn’t gain much from our lessons, other than the names of the pieces and how to move them. I was terrible at chess back then, and to tell the truth, I remain so, but despite my brutal competitiveness that rears its ugly head whenever I’m doing something that even remotely involves winning, I don’t seem to mind that this is a game I almost always lose. For whatever reason, I really like to play chess.
Earlier this week I was writing to a friend about a story I was working on and I said “My problem is actually having something happen in the story. I thought I had all my pieces lined up, but it turns out that I have no plan of attack. Perhaps this goes back to me being a horrible chess player, I don’t know.” (It all ends happily; I figured out what was supposed to happen and finished writing. I don’t like the story much, but then, I can’t have everything, I suppose.)
Anyway, I kept thinking about my lack of chess skills and the way I write. The reason I’m not so good at chess is that I don’t think ahead. When I start, I have some vague idea of how I’m going to do things, but I tend to forget these things when I’m caught up in the game, until suddenly I’m looking at the board thinking “Oh, bloody hell. Checkmate.” With writing, my method seems to be rather similar: I get an idea, I have a general idea of how things should go, I get too interested in the periphery (like whether something should be two sentences or if I should just go for the semicolon), and then suddenly I’m stuck with an irrevocable mess. The difference between writing and chess is, of course, that with writing I can always go back and fix things until they work, yet I think it’s a fair parallel.
It could be dangerous to say so, considering how bad I am at it, but I think chess is a writer’s game. (Along with poker, of course.) Strategic, deliberate, and novelistic in scope (each game is its own story), there’s something inherently writer-like about it. Many writers have used chess in their work, from T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” (there’s a whole section of the poem called “A Game of Chess”) to Samuel Beckett, who was a fan of the game (makes sense then that one of his plays is named Endgame). Though all writers go about their craft differently (which we covered last week), I think there’s something to be said for knowing where you want things to go and winding up in that exact spot. In the end, I guess writing is a lot like a game of chess, moving the words and ideas (and perhaps semicolons) around until you reach the end and there’s nowhere else to go.
When you write, do you control the direction of things? Or do you follow the path that seems to be laid out for you by your writing? Do you lead it or does it lead you? And, of course, do you play chess?