Thursday, September 17, 2015


How grand and freeing it is to have at your fingertips a preoccupation so inviting and comforting that you can live for it, whether or not you are anything more than moderate in your success at doing it.  You can--and do--become lost in it.  You can--and do--attempt to teach others how to succeed in it, warning them as you do teach them, that they must learn to become lost in it, themselves, if they are to have any lasting satisfaction from it.

You have spent some time today thinking and writing about one of the novels that gave you unexpected courage and awareness, a novel that focuses on something you have only mild interest and almost no ability in.

There is no stretch in your assessment that you have probably played a hundred or so games of chess in your life and cannot recall ever having won one.  You do recall a few times of being close, a few other times where you managed to secure a draw.

Nevertheless, there you were, with Walter Tevis's The Queen's Gambit, caught from the get go by the way his lead character, Beth Harmon, eight years old, is told her parents have been killed in an automobile accident, is given to a child care agency, and rushed along her way to being an orphan who is, with the best of intentions, given tranquilizers to ease her sudden change of status.  

The tranquilizers become a lifelong  problem; so does her relationships with others, her coming-of-age sexuality, and her ability to make a life for herself where she can achieve some degree of comfort and ease.

In a major sense, the character that is Beth is emblematic of a lead character.  She is reserved, not readily trustful, all too aware of her dependence on pills, a dependence that will early on develop into a reliance of alcohol.  Give the lead character a flaw.  Or two.. Or three.  

Walter Tevis does this well enough.  He also allows us to see the gradual evolution of Beth's near genius at the game of chess, taking her from her youthful spying on a scruffy janitor at the orphanage where she now lives, watching him as he performs perhaps the one pleasurable thing in his own life.  He plays chess with himself, rotating the board with each move.

Your take away from this dramatic set-up, and Beth's thrilling awareness of the intricacies of the game of chess is a series of parallel lines, seemingly unrelated at first when you connect the focus of Beth and the janitor on chess with your own interests in writing and the related craft of acting.

You recall an event at least twenty-five years back when you interviewed the mystery writer, William Campbell Gault, so prolific that he needed at least two pseudonyms of which you are aware.  The quote Gault gave you has stayed with you.  "I'd rather," he said, "be the world's worst writer than a good anything else."

Gault was far from the world's worst writer.  He excelled at knowing what he cared about and finding ways to do it.  He was, you believe, able to say such a thing because he was so comfortable in doing what he cared about.  He later gave you another quote having to do with the fact that he made enough money from writing to allow him to do something else he cared about, which was playing golf.  Once again, he had no illusions about his ability, confessing that he likely was the world's worst golfer.

What you're putting together from your free independent associations has to do with having a thing you care about and which, however good or awful you are at that thing, you are able to become one with it.  You are able to focus on it for significant periods of time to the point where you no longer consider how good or awful you are at it.  

Much of the time, when you are involved with that thing, you are aware on some unspoken level of being the person you'd thought about, the sort of person you were in fact growing toward, the person you have in some measure become.

Beth Harmon has that with chess.  When you read about her and her growth as a result of chess, you are scarcely able to understand the practical elements of the game of chess, but you are able to see how much it means to her because you have the standard of your interest in writing to draw upon as a comparison.

You are also aware, because of your interest in writing fiction, how you've come to watch the men and women who portray characters, discerning how important to each of these actors the ability to concentrate is.  Simplistic as your vision here may sound, acting requires enough focus and concentration to allow the actor to become lost in the character she or he wishes to portray.

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