This is an ideas piece about how writing and existential crises go together like Scrabble and Zen.
Six months ago I sat in the beer garden of a pub I’d never been to, nursing a drink, and questioning whether I’d ever had the ability to spell. The seven letters in front of me seemed tauntingly random, and I could feel my housemate’s mounting glee the more that time ticked on. I played “Gel”. He played “Panted”. I played “Dire”. He played “Pouting”. I played “Hule”. It wasn’t a word. This was the first time I’d played Scrabble since finishing high school—and it was just as dull and demoralising as I’d remembered.
But I’m competitive, and that night I lost by almost fifty points—my ego and professional pride were bruised. So I bought a board and tackled things in the most only-child way possible: by reading up on strategies, practicing anagrams with a timer, and, when I couldn’t recruit my long-suffering housemate, by playing full games against myself.
As a writer, your need to prove yourself as a good word-knowing person both on and off the page is pretty much constant. Typo on twitter? Shame. Grammatical error in a status? Hiding. Did you know that if you try to put your profession on Facebook, its formula means that you have no choice but to say “Works at Freelance writer”? Cruel.
Writers certainly aren’t the only people who feel like they need to keep justifying their place in the room, however for most other professions there is a piece of paper you can brandish in moments of need that says “Hey, I know (and was tested on) most of the things I need to in order to be good at this job”. Yes, there are a lot of relevant degrees and qualifications that can strengthen you as a writer, but there is no one certificate that will validate you. There are too many different pathways in, and “writing” is a very broad field.
As someone who switched from a science career to a creative one, the evaporation of rigid boundaries and checklists of qualifications has been difficult to accept. One year in to an editing job, I was sitting at my desk proofreading a short story when my friend from a neighbouring office walked up and asked “when did you finish your creative writing degree?”
“Oh I don’t have one” I said after a slight pause.
“Oh sorry, when did you finish your arts degree?” she countered.
Really she was only asking because she was trying to figure out when exams would be, but in that moment I was sure that alarms were going to go off and I was going to be dragged into a fluorescently lit room and interrogated on the Harvard referencing system while simultaneously being forced to participate in a spelling bee.
There is no degree that says that you’ve read all the books, know all the Latin, can handwriting like a calligrapher and have internalised the dictionary, thus rendering you a loquacious wordsmithish god. So, instead, you find validation where you can—and, in its equal and opposite effect, are knocked down by slip ups and knowledge gaps. Play a seven letter word in Scrabble? That’s ten minutes of We Are The Champions playing on loop in your head. Accidentally say “Miyazaki” when you meant “Murakami”? It feels like tripping over in public while wearing your clothes inside out. Kierkegaard is basically kryponite.
It’s normal to expect to do things related to your job to a higher standard. Unfortunately with writing, words are everywhere all the time forever and so the opportunities to get really Poirot—a detective created by Agatha Christie who is always either pompously telling people how exceptionally brainy he is or else berating himself for not solving crimes fast enough—about things are plentiful.
Sure, one moment you are just talking novel recommendations, but it’s a slippery slope. It only takes one person to casually drop in a writer they are on last name basis with because they are so very familiar with their work to make the whole thing quietly descend into the business card scene from American Psycho (of which I’ve personally read both the book AND seen the film, because good ‘ol Easton Ellis am I right?)
With this in mind, it seems then that my decision to repeatedly play Scrabble against my cryptocruciverbalist (fancy word for cryptic crossword writer) housemate is basically an exercise in self flagellation, and one that echoes the Sisyphean task (classical reference to show I’ve read a thing) that writers set themselves to keep on top of word victories as a way of showing they properly belong. However, if there is one thing I’ve learned from Scrabble (other than a bunch of two letter words that have no definitions) it’s the importance of staying Zen about things.
Of course, ‘Zen’ is one of the most controversial words in the Scrabbleverse due to being a proper noun, and thus not a legal play—so in this context staying Zen would most likely mean having a quiet frustrated meltdown.
So it goes.
Elizabeth Flux is a freelance writer and the editor in chief of Writers Bloc. Her nonfiction work has been widely published and includes essays on film, pop culture, feminism and identity as well as interviews and feature articles. Her most recent fiction publication is a short story in The Legend of Monga Khan. She previously edited Voiceworks and On Dit, and in 2016 she attended the Hong Kong International Festival funded by the UNESCO City of Literature Travel Fund. Twitter @ElizabethFlux