Episode II: Playing Chess
By Old One Eye on flickr
I've found recently that novel writing is like playing a continuous, unhurried game of chess with oneself. When it comes to anxiety, this has been good - not as a mere distraction - but a problem-solving exercise.
I have to admit, I'm not very good at the actual game, but my own sort of chess tends to challenge me in similar feats of strategy. Instead of trying to defeat an opponent and losing pieces, I try to execute a scene with the best combination of plot, character nuance, and word choice, as possible. Particularly in the early drafts of a novel, when the story is just beginning to emerge and could become anything under the sun (or beyond the sun), what grabs my attention is the great puzzle of Making It Work.
Each draft is a testing ground, with the squares clearly marked and the pieces in place - each character, each event that I have mapped out (more or less solidly), every possible "move" visible. I learn by testing the waters. If I put my main character in situation A, I can see how a secondary character might react or retaliate, resulting in situation B. Instead of checks, I can move backwards, retracing my steps and write them again, taking a different path to achieve my goal and seize a particular square on the board. Writing and rewriting (and re-rewriting) teach me particular patience, especially with myself: "Okay, that doesn't work. What can I move around to make it work? Ah, have A come into the room instead of C, and have B listen in from the other room..."
This is a kinder game than chess actually is, but it is no less strenuous. In chess, the queen, knights, bishops, rooks and pawns move to protect the king. If the king is check mated, the game is over. In writing, each piece is an element (characters and events), maintaining the forward momentum and central focus of a story. If the king falls, I know what can be fixed, and made better. I have an arsenal of queens at my disposal.
When it comes to my chronic anxiety, this game of chess is not an escape but a calming technique. Everyday life is invariably out of our immediate control, and anxiety sufferers feel this deeply. While there is no way to remedy that, the plot tangles and twists I create provide a puzzle that can almost always be solved. Most of the time this has a particular organizing and calming affect. Other wise, being in the midst of the story is an excellent gauge of my anxiety: if I am suddenly worried about a plot line or not being able to make something work, I know it is probably time for a rest... to put the pieces away for a day or two and come back to the scenario when the brain has cooled down. The best way to cool down? Using a different part of my brain. I often resort to Latin exercises when I'm stressed, which requires more logic.
I will always be prone to seasons of self-doubt. That is unavoidable for us all. The bottom line is that the challenge of writing, my most natural way of interacting with the world, has not only shown me where my limits are, but where my strengths lie. And the wonderful thing is that having the courage to complete the game will make me stronger and more patient with myself.
How has writing helped you through your challenges?