by Suzannah Gilman
I’ve been playing around for so long. For years, really. I travel with my partner while he’s working, acting as his part-time assistant and full-time helpmate, but when he’s busy I still have time to play– reading on the beach or at the pool if the weather is good, playing my latest electronic game obsession if the weather is bad. Or, okay, I play games even if the weather is good. I hereby cop to my addiction.
First it was Angry Birds, which presented its own challenges, finding the best strategies for destruction of property and killing or maiming helpless little pigs who got in the way. In the end I stopped not because my fiancé had been nagging me to quit by saying, “You should be writing,” but because I couldn’t think of a way playing Angry Birds was benefitting me in the real world except by providing an occasional diversion when, say, we were buckled in on an airplane that was delayed on the tarmac.
Then, urged by my manicurist, I moved on to Candy Crush Saga. Damn him for that. He usually gave me advice on cars, electronics, movies, and golf, all beneficial information. I got hooked on Candy Crush thanks to him, my first crack dealer. He told me a trick about how to bypass the game’s option of either waiting 24 hours for more lives or paying for them. I think it was 24 hours; I can’t remember, but I’m not going to look it up. The guess has to be good enough for my purposes, because I’ve already wasted too much of my “one wild and precious life” on that game already. But he didn’t tell me about that trick until I’d racked up $90 in purchases of extra “lives,” which is an ironic name for something that depletes your real life. I played Candy Crush up and over Level 160 before deciding it was a waste of time and deleting the app from my phone. After a couple of weeks, I downloaded the app again. When I got to Level 160 again– a level, it’s worth mentioning, that many haven’t reached even once– I deleted the app again. And then I completed the cycle one more time, my last.
Next was Words With Friends, which was the first app I felt really did make me sharper mentally. I was already pretty good at Scrabble, but I got better and better with WWF. I soundly beat some of my Facebook friends, which embarrassed me, so I started playing strangers, some of whom accused me of cheating. I wasn’t cheating. I also played against a friend of my fiancé after we had lunch together when she was in our town. Like me, she was a lawyer with a sharp mind. From a thousand miles away (ah, the magic of the Internet), we played for months, match after match, and then more than one match at a time, a pattern she started. I beat her and beat her and beat her. Occasionally, she won. I thought that she’d eventually be tired of the whippings, but she kept coming back for more. Why?
One of the secrets of my success was that if I couldn’t immediately form a bingo (a word using all seven letters) or another high-scoring word, I’d put my tablet away and look at my letters fresh either hours later or even the next morning– as soon as I awoke, right there in the comfort of my warm and rumpled bed. She formed words quickly, and I think her score suffered because of it. For some reason, I, a person diagnosed with ADD, could wait. Perhaps that was due to my highly-competitive nature, which I suppose is another secret of my success.
She never accused me of cheating, but I’m certain she suspected that I did.
I know because when we were in the same town again, she wanted to play in real time. When we sat at the banquette in the inn where I was staying, she couldn’t load the WWF app, she said. I couldn’t imagine why. But she had another game she directed me to play, much the way a psychologist would direct a person she was screening for an IQ score. In this game, a player is given random letters with which to form a word– one of the core dynamics of Scrabble and WWF. Knowing what she was up to, I felt that if I said, “No way, Ms. Passive-Aggressive,” she would have taken my resistance as “proof” that I’d been cheating.
In playing her game, I formed several high-scoring words, but a few times I had the experience I’d had with playing WWF against her online; I couldn’t make a word that met my goal of 20-30 points or more, and I felt I’d do better if I could walk away and later look at the letters anew. But of course I couldn’t do that. I must have failed her test, because she then told me she hadn’t been able to load WWF for a few days due to a SNAFU, but she’d let me know when she got it working again. She never did and we haven’t played since. That was two years ago. Whatever. But you can see from how much time I am spending on this that I really like to win, which is one of the reasons I am hooked on games. Being accused of not really winning, even if it’s not an overt accusation, riles me.
My fiancé continued to harangue me about playing games. “You write one good sentence after another,” he’d say. “Sit down and write instead. Make your time count.” I finally quit playing WWF. I quit playing electronic games altogether for several months, maybe even a year– until my friend Julia introduced me to the New York Times Crossword app.
Oh, joy! At least from Monday through Wednesday it is. When I have filled in the last square it either congratulates me on solving the puzzle in X number of minutes and X number of seconds, or it says something like, Nice try, but you haven’t solved it yet, doofus. Being razzed by a computer program doesn’t bother me. I am completely taken by its special feature, a daily mini puzzle with eight or ten clues, a puzzle I almost always solve in under a minute and sometimes as quickly as thirty seconds. I’m only trying to beat time, but my competitive side gets a lot of pleasure. The “trouble” with the crossword, though, is that there is only one puzzle per day, leaving much of my day clear, time that I used to waste away on these games for a few minutes here and a few minutes there. But what to do with that time?
Maybe I should write.
But with my ADD-infected brain, I can’t even watch a TV show (not even Family Feud, another game I am taken with) without having a second screen to look at. I have my tablet or my cell phone in hand, checking email and Facebook, looking up the actors I’m watching. How old is she? How tall is he? What else have I seen her in? Where was this filmed? This ADD monkey-mind interferes with my self-discipline when I do sit down to write. In anticipation of the interference and frustration, I save myself the trouble by rarely putting my butt in the chair in front of my computer, a machine hungry to commit my words to memory. And when I do sit down to write? Sigh.
The other night at a writers conference I attended (my fiancé working, me playing– I read three novels and did the crossword every day), I was confronted with an essay by the late, brilliant David Rakoff. The actor Harris Yulin (Google him; you may not know his name, but you surely know his face) perfectly read the essay, which had been published in The Southampton Review. I don’t remember the title of the essay, but through Yulin’s entire performance I thought, That’s me. Rakoff riffed on the kinds of things he would do at the computer that kept him from writing day after day, though truly he got a lot of writing done in his life. As a humorist, it was his job to make fun of people like me. Well, maybe he did Google “How soap is made” instead of putting his own words down, as he wrote in his essay, but it is certainly something I would do also.
I open window after window on my computer, Googling how to install a new bathroom faucet, what kind of frog makes this particular sound, where to buy a 30x magnifying mirror so I can actually see when I’m plucking my eyebrows, and then I get the idea that I should next look up… well, you get the picture. Besides pointing out some of the online scavenger hunts one might indulge in to keep from writing, Rakoff detailed reasons why he would actually get up from the chair to keep from writing. So many things he wrote resonated. It was me, me, me, me, ME. I’d recognized this in myself a few years ago. I even made up a slogan, Procrastination: The Wave of the Future.
This moment, I’m sitting under a clear blue summer sky on a beach in Martha’s Vineyard. I don’t have my tablet with me; I wouldn’t be able to read the screen in this bright sun. I don’t have the newspaper– thus, the crossword– with me. I was lying on my stomach beginning to read another novel, and I was all the way up to page three when I looked up. (And this particular novel, Everything I Never Told You, is supposed to grab a reader from the beginning and not let go. I really do have ADD.)
When I looked up, I watched a swimmer a ways off. He was swimming a short lap parallel to shore and then he turned and went the opposite way, and then again, back and forth, back and forth. Watching him I wondered, Why am I not writing a little bit every day, copying his short laps? He could have swum the length of the beach, but he broke it up into manageable stretches, perhaps so he could feel that he was making progress. He could count his laps if he were hooked on the need to feel validated right away. Maybe that’s what I’m missing in my writing, the immediate feeling that I’ve accomplished something. I’m used to completing a game relatively quickly, getting that feeling of satisfaction and validation, then moving on in anticipation of my next conquest. I’m perpetually in search of this high.
With long fiction, which is what I’m trying to write, there is no such thing as instant gratification. When I have been able to write, I’ve done marathons, 10,000 words at a time. But having spent all that time and gotten nothing “finished,” I step away and don’t come back for an awfully long time. But maybe that’s the wrong tactic. Maybe I can structure my writing so that I do get that gratification by setting a daily goal and meeting it. One, two, three laps. One, two, three pages?
Surely I can do that.
I got up from my towel, thinking I had something worth writing, and then found that my tote bag did not hold a notebook as a writer’s tote bag should. I borrowed my fiancé’s notebook, sat down in my beach chair, and wrote this out. That’s a start.