This column explores the myriad ways we can — and maybe should — engage with our creative process beyond actively writing.
It’s the only trivia in town where people arrive an hour early just to secure a seat. Marble tables are littered with artisan cocktails, popping with egg-white foam and dried fruit garnishes. Our game master is young and ginger and wears merch with his mustached face on it. For the first three weeks I attend, I’m immediately struck by his gentle demeanor, the ease in which hosting comes to him.
Every Wednesday, my oldest childhood friend, Morgan, and I (20 years and counting!) head over to our local whiskey bar to lose. Upstairs, the room is attic-like and exclusive. Victorian settees tattered and sunken, the coils pushing up through the fabric, line three of the four walls. Exposed beams support the ceiling where two skylights let in the night. Along the walls, in the corners, and hanging above looking down are old taxidermy creatures, selling the idea of this restaurant as an English country hunting lodge. We are cozy and tipsy and teeming with competition.
My frequency with the game is recent, a newborn compared to the regulars I have already begun to identify in my few visits. They’re boisterous and confident, already forming parasocial—or perhaps real—relationships with our host. They fight back against answers they disagree with, snake through other people to the front with a confidence I find almost overbearing and annoying. But I’m also a real judgemental bitch once you get to know me.
Morgan and I set clear expectations with our team name: “Coming Up Short.” And each week, we do. The first time we attended, we left scoring nine points out of at least 30 (there are bonus rounds between each category). Each week we’ve gotten incrementally better, climbing slowly up the leaderboard. Last night, we scored a rousing 17 while second place had 27.
But that’s not the point. We don’t go to win. We just go to have fun.
We go to enjoy each other’s company, to catch up on the week, to test our knowledge and laugh at all the gaps. We go to be stupified by the people who get certain questions correct, and then insist they must have been cheating to get there.
Most of the time, I want—and need—to be good at everything I do after my first try. My grandfather used to love how I’d jump into the deep end of any new interest, not letting myself wade in the shallow end of the pool. When I wanted to learn to knit, I didn’t start with a scarf. I went right in for a sweater. Perhaps most obvious, with writing I’ve been unable to start slow, give myself time, allow for the breaks and pauses. Every day I fight against the excruciating pressure within myself to do everything all at once and to be the best most accomplished most published writer in the contemporary world. A feat I know is impossible, but to accept it is so feels like losing.
In Brittany Ackerman’s most recent newsletter, “in the thick of it,” she explores life after birth and seeing a new therapist. She writes about the worry she had about losing her writer self. But not those beautiful, romantic parts of it—the coffee shop visits, the lattes and scones and pretending to work so you can actually overhear what the couple next to you is saying. By writer self, she means “the way I placed my validation and importance, all my self worth, on my ‘success.’ I was scared that I might not be able to let go of those feelings, or that they would transform to my new identity of being a mom. I didn’t want one obsession to become another. I wanted to be able to break this way of living, this all-or-nothing thinking.”
After reading this passage, I thought about sending it to my therapist. It’s this all-or-nothing thinking that I butt up against on the daily, if not hourly. The belief that if I’m not constantly writing, constantly pitching, constantly publishing and reading and networking and scheming that I will never be able to accomplish anything ever. That my one dream I’ve had since I was a child—to publish my own book—will never come to fruition.
Lately, a lot of people I’m close to are talking about working a job they hate but can leave at the door. Their mentality has switched from “this position and work will define me” to “I just want something that will pay me but not consume me.” I’ve been thinking about how this can translate to being a writer, if at all. Being a writer is sort of committing to being constantly consumed. Consumed by images, by people and what they say, by the blue-green shimmer on the tree outside your window and what role it might play in the next story you write. To do this, can you turn your mind off at five and walk away until next morning? Is there enough to mine from in an eight hour window?
I go to trivia knowing I will lose. I go to trivia to have fun, and I’ve decided that’s enough for me. Maybe it’s not about corporatizing (is that a word?) the “writing life,” but restructuring my relationship to it. Writing is a game I can lose sometimes, as long as I am always having fun with it. Oof. Didn’t think I’d make myself cry writing about trivia. But writing was my first love as a kid. It was my magic power. The dark closet I’d roll into where my imagination was boundless. Where creativity and curiosity were currency. It was a place to play and make mistakes and invent worlds. It was kept in a composition notebook, closed away in a drawer. It was for me. Only me. And that never, ever, felt like a loss.