What The Queen's Gambit Taught Me About Writing
Updated: Dec 28, 2020
I was the youngest person in the room. It was my first grad workshop and I was starting my MFA program straight out of college. I was surrounded by seasoned writers, with additional degrees, lists of publication credits, and years of life experience beyond my twenty-two years.
I sat in our beige-walled classroom, fiddling nervously with my class ring under the table. This was going to be harder than I thought. In many of their eyes, I lacked credibility. Once, I overheard a classmate tell someone that I was “basically an undergrad.” The critiques were often merciless. One person once told me that they “didn’t believe me,” while another said that my writing reminded them of Snow White singing to the forest creatures (I still don’t know what that means). More than once, I went back to my little efficiency apartment, where I lived alone, and cried. But I kept going back. I knew I belonged, even if they didn’t. And by the time we graduated, I’d proven that I did.
Years later, I still talk to a few of them—even my harshest critics. We respect each other; after all, we’re all trying to do this thing called writing, and it’s a savage world out there for creative people, even the best of us. It also made me wonder…what if they were hard on me because they did see my potential? What if the best people we work with as artists are the ones that hold nothing back, who do so because they see what we can become? What if they are the people we most need on our creative teams? And that brings me to The Queen’s Gambit.
The Netflix limited series is difficult to classify. The story of Beth Harmon, a teenage chess prodigy who dominates the game’s landscape in the 1960s, has the slow-burn period drama of Mad Men, the underdog storyline of Million Dollar Baby, the intrigue and suspense of the Jason Bourne films. There’s obviously a lot that can be learned from it about the craft of writing and telling an compelling story. But writers have even more to learn from the story itself and Beth’s journey toward truly mastering her gifts.
We first meet Beth at age nine when she arrives at an orphanage after the death of mother in a car crash. She is shell shocked and shrouded in darkness, paralyzed by uncertainty. She becomes dependent on the tranquilizers the staff gives the children and goes through the motions of adjusting to her new life.
It isn’t until an unlikely friendship with the janitor, Mr. Shaibel, introduces her to a lifelong love of chess, that the darkness begins to lift. It isn’t just about the game, though. Beth’s passion for chess isn’t rooted so much in playing as it is winning, maintaining control of the action on the board as she struggles to maintain control of her own life. “It was the board I noticed first,” Beth tells a reporter from Life Magazine. “It's an entire world of just 64 squares. I feel safe in it. I can control it; I can dominate it. And it’s predictable, so if I get hurt, I only have myself to blame.”
Like Beth, many writers find themselves drawn to storytelling as a means of survival. We tell stories to create meaning in our lives, to establish microworlds we can lord over, even, as she does, to fight against the scars of trauma. In many cases, writing quite literally saves our lives, bringing us to a place where we confront those scars and transform them into words that, in turn, save others.
But success has a price. Throughout The Queen’s Gambit, Beth proves herself to be an extraordinary, albeit unlikely, talent, slaying competitors left and right, including seasoned players, title holders, and champions. Winning is how she maintains control not just of the board, but the uncertainty looming around her. It drives her forward, a bandage she puts over the gaping wound of childhood abandonment and loss.
At least until she stops winning.
With that bandage removed, she resorts to alcohol abuse as a way to medicate the wounds of trauma she’s never really faced. When she does attempt to play the game, she crashes and burns. Eventually, she reaches a point where everything seems hopeless, including her mastery of the game she’s built her life around.
If you’ve seen the show, you know that thankfully, this isn’t the end of Beth’s story, and she not only bounces back, but achieves the greatest victory of her career. But the show is also a challenge to artists to consider how they approach their craft and their motives for creating.
What’s your motive? Do you want to be published? Do you want accolades and praise and bragging rights?
Because if the attention is all you want—if winning is all you want—Beth’s story begs us to question what we’d have left if the attention was gone, or if our dreams of that recognition were never realized.
I’m not saying it’s wrong to want people to give attention to your writing. After all, what we create isn’t truly complete until someone else experiences it. But when success becomes your sole reason for creating, it not only becomes harder for you to truly love it, but it gives you paralysis by analysis, backfiring on your ability to write well to begin with. It drives you to forget your reader and selfishly chase after your own desires instead of telling a story that could deeply impact them.
Which brings us to another question the series raises…what is your creative community like? For most of the story, Beth views her male competitors as a threat that must be conquered, taking great pride and pleasure in crushing and even humiliating them. However, it is only when she stops viewing them as rivals and begins seeing them as colleagues that she reaches the height of her achievements.
This is no small feat on Beth’s part, as it means rejecting some toxic advice given to her by her mother: “The strongest person is the person who isn’t afraid to be alone.”
However, it’s being alone that drives Beth down a path of self-destruction. Memories of her past push her toward escaping through drugs and alcohol, but the present-day support of her would-be rivals—her community—is not only what brings her back from the edge, but makes her even more powerful in the process.
To be fair, the same goes for her competitors, who gradually stop seeing her as the awkward thirteen-year-old she was when they first played against her. This realization teaches them that Beth’s wins are their wins, and that they are better when they are for her than when they are against her.
As I’ve written many times, writing is not meant to happen in a vacuum. Being a starving artist who writes alone in an attic may seem romantic, but in an age where aloneness has been forced on us by a pandemic and connections with others have grown more vital, this archetype points to failure more than it does victory.
This is why community is one of our biggest values at Inkling Creative Strategies: because no matter how gifted we may be, we were never meant to do this alone. In a time when we need community more than ever, we must work together if we are going to truly reach our potential as writers.
The Queen’s Gambit is more than just a series about chess geniuses. For me, it was a call to examine my motives for creating, the communities I’m a part of, and the complex origins of my passion to create. Writing is an internal creative act that requires external connections, a sharing of ideas rather than a battle over them. It’s an act of love, not war.
As one of Beth’s chess rivals tells her, “It’s your game. Take it.”
Better yet, it’s our game.
Writing Prompt: Write about a time when a support network impacted your creative life.