Letter 22: AOCYEUBY – The Chess Game


Dear Mr. Wallace,

Before your writing class, you and David Lipsky play a game of chess as you get acquainted.  Then after class, while having dinner at Monica’s Pizza, the conversation seems – at least according to Lipsky’s commentary – to turn into a bit of a chess game.  He asks somewhat probing questions, you give somewhat evasive answers.  Then in talking about the shyness of writers, you make reference to the mental chess game that a writer plays with his/her reader.  You say:

“But there’s also, the shyness feeds into some of the stuff that you need as a fiction writer.  Like: Part of the shyness for me is, it’s very easy for me to play this game of, What do you want? What will the effect of this be on you?  You know?  It’s this kind of mental chess.  Which in personal intercourse?  Makes things very difficult.  But in writing, when I think a lot of what you’re doing – there are very few innocent sentences in writing.  You’ve gotta know not just how it looks and sounds to you.  But you’ve gotta be able plausibly to project what an alien consciousness will make of it.  So that there’s a kind of split consciousness that I think makes it difficult to deal with people in the real world.  For a writer.  But that actually comes in handy” (17).

This mental chess game you describe reminds me of a class discussion we had in my English in the Secondary Classroom class my senior year of college.  The professor was describing to us his theory of the “Discourse Model.”[1]  At the center of this model is the written text.  That text comes from the thoughts of the writer, which come from the worldview of the writer.  The aim of the writer is to use the text to influence the thoughts of the reader in order to challenge / question / influence the worldview of the reader.  In other words, effective writing is that which elicits a response – hopefully the writer’s desired response – from the reader.

It would seem, then, that there is very little room for truly personal writing – writing done only for oneself.  Perhaps a diary or personal journal is the only exception.  But I think even in that case, there is an audience in mind.  There are those who write these personal accounts as prayers or as letters to some imaginary friend.  But it could be argued that even the reading self is someone different from the writing self.[2]

I suppose that this is where one’s choice of words becomes vitally important.  If you are engaged in that game of mental chess with your reader, trying to anticipate and affect his/her response to what you write, then it is absolutely crucial to use exactly the right words to say exactly what you are trying to say.[3]  In order to elicit the desired responses from the reader, the right moves have to be played.[4]


[1] This class has been the only place I have heard of the Discourse Model.  I haven’t researched it to see if what the professor described is a legitimate linguistic theory, or merely his own ideas given a fancy name.  I tried to impress the principal of the first school to interview me for a teaching job by describing it to him.  He had never heard of it.  I didn’t get the job.

[2] I have heard a number of writing teachers speak of how the reading self is often the toughest critic the writing self has to face.  So not only are these diaries and journals written for an audience, but for a very judgmental one at that.

[3] And the truly good writer will coin the right word if Merriam-Webster* cannot provide one.

*Or OED or American Heritage or…

[4] Which, I guess, would make you sort of the Bobby Fisher of writing.

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