Updated: Aug 26, 2021
I plowed through The Queen’s Gambit this week, the Netflix show that tells the fictional story of Beth Harmon, an orphan with a gift for the game of chess. The show was very well done—the acting superb, the costumes fun, and the cinematography excellent. But the thing I keep thinking about is the theme that underlies the entire show.
Early on, when nine-year-old Beth is secretly learning chess from the orphanage’s janitor, he places a coin in front of her and tells her, “People like you, you’re two sides of the same coin. You’ve got your gift. And you’ve got what it costs.”
We see this play out throughout the show—Beth oscillating between pills, booze, and her genius chess skills. Only one can win out. If she wants to be a Grandmaster, she has to quit drinking and self-medicating. If she chooses drinking, she can’t be the best at chess.
I think all artists struggle with this coin. Maybe even all people, of all dispositions. So much of success, it seems, is overcoming our demons.
This idea has certainly played out in my creative journey, and in some respects, it still is. I have gotten over some of my larger hurdles, like drinking, or choosing reckless and unhealthy relationships, but my demons still manifest in less loud, less insidious ways. It’s easy for me to get wrapped up in my own anxiety, for example, or in Twitter, or obsessive thinking.
In the The Great Work of Your Life, Stephen Cope, quotes from the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas: “If you bring forth what is within you, it will save you; if you do not bring forth what is within you, it will destroy you.”
It’s the same idea. For Beth, if she brings forth the chess genius inside her, it’s her lifeline. If she doesn’t, she will be eaten alive by it.
I think there is nuance in this idea too—subtler ways it shows up for us. And I think some people have multiple coins. For me, it’s not just drinking and drugs/vs. writing. It’s also sensitivity vs. anxiety. I feel everything. This is both a blessing and a curse.
My instinct most often is to try to fight anxiety, to make it go away (which only makes it worse), but if it were to leave, I would also lose the sensitivity, that part of myself that makes me empathetic, intuitive, creative. The part of myself that sometimes makes feel raw and afraid also helps me understand things other people sometimes don’t. Two sides. One coin. I have to find ways to live with both.
I’ll never forget the time a friend asked me about my writing and when I told her I was struggling, she said she always thought it was easy for me. “I thought that’s why you do it,” she said.
LOL. No. There’s nothing easy about, to paraphrase Hemingway, bleeding on the page. There’s nothing easy about mining your past, or paying very close attention to what is happening in the world. Or trying to find the words to say the exact thing you are trying to say, all the while knowing that you never will.
But beyond the physical act of putting words on a page, it’s also incredibly hard to get your butt in the chair every day—or sometimes, once a week. It’s hard to write into the void, not knowing if any of your hard work will matter. It’s hard to deal with the loneliness that so often accompanies the artist—hours, days, weekends spent alone in a room trying to make something. I don’t do this because it’s easy. I do it because I have to. Because if I don’t, the other side of my coin will win out.
The Queen’s Gambit reminded me that creativity requires a lot of us. That, as the janitor said, it costs something. In order to maintain the mental and emotional space necessary to create, I have to follow certain self-made rules to keep my demons at bay. No drinking. A good night’s sleep. Healthy diet. Exercise. I have to limit my Netflix watching, my Twitter scrolling, the amount of time and energy I give to the people in my life. I have to very carefully choose how I spend my time, which is why you will almost never find me at a party of any kind.
I am okay with these tradeoffs. But it took a lot of work and a couple of decades to get here—to learn what I need in order to show up for my gift. It’s something all artists, or at least artists who want to keep creating, eventually have to figure out for themselves.
Beth could have gone the way of Kurt Cobain, or Phillip Seymour Hoffman, or Whitney Houston. But she didn’t. She (*spoiler alert*) flushed the pills down the toilet. As Beth says in the show, she then went and asked the hotel front desk where she could get some more. But she didn’t get more. At least not that day. Slow and steady. We take it one day at a time.