When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child. But, when I became a man, I put away childish things. [First Epistle to the Corinthians 13:11]
A fiction writer must know what matters to the reader. But this is far easier if he already knows what matters to him personally.
Pour yourself another cup of coffee. This is likely to be a ramble.
He who is knowledge-oriented is likely to take his greatest pleasure from extending, exercising, and exhibiting his knowledge. That’s normal. We tend to emphasize that at which we’re best, including in our interactions with others. However, there’s a downside. More than one, actually.
First, there’s the tendency toward narrowness. A sharp focus that persists overlong can come to dominate a man, render him less capable of functioning outside his chosen domain. Most of us have known someone whose thoughts are so monothematic that conversations with him invariably return to a single subject. They’re not easy to have as friends.
Second, there’s the tendency toward pomposity. “Everyone is conservative about what he knows best,” said Robert Conquest, and it is so. So when someone introduces an idea within the bounds of Smith’s monomania, Smith is likely to butt in with an assertion of authority. It can result in quite a lot of embarrassment for all concerned – Smith included.
Third, should Smith come into contact with Jones who shares Smith’s monomania, the probability of an unpleasant clash is high. Every authority yearns to be The Authority. The desire is found at its maximum in the self-nominated authority whose attention others strive to avoid. This requires that others see them as the pinnacle of their subject. The emergence of a competitor is the last thing they would wish.
Fourth and last for this Friday morning disquisition, Smith is overwhelmingly likely to forget what really matters…if he ever knew it.
Monomanias are common among children. A child’s mental landscape expands irregularly, in fits and starts, and often in response to an unexpected stimulus. Fascination with a particular subject or activity is natural for a child. The broadening of his scope to include a wide perspective is an essential part of his maturation. Indeed, one of the signs of what we call arrested development is the perpetuation of a monomania into adulthood.
I recently had the great pleasure of seeing The Queen’s Gambit, Netflix’s 2020 series about a young woman who rises to the top of the chess world. There haven’t been many worthwhile fictions that involved chess as an important element. This one was praised so highly that even if I had no great interest in chess, I would have wanted to see it. (I was fairly sure that not all the praise came from chess fanatics.)
The Queen’s Gambit, to my great satisfaction, isn’t “about chess.” It’s about maturation, dealing with loss and betrayal, and what Abraham Maslow called self-actualization. In the Maslovian hierarchy of needs, self-actualization is the pinnacle, which cannot be attained without first satisfying the four more fundamental needs below it:
- Physiological needs,
- Safety and security needs,
- Love and acceptance needs,
- Self-esteem needs.
Protagonist Beth Harmon uses chess, a game of great complexity that yields its secrets to her prodigious intelligence, to ascend that hierarchy. The ascent isn’t without setbacks. In particular, she must defeat two of the prime threats to a chess monomaniac: better players and drugs.
Of course, a very young player must expect to encounter older, more mature players. She does succeed in defeating the first ones she encounters; such is the magnitude of her gift. But there comes a time when she must rise to new heights. At first, against American champion Benny Watts, she falters. After she defeats him, world champion Vasily Borgov, a player of enormous ability and many achievements, looms in her sights. She loses to him as well. In each case the defeats send her careening into drug and alcohol excess. Three bright lights help her to climb out of her pit: her orphanage chum Jolene, her old Kentucky rival Harry Beltik, and her half-platonic love D. L. Townes.
The game is always there, of course, but it’s less of a driving force for Beth than her need to defeat the obstacles to maturity. She must cease to measure herself by her tournament results and the players she hasn’t yet defeated. She must learn to accept help, affirmation, and love when those things are offered to her. Townes’s surprise appearance in Moscow, as Beth is about to face the greatest players in the world, provides the climax. When he says “Consider me your second” – an important post a great player must fill, and which Beth had allowed to remain empty – she achieves a critically important release from the fetters that have kept her from achieving true adulthood: her deliberate orphaning by her suicidally depressed mother; her isolation in the orphanage environment to which she was consigned; the never-quite-dissipated disdain of male players for this female upstart, and enveloping them all, the unexamined conviction that she will never be good enough to be accepted and valued by others.
The series is a fine exposition about what really matters. And yes, there are a couple of really neat chess games for aficionadi to drool over.
A monomaniac’s monomania can doom him. It doomed two great chess players with whom all chess lovers must be familiar: Alexander Alekhine and Bobby Fischer. It’s doomed others in other fields, as well; indeed, the examples are endless. The sufferers never looked past their blinders to find what really matters.
As a writer of fiction, I struggle continuously to “keep my eye on the ball.” Yes, I write in the genres: science fiction, fantasy, romance. Those genres are “defined” by the special elements the writer uses to distinguish his story-universe from the one we live through in real life. It tends to make those genres popular with particular audiences. Many readers refuse to read outside the genre of their preference. This is par for the course, but there’s a danger involved.
And in the worst cases displace,
What really matters.
And what is that? Why, it’s people. People changing and growing. People overcoming their weaknesses. Most important of all, people learning to love and to accept love: love of self, love of others, and the love of God.
Ultimately, love is everything. – M. Scott Peck
May God bless and keep you all!