Commentary on Black & White – This entry discusses my recent short story “Black & White,” and it does contain some “spoilers.” You may, of course, read this entry even if you haven’t read the story, but I think it might be more interesting to read the story first, before reading this commentary. So, if you haven’t read it already, you can click on the link above—it’s a fairly short read.
I suppose I should state right from the start that I believe an author’s comments on his own work are of limited value. Once a work leaves the author’s desk, it is literally out of his hands. Interpretation of meaning is now up to the reader, and whatever the author may have meant is not nearly as important as what the reader gets out of it.
That’s my theory, at any rate, and keeping that in mind I’m going to go ahead and give you some comments on my own work anyway. This commentary is not so much an attempt to guide interpretation, but an attempt to give you some background information that may or may not be useful—a behind-the-scenes guide, so to speak. I personally enjoy listening to commentaries on DVD movies because they give me insight into the movie that I otherwise would not have had. If you’re like me, and if you’d like to learn a little more about Black and White, then read on. If not, well, you can always go check out the newest Imagery gallery, I suppose.
I should confess a few things right up front. Firstly, this story was originally written about a decade ago for a creative writing seminar at university, so I don’t know if I can actually call it “original.” I did write it, of course, but this current endeavor was more of a rewrite (from memory, since the only remaining copy of the original is in my portfolio back at my university). I’m not sure if that takes away anything from the story, but it does make things more interesting because I can compare the original story with the rewrite and see how the differences point to how I have grown in the past ten years.
Secondly, it is based on a true story—my story. The key game—the game where the boy wins—is the game in which I finally beat my father at chess, using that exact move. Much of the rest of it is fabricated (or at least modified), of course, namely all of the imaginary scenes. I did have a good imagination as a child, but chess was too serious for daydreaming or fantasizing.
When I first wrote the story in university, it was titled “Q-KKt7,” after the winning move. Some of my classmates pointed out that it wasn’t the most graceful title, but it reflected my focus at the time. I honestly cannot remember when it received the title “Black and White.” It may have been the final draft of the story that went into my portfolio. At any rate, this time around it was an obvious choice, and it was clear that this is what I should have named it from the start. The fact that I didn’t shows that I failed to understand what the story was about (or, at least, what I think it is about now—I’ll get back to you in ten years and tell you what I think then) when I first wrote it.
The original story ended shortly after the boy defeated his father. He went into his room and suddenly it felt as if everything he had held up as ideal was crashing down around him. I know that he cried, but I can’t remember exactly how I ended the story. I wasn’t fully satisfied, maybe not on a conscious level, but on some level deep inside.
The biggest criticism I received from my classmates was that I didn’t show enough of the father. They wanted to see what he was like outside the game. “But that’s not the point,” I argued. “As far as this story is concerned, the father does not exist outside the game. I’m trying to show you the father through the boy’s eyes and the game of chess.” I remember distinctly that that father criticism was the one thing my professor didn’t mention, though, and I took that as a sign that I was justified in not depicting the father outside of the game. In retrospect, I realize that it could have just meant he thought that my classmates had done a sufficient job of beating the already dead and rotting horse.
I did feel justified, though, and I did not make any changes to my portrayal of the father in my final draft. Yet I could not shake the nagging feeling that maybe my classmates were right, and maybe I was missing something. I was missing something, of course, but it wasn’t my fault. I just wasn’t ready to write the story that is here on Liminality now. Maybe that’s why my professor didn’t say anything about the father—maybe he knew I wasn’t ready.
Just about all of the changes from the original version reflect the changes in my relationship with and perception of my own father over the past ten years. At the time of the original story I was a junior in university, and my relationship with my father was newly changed. The fact that I was able to write the story at all shows that we had reached the adult level of our relationship, but I still wasn’t mature enough to see the whole picture.
When I was growing up, my father and I didn’t always have the best relationship. It wasn’t the worst relationship either, of course, but there were plenty of difficult times. When I turned eighteen and went off to university, though, things changed overnight (or at least what seemed like overnight to me). Before, my father had treated me as the child I was, and now suddenly he was treating me as an adult. It came as quite a shock, to be honest, since my actual passage to adulthood took far longer than that (and my wife would probably argue that it’s still going on). Still, although the way my father treated me may have changed, it would take a lot longer for me to come to terms with our past and our new relationship.
After I wrote the first couple drafts of the rewrite, I realized that I was painting the father in a different light. In the original story he was somewhat cold and distant, and there was very little interaction between him and the boy outside the actual game (the dinner scene was it, and even there he was somewhat cool). When I looked at the father I had depicted in the rewrite, though, I realized that he was now a sympathetic character. I also finally realized that my classmates were right, and I knew that I needed to have the father and son talk at the end of the story.
The speech that the father gives to the son at the end didn’t happen in real life. In fact, I honestly don’t remember what happened after that game, except the fact that I was very upset and disappointed (but I do remember that I didn’t cry, which may be why the boy crying in the original version always struck me as somewhat cheesy). My father never said those words to me (well, not most of them, and not all at the same time), but I did learn them from him over the years. I guess you could call it a distillation of what I’ve realized about my father—and about life—over the past ten years. I know now that, although he may not have always succeeded, he put his entire soul into raising me the best he could, just like he put his entire soul into everything he did. There was no halfway—it was either all or nothing.
When I was young, though, my father was a monster. Like the boy in the story, I couldn’t see that my father had his own hopes and fears, just like I did. By the time I wrote the original story I think I knew these things, but I’m not sure they were enough of a part of me for me to write about them. Now, though, I’m thinking about the possibility of having a child of my own, and I wonder if I will be able to do as well as my father did.
When I look back through the years, and when I realize how young he was in some of my earlier memories, I am amazed at how strong he was at times. He was iron, standing fast against the storms of the world. And yet he had feet of clay, and sometimes even his best efforts weren’t enough to stem the forces of human nature. In a word, he was human.
I realize that I have moved away from talking about the story, but it is impossible to separate my own experiences and perceptions from the story, for they shape it and make it what it is. I don’t think this is what I expected to write when I started, and I’m not sure how interesting or informative this will be to anyone else, but I guess this is what I needed to say.
It was no coincidence that I put the story up on Father’s Day. Although I never specifically said this (I didn’t think I had to), the story is dedicated to my father, the man who not only taught me how to play chess, but who taught me how to face life and come out with the upper hand. I know I can’t express everything I want or need to say in a short story, but maybe this will be a start.
Chess geeks only: all others may stop reading now
The move by which the boy defeats the father is a very simple trick, and one that could (and should) have easily been defended against. If I were pressed for a justification of that, I would say pretty much what I think happened when I defeated my own father with the same move: that it was unlike the boy to be so aggressive, and the father’s focus on the kill helped blind him to the threat until it was too late.
Even less plausible, though, is the opening sequence. Because it is couched in imaginary battle terms it is less obtrusive, but as something of a chess geek myself (note that there is a difference between “geek” and “skilled player”—I only lay claim to the former), I had to figure out what the opening moves would look like as described in the beginning of the story. The first six moves are as follows, in algebraic notation:
1. d4 Na6
2. e4 Nf6
3. Nc3 d5
4. exd5 Nb4
5. Nf3 Nbxd5
6. Nxd5 Nxd5
As you can see, materiel is equal but black has a stronger position. I had a low-level chess program play this position out a number of times and black came out on top in well over half the results. It is an absurd opening, of course, and doesn’t really make sense from a game point of view. All of that is moot, though, since I wrote the narrative first and figured out the moves later, just for fun. I guess it goes to show that good chess may not make for good writing, and vice versa.