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Pen, Paper, & Poker: How a
Card-Playing Hobby Got Me Writing Again

Pen, Paper, & Poker

When you read that title, you might imagine a strained tale of poker, leading an ex-columnist to produce a decent story for the first time in years. You might think of something a little more fantastic, like an aspiring screenwriter working on the next Rounders after playing a few card games. The truth of the matter is that this is nothing so dramatic as either of those examples. Rather, it’s a brief account of how one part-time fiction author (hello, there) realized he wasn’t making any time to write, and turning to a different activity altogether to solve the problem.

It was nearly a year ago now that I suddenly realized I just wasn’t writing anymore, I could not find the way forward. You’d think that would be obvious, but I suspect lots of writers will know what I mean. Of course, I knew I wasn’t writing. But I didn’t really realize I’d stopped.

Naturally, as someone who cares about the craft and hopes to be a successful author, I attempted to address the problem. This meant scheduling an hour each night, which didn’t work. Then it meant adjusting my work schedule to allow for more uninterrupted free time — which didn’t work either. Finally, one day it hit me that writing itself wasn’t necessarily the problem. I was having a hard time making time for anything outside of day-to-day obligations.

Writing, no matter how much you love it, feels very much like an obligation when you’re trying to force yourself out of a slump. So, I decided to stop trying to make time to write, and focus instead on making time for something — almost as if to prove to myself that I could in fact schedule activities and personal pursuits into my day. In the end, I landed on internet poker.

This wasn’t entirely random for me. I played a little bit of online poker growing up, as well as with some friends in school. I’d also been reading a bit about an online poker resurgence due to the pandemic; even now the pro tour is enforcing precautions just to get the best players in the world back into live venues, and most amateurs seem to be staying online. At any rate, it seemed like a good hobby to pick up and try to carve out some time for. And a little bit to my own surprise, it worked. I started playing for one or two hours just about every day.

That in and of itself felt like a mental win given my quest to rediscover… well, personal time. Over the course of a few months of play though, I also gained other “wins” in the form of insights that I felt I could use to fix my writing slump. I’ll sum these up briefly with four words:

  • Focus - I remember chuckling over an article a few years ago suggesting that the human attention span was now shorter than that of the goldfish (long mocked for its inability to pay attention for more than nine seconds). Playing a little poker, though, shined a light on the fact that — for me — the article might not have been laughable. In those months whenever I’d sat down to try to write part of a story, I’d found myself drifting away from the page almost instantly. I didn’t think of it specifically as a focus problem until paying attention in poker felt noticeably strange. Focus is a little bit less of an option in poker, and suddenly I found I was able to do it. That didn’t translate instantly to writing, but I do think becoming more aware of the issue helped.
  • Fun - When my little experiment worked, and I found I was able to make time for poker, it didn’t escape me that one of the main reasons was that I was having more fun playing than writing. I don’t know with certainty if I was having less fun because the writing was going poorly or if I was writing poorly because I wasn’t enjoying it; that’s a chicken-versus-egg issue, I think. Realizing that fun played a part in my ability to dedicate myself to a personal task, however, helped me to start fresh with some of my writing. I set aside a few things I’d been more determined than enthusiastic to work on, and freed up some space for some exciting new ideas. It sounds strange to say it, but it was the first time I’d really considered that not enjoying writing something might be a bad sign for that project, and not just in general.
  • Networks - I’ll freely admit that I struggle to be open with my work. I don’t like to share, and while I value feedback, it also makes me uneasy. I do not, however, have the same natural qualms with poker. Experienced players consider building a network to be one of the best ways to win at poker, at least in the long term. You can share insights, learn strategies, bounce questions off of each other, and so forth. Doing all of this in poker is, for me, a lot less daunting than doing it with my writing. So, about a month into my hobby, I did start participating in poker communities, so to speak, and making myself comfortable with more of a collaborative, round-table approach to improvement. I can’t say this has made me completely comfortable with a communal approach to writing. But recognizing the benefit to my poker game, I have made more of an effort to connect with other writers, participate in a few virtual workshops, and so on.
  • Resilience - I think the main aspect of poker that had actually stuck with me from my earlier playing days was that wins and losses alike occur constantly. The game is a bit of a roller coaster, and you’re only successful if you learn to be resilient through the ups and downs. Playing again reminded me of the value of that resilience though, and it’s something I’m at least trying to apply to my writing. I’d like to take a bad hour of writing or a frustrating story in stride, and also avoid getting too pleased with myself when something turns out nicely.

None of these lessons means that I’ve turned into J.K. Rowling or William Faulkner just yet. But I’ve been somewhat surprised at the positive effects. I’m making time, avoiding frustration, building connections, and submitting stories again.

Maybe this strategy worked particularly well for me. I’m not sure if I’d suggest poker specifically for others or not. But if morning meditation can make you a better athlete and astrology can boost your home design, why shouldn’t something seemingly irrelevant help with a writing slump?

I found a hobby that helped, and I hope this general approach — be it with poker or something else — can help others who may not be putting pen to paper as much as they’d like to.

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