Scrabbling Brains Alive! - by Susan Price

My partner keeps his brain alive - his expression - by playing Scrabble.
     He's only been playing the game for about a year, but he took to it ferociously and now plays every chance he gets. He even plays against himself.
      He joined his local U3A and their unsuspecting Scrabble-arm made him welcome - since then he's beaten them all, even their best player, monotonously, like gongs. And by 'beaten', I mean by over 300 points.
     In self-defense, they brought in rules such as: No cheating by using the official Scrabble dictionary instead of an old Concise Collins without a cover, published in the 1940s. And then: No looking things up in dictionaries.
     It did them no good. He's simply memorised all the allowable two and three letter words, and all the allowable words containing 'U', such as:
usufruct: the right to enjoy the use of another's property, so long as it's not damaged or destroyed,
 uraeus: the emblem of power, in the form of a serpent, on the front of an Egyption god or ruler's headdress.

     This is well worth the effort, he tells me, because 'U' is the hardest vowel to get rid of.
     Unless you have a 'Q' of course - and needless to say, he's also learned by heart all the words you can play where the 'Q' doesn't have to be followed by a 'U.' (Qat, qi, qis...)

     You can see that I have fallen into the trap, above, of telling you what usufruct and uraeus mean, as if it mattered.
     I'm a writer. I'm handicapped by an interest in what the words mean. I waste brain space and energy by trying to remember them. My partner, always happy with numbers and the patterns they make, has no interest in their meaning, only in their mean.
     All that matters to him is what they score on the Scrabble board.
(Usufruct is good: it has an F (4) and a C (3).) Get it on a triple and you could score 39. Or 29 if you could only get the F on a triple letter tile. If he can't score 20 or over, he considers missing a turn and changing his letters.

     I've picked up some of his Scrabble tricks and get better and better. I skelped (14) the cheukster (18) the other night - beat him by a whole 60 points, while he usually beats me by hundreds. I did a victory dance around his room. And last night I ran him hard - he won, but only by one point.
      It is a very good game, with that complexity which builds from simplicity - but I look back over my life and the last few years and wonder if my brain really needs Scrabble for life-assistance. I'm an author, for gods' sake - and an Electric Author at that.

      I've spent most of my life suddenly realising that I urgently need to find out, for instance, a lot more about the invasion of the Great Danish Army, or the atmosphere of Mars... the floor-plans of Border pele towers... what Vikings carried as packed lunches... or the design of half-submerged, floating hotels and houses already being built and planned for the water-logged future.

     And then along comes e-publishing and several steep learning curves as I found out how to make e-books and CreateSpace paperbacks - and along the way, try to get to grips with marketing - with social media... None of these things were in the job description when I started. Or even imagined by most of us. Maybe a few science-fiction writers had a glimmer...
     Because I need copyright free images, I'm getting more and more involved in the complexities of graphics programmes. Just last weekend my Author Electric colleague, Karen Bush, was telling me about Pic Monkey and Be Funky.
     In the past, I've several times written the texts for picture books - but I've never been so closely involved in writing and designing them as now, working with my brothers. The pictures change the words, and the words change the pictures... It's a very challenging form and the fact that it's 'only for kids' makes it harder, not easier.

Once, a girl made a chapati for her tea.
But the chapati didn't want to be eaten.
Up from the table it jumped and out of
the door it ran.
"Run, run, fast as  you can
You can't put me in your frying pan!"
         The Runaway Chapati

The most exciting day of little Tinku's life!
The Maharaja is to be married and the whole
palace is alive with hustle and bustle...
          Tinku Tries To Help

      I haven't even gone near audio books, as some of my colleagues have... Maybe, one day...

     But if always learning and puzzling things out is what keeps the brain alive, then a horde of villagers with pitchforks are probably going to have to visit the cemetery, six months after the death of AE members, to beat our still buzzing brains to death.

Susan Price won the Carnegie Medal for her book, The Ghost Drum, and the Guardian Fiction Prize for The Sterkarm Handshake (to be reprinted this summer, by Open Road.)

Her first solely self-published book, The Drover's Dogs can be found here:


Wendy H. Jones said…
As a keen scrabble player I love this. Thank you. Does your husband play words with friends online. It is just like scrabble and you play with people not even in the same room
Jan Needle said…
Unlike Wendy, I consider myself to be a keen Scrabble victim. My advice, Sue, after many years of consideration, is RUN! You can always get a new partner. Come to think of it....
Bill Kirton said…
I'm with Jan. Great entertaining post, Susan, but I HATE playing Scrabble. I'm too impatient. Sitting for ages waiting for opponents to place their tiles is dire. It's only ever enlivened by arguing about the rules. Mind you, from the sound of it, you and Him Indoors are good enough to play a Usain Bolt version of it. That might just be tolerable.
Lydia Bennet said…
I think creating new connections between neurones is a possible defence against AD etc, or at least will delay the appearance of symptoms... the main thing is the fun factor, and it sounds like Scrabble does that for your partner, Sue. There are so many learning curves nowadays, with ebook technology and other related technologies, that our brains might well yearn for some peace - writing in itself may not be a defence, cf. Iris Murdoch! but the related research and publishing may well be some small help, if combined with good diet, exercise and not smoking.
Chris Longmuir said…
Great post, Susan. I don't play Scrabble, well not often, but I am addicted to an app called Bookworm where you have to stay on it connecting words until you're eaten up in flames. And the vision of the villagers visiting the cemetery with their pitchforks to beat my buzzing brain to death was thought provoking.
Mari Biella said…
The constant need to learn new things - some of them, at first sight, almost incomprehensible - certainly keeps my brain buzzing, which is perhaps why I suffer from insomnia. Not even on the longest and most sleepless of nights, however, would I go anywhere near a Scrabble board...

I like the idea of the Frankenstein-esque afterlife, though, especially the bit about the mob of torch-bearing, pitchfork-wielding villagers. I've always been slightly disappointed that the real world is not much like a Hammer House of Horror film!
Susan Price said…
Wendy, my partner eschews the internet - except at my house, where he switches on the laptop as soon as he crosses the threshhold...

Mari - I saw the spooky looking house (with ha-ha) where some of the Hammer Horrors were filmed last week! One of the many delights of visiting our Karen Bush and walking with the whippets.

I'm always amused by how many writers HATE Scrabble. Someone suggested we play it at the annual Scattered Authors Society conference one year, and there was nearly a punch-up.

I've come to tolerate it, almost to enjoy it - but then, I expect to lose, which is peaceful. There are still great, long aching silences, Bill, while my partner considers every possible move, but they are useful for reviewing plots, even a little light proof-reading. It's also amusing to listen to the man grind his teeth, bite his nails and groan, as if in spiritual agony. He frequently says, when the game finally end, 'Thank god that's over.'

Don't ask me.

Chris - the Bookworm app sounds fun. I'll look that up.
We're a keen Scrabble family, and it's traditional to get out the old tatty board at every gathering. My dad can't spell and is always looking things up in the dictionary... we allow him the Concise Oxford. My brother memorised all the 2 letter words a while ago and plays an entirely different game. My mum plays the computer between family games when she gets bored. Me? I'm just the author... and I usually come last.
Susan Price said…
Yes, you see - you're hampered by actually caring about what the words mean.
Jr. Williams said…
Does anyone know any Hollywood writers who write multiple?
Stephen Leather writer

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