How I Play

Baker is one of six students accepted last year into Vanderbilt’s M.F.A.  program in creative writing out of a pool of 374 applicants.
Baker is one of six students accepted last year into Vanderbilt’s M.F.A. program in creative writing out of a pool of 374 applicants.

One game my best friend and I used to play was this: We were castaways on an island where we were trapped with a horrible monster. We played this game every day for an entire summer. Brian lived next door to me, and every morning we would take his dad’s machete (which we weren’t supposed to touch) from their garage and hike out to our makeshift shelter in the woods behind his house and carve another notch into the fallen oak tree by the creek.

“Day 24,” Brian would say, counting the notches. “Marooned.”

“Maybe today,” I would say, looking up through the trees, “a plane will come.”

Then we would go forage for mushrooms.

We had theories about the monster: that it was something old, something shed-sized with wrinkly skin and no sense of humor, something that only cared about eating little children. It hunted us back and forth across the island—we would climb trees when we thought we heard it coming, or wade out into the creek, or disguise ourselves with dead leaves. We had homemade spears stashed around the island in case we were ever caught without the machete.

Then one day—by our records, day 51—we decided we would hunt the monster back. We were tired of hiding.

“We’ll dig a pit,” Brian said, drawing a blueprint in the dirt, “and after it falls in and breaks all its legs, we’ll roast it over a fire.” Part of our theory was that the monster probably had six legs.

We dug a pit along the edge of the forest. We picked a couple of loads of stinkweed from the creek and dumped them into the pit so that the smell would knock out the monster if the 4-foot drop didn’t. Then we covered the mouth of the pit with branches and twigs and dead leaves.

We waited awhile for the monster, but it did not come. So we went to the other side of the island to climb trees.

Later that afternoon we were poking an abandoned hornet’s nest with a stick when we heard a crashing sound. Then a roaring. We had never before heard the monster roar so loudly that we could hear it not just in our imaginations but even in real life.

We dropped the stick and grabbed our machete and a couple of our homemade spears and ran through the forest chanting and singing and doing little we-killed-the-monster dances all the way back to our pit. But then there was no more singing because we saw that Brian’s dad was sitting at the bottom of the pit covered in stinkweed and mud. I had never heard him swear before, but considering he never got much practice, he was really good at it.

That’s the first time I remember getting in trouble for playing, but after that it happened more and more often until we had to give up playing altogether. This is why I’m a writer. As a 24-year-old man, writing stories is the only way I can get away with pretending—the only way I can play. It is no longer socially acceptable for me to run around in the woods shouting at imaginary creatures. (Actually, there are adults who do that. It’s called LARP, which stands for live-action role-playing, and which is basically a bunch of adults wearing tunics and leather boots running around public parks hitting each other with plastic swords and shouting made-up spells. I’ve always been sort of secretly obsessed with it. But I like the idea of having a girlfriend more than the idea of playing LARP, and it turns out that usually you have to choose between the two.)

As a 24-year-old man, writing stories is the only way I can get away with pretending—the only way I can play.

So instead, I make up stories. It is not as good as being outside and getting to live them, but it is a close second-best.

I am good enough at making up stories that Vanderbilt’s MFA program let me join its team. It’s kind of like getting drafted to play college basketball. In high school I made the freshman basketball team, but only because I was faster than everyone else; during the free-throw drill, I only made four out of 10. The next year I only made two out of 10, and then being fast wasn’t good enough. But my friend Justin made varsity.

I loved watching him on the court. For me basketball had been stressful because I was always so worried about dribbling off my foot or passing the ball to someone on the other team, but for Justin it was just a sort of playing. I always thought of him as our Best of the Neighborhood: The rest of us couldn’t make a layup, but he could drop a shot from anywhere on the floor, and for him it was fun.

That’s what I’ve always loved about watching college basketball. It’s all of the Best of the Neighborhood kids playing the same game together.

Actors are a Best of the Neighborhood, too, but with a different sort of playing. Whenever I watch a movie with Johnny Depp in it where he is being especially weird or funny, I get this goosebumpy feeling and think, Can you imagine if he had grown up in your neighborhood? If you had gotten to play a pirates game with him, or a we-are-monsters game? Whenever I listen to Tom Waits I think, What if he had grown up in your neighborhood? What if you had gotten to play with him, to make up songs together while hitting empty garbage cans with sticks?

In the MFA program the sort of playing we’re good at is making up stories. Sitting in on a fiction workshop is like growing up in a dream neighborhood where every single kid is a Best of the Neighborhood kid. We are obsessed with words like scrimshaw and parasol and cannikin. We fight about storytellers that most everyone has never heard of—we fight about who’s better, Borges or Hannah? Each class we workshop two stories by students in the program, which means that every week we get to explore two brand new worlds, worlds we built out of nothing, entirely with our words.


Between our two backyards, Brian and I had a national park’s worth of forest. We had two forts, three sledding hills, one abandoned shed we could climb onto and then jump off of, one baseball diamond, one three-hole golf course and a rope swing. During winter we built igloos big enough for me and him and all his brothers. During summer we made potions out of tree sap and pine needles and dead bugs and kept them in jars to poison our enemies. We would lower my basketball hoop low enough that we could dunk on it and pretend we were in Space Jam playing against aliens for the fate of planet Earth. We would play Jurassic Park games, Men in Black games, Mission Impossible.

Now Brian does not have a job where he can play; he has a job where he can stack boxes.

Brian owns (literally) more than a thousand DVDs. If you say the name of any film (literally, any film that exists), he can tell you not just who directed it but also the names of everyone who acted in it (no matter how obscure) and which part was the funniest or best. I want him to have a job where he can pretend things, a job where he can play like we used to. I want him to make movies. But he says he doesn’t want to. He’s given up on playing altogether. Now he’d just rather watch someone else do it—so many times that he’s become a sort of human IMDB.

The best part about studying in an MFA program isn’t that all the other students are Best of the Neighborhood kids—it’s that all of the faculty are, too. They’re even better at that sort of playing than we are. Lorraine López was just nominated for a PEN/Faulkner award—she’s one of only five finalists—which is sort of the literary equivalent of qualifying for the Olympics. We won’t hear which medal she’s won for another month or so, but still, she’s an Olympic athlete. Tony Earley’s stories have appeared in Best American Short Stories; so have Nancy Reisman’s. These are the people we get to learn about storytelling from.

But for many of us, these two years in the MFA program may be the last ones we’re able to make a life out of playing. The storytelling jobs are limited. It’s possible to get a job teaching younger storytellers (I know that at least two of our 2009 graduates did); it’s possible to get a job at a magazine that publishes stories (which is why we’ve founded Nashville Review); it’s possible to become an editor of stories, or a reviewer of stories, or a literary agent. And then there’s the dream gig: to write stories that are so good that you earn a living from your stories alone. But getting someone to publish your book is like getting drafted to the NBA: It’s possible for a college basketball player to get drafted, but their chances are about 1 out of 100. Odds are that they’ll end up in accounting or real estate or advertising instead, getting to play their game only at night.

Those odds are just another sort of game we’re playing. I don’t know if we’ll beat them. But it’s going to be fun to try.

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