Betting on Words

January 27, 2020 § 9 Comments


Marcie Fry Copyright (Full)By Jill Quandt

I was raised on Texas Hold’em, and knew the odds of faceless, suited hole cards winning

the hand were too low to raise pre-flop before I knew how to do long division. I could hold my own in poker games with my dad’s friends, all engineers, before I knew the formal word for what my brain was doing: statistics. As I’ve gotten older, I’m still a proficient poker player, but betting on cards is only a hobby. These days, my real vice is betting on words.

You see, I’m obsessed. My family, even my dad, is starting to wonder if I have a problem. “It seems like all you do is stare at that laptop,” they chide. They are not writers, except my little sister who is working on her doctoral project and has been writing a lot lately. She will be a nurse anesthetist come August. She will make more than thirteen times the thirteen thousand I make at my current job. Her bet is a safe one, so no one worries she is wasting her time.

But as for me, I’m a gambler. That’s why after five years of teaching seventh graders, I quit that low paying, difficult job to go back to school and take an even lower paying, difficult job. I’m an almost-thirty-one-year-old graduate teaching assistant in the English department at my local university. What can I say, I like a little risk. I already threw all my chips down on the table, and now I have to play.

The problem is even when I think I have a good hand, sometimes the river card comes out of nowhere to mess everything up. The other day, I was getting ready to submit this very piece of writing. The submissions guidelines for Brevity Blog require a short bio, so I was skimming through the blog looking at other writer’s bios and trying to decide if I should add a little humor to mine. I happened to come across Kathy Stevenson’s “On Playing Cards and Literary Rejection: Betting on the Come.” With the exact feeling I get when think I might just win a hand, and my opponent turns up her cards to reveal the nuts, I start wondering what the odds are two posts that compare being a writing to gambling would be published on this blog within one year’s time. They can’t be high.

Unfortunately, the only things that seem to be high are my stakes. Oh Baby! The stakes are high in this dangerous game of learning to be a writer. Lots of people, many of them with much bigger stacks than mine, are chasing the same pots: articles, books, awards, and the biggie — jobs. I’m the little stack at the table, and boy I know it. I hear there will be more than eighty people applying for the job in my department I desperately want, the one that pays ten grand less than the job I could take teaching English at a high school. I definitely wouldn’t bet on those odds in a poker game, but I’m not a problem card player. I guess I’ll admit that I understand why my husband, a lawyer who won’t prosecute a case he can’t win, thinks I have a problem. Heck, maybe I do.

Luckily, I have a masterful poker face. When people ask me what I’m going to do with my degree, I say I’m going to be a writer. The really nosy ones will probe deeper: “Can you make a living doing that?” At moments like this, a convincing bluff is key. “Yeah,” I respond casually, “I’m working on a couple pieces that have some potential, and my university is hiring composition instructors for the fall.” Then, I get out of there and cry over a glass of wine with the other TA’s in my office, the ones who know the odds. Later, I lay in bed at night staring at the ceiling and ruminating on the first rule of gambling which is, of course, never risk anything you can’t afford to lose. I’ve lost countless evenings and weekends, hours I could have spent being present with my husband, snuggling my baby, or getting some much needed sleep. I’ve forfeited job security, a living wage, and a decent retirement. The kicker is I spend most of my time typing words destined to be deleted.

So why do I do it?

It’s simple, I suppose: I’m hooked — couldn’t stop if I tried. Even when I’m losing (harsh feedback from a professor, rejection letters, writer’s block), I am thinking about the next hand because what if it’s a winner? It’s not that I’m an optimist; I’m realistic enough to know that I might never hit the jackpot. Then again, when my Grandpa Dale was sixty-one years old, he spent a nickel and won a $117,000 prize on a slot machine, so you never know. All I know for sure is that I’m a gambler. For better or worse, richer or poorer (almost definitely poorer), I’m going to keep betting on my words.
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A former middle school teacher, Jill Quandt is working on an M.A. in English at the University of Nebraska at Omaha where she is currently teaching Composition II and helping facilitate the Oxbow Writing Project. Her work is forthcoming in the Kenneth Burke Journal. When she’s not writing or playing cards, she enjoys other precarious activities such as wakeboarding, skydiving, and trying to get her kid to eat veggies.

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