Game Night and the Writers' Workshop

Maggie Shipstead

This post is part of The 75th Project, a series of essays by graduates of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year.

“Game night?”

“Game night.”

“Epic game night?”

“I could do an epic game night.”

This is a conversation I had dozens of times during my second year at Iowa but will probably never have again.

It all started with Big Buck Hunter.

For those of you who have led woefully incomplete lives, Big Buck Hunter is an arcade game in which you use an orange plastic pump-action shotgun to shoot animals as they race across the screen. In the classic version, you can go out for whitetail deer, moose, antelope, bighorn sheep, or elk. Sundry other species (wolves, bluebirds, squirrels, etc.) make cameo appearances, and interstitial bonus games let you shoot UFOs, turkeys, frogs, and jugs of moonshine. A newer spin-off, Big Buck Hunter Safari, offers more exotic prey like gemsbok and wildebeest, but I’ve never warmed up to it, perhaps because each hunting site culminates with a special “Trophy Animal” that is fast-moving and often heartbreaking, like a baby elephant.

I can’t quite remember how my friends Dave and Justin and I first got into Buck Hunter. When I think of second year, I mostly remember being cold and drunk, and the precise circumstances of our slide into obsession seem to be lost beneath a layer of snow and PBR. But somehow, around the time the leaves were turning, we started spending many hours and dollars at the machine in the back of Donnelly’s Pub on College Street, eating chicken sandwiches and glaring at the people who interrupted our play to get to the bathroom. The staff seemed bemused by us, puzzled by the dynamics of our triangle: just two guys and a girl, playing a video game five nights a week. We alternately heckled and praised the hunting style of whoever was up, sentiments the game echoed in its twangy, automated voice, declaring “Ya missed ’em all!” or “That’s a dead-eye shot!” or “You’re gonna need a bigger freezer!” Other people in the Workshop claimed to be into Buck Hunter, but we didn’t take them seriously. No one could touch our fanaticism. Exhibit A: sometimes one of us would sneak over to Donnelly’s during the day for some solo practice, only to discover one of the others already occupying the machine.

Eventually, as our initials filled up the top score screens at Donnelly’s, we decided to branch out. We took up bowling (thankfully, there was a Buck Hunter machine at the alley). We played mini-golf (also at the bowling alley—what a paradise Colonial Lanes is). Occasionally, we shot pool. We drank quite a lot of beer. We went to a family fun center in Cedar Rapids and played an elaborate, pirate-themed mini-golf course and a little skeeball and rode nauseating loop-de-loop contraptions called space bikes. Justin taught me how to skid my Jeep across the ice-covered Colonial Lanes parking lot and into a snowbank.

In the spring, we went to my grandparents’ house on Lake Michigan and played Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots and poker and concocted BB gun marksmanship challenges. We climbed sand dunes and goaded each other into the lake’s forty-degree April waters. Back in Iowa, we played badminton on Dave’s lawn. We fished. We played two-on-one tennis, rotating sides according to a strict system. For Dave’s bachelor party, we went to Vegas and played blackjack. Last year, when I was supposed to be at AWP (the annual conference of the Associated Writing Programs), we met at Justin’s house in Colorado and skied Vail. For our après activity, we found a Buck Hunter machine, but we all played badly, nervily, too anxious to reclaim the game night magic.

A common question about the Workshop is if it’s as cutthroat as people say. Certainly, plenty of people experience the Workshop as cutthroat and talk it up as such, and so it must be. But other people seem to spend two years drifting through a blissful utopia of artistic generosity and even-handed collaboration, and so the Workshop must be that as well. The mood we ascribe to the Workshop, like the things we write there, is in large part the product of who we are as people. Some of us can make a competition out of waiting in line at the post office, and some of us prefer all contests to end in ties, with blue ribbons for everyone. Often, those in the second category seem to spend their time at the Workshop deciding they don’t really want to be writers.

To my mind, the Workshop has some inherently competitive aspects that would be difficult to deny or eradicate: the uneven funding, the annual awkwardness surrounding TWFs (Teaching-Writing Fellowships), the gnawing uncertainty about fellowships after graduation. But another layer of competition exists that I think is more willful and more corrosive than any prosaic jockeying for money—the competition to be perceived as a future star by peers and faculty. Much energy and posturing goes into this odd quest to be a legend-in-the-making, but the problem is that perceptions are made of air and neurological sparks; whatever reputation you have at the Workshop doesn’t follow you out into the larger world. The good opinion of your classmates doesn’t linger like perfume on the pages you send out. Nor does the stink of dismissal. Writers’ careers take years, if not decades, to shake out. Unexpected peaks and valleys occur. Early success can dwindle. A dark horse can come out of nowhere with a magnum opus fifteen years in the works. No one at the Workshop controls the publishing lives of its graduates. This should be a relief and a beauty to us as students, but instead the temptation is strong to cling to praise and fellowships as if they were divine promises of future success. Much as I’d like to, I can’t exonerate myself from this particular crime of ridiculousness. If I could go back and do Iowa over again, I would try to worry less about other people, their work, and their opinions of my work. I would try to approach my writing with the same spirit of joyful, willing dedication that I felt when I took up my orange plastic shotgun.

My friend Justin is one of those eerily competent people who masters difficult physical skills with offhand assurance and minimal effort. He can sail a boat, build a boat, frame a house, rock climb, ski anything, cook anything. He won our BB gun shoot-out at Lake Michigan by hitting an absurdly distant beer can in the dark on his first attempt. (A shot, a pause, a faraway ping, incredulous applause from me and Dave.) After we finished at Iowa, he struck up a conversation with a guy in a bar who had finished 18th at the World Buck Hunter Championships. The conversation led to a challenge. Justin won. Some time later, willing to take things to the next level of eerie competence, he shot and butchered a real, non-digital elk, feeding himself and his fiancée for months. The game was right—he needed a bigger freezer.

My friend Dave has a will to win so powerful that I believe there’s a sixty to seventy percent chance he is the reincarnation of Man o’ War. He can bowl like crap for eight frames and then roll a last-minute turkey just to prevent anyone else from winning. The last three holes of any mini-golf course are where he’s going to get a hole-in-one. Dave can dig deep. Playing Buck Hunter, he stands close to the screen and unleashes barrages of flashing gunfire like a crazed WWII gunner, strafing even as his plane plummets toward the ground. The next moment he is his affable self again, buying beers and complimenting shots. From one of our tennis games, I remember Dave leaping toward the net and gleefully swatting the ball hard into the court so it soared far over my head and then immediately apologizing and offering to concede the point out of gentlemanly sheepishness. (There are games I will never play with Dave, like laser tag.)

This is to say that the three of us are all competitive people. My competitiveness peaked in high school, when I was something of a monster, and has mellowed but not disappeared over the years. On game night, I was a notorious choker, the opposite of Dave, given to freaking out in the final innings and losing any lead I might have had out of sheer anticipatory terror of losing my lead. I did not experience the Workshop as a comfy idyll of communal support, and in retrospect, I marvel at the friendship the guys and I managed to build by bringing still more competition into our lives. Game night generated tensions of its own—I’m not sure I’ve adequately expressed how much we each wanted to win every buck hunt: we did—but those tensions were concrete and resolvable. Workshop tensions were about life, talent, art. They were amorphous and high-stakes, and no one could assign us a score.

But on game night, you either won or you didn’t, and we all won sometimes. I think one of the most commendable qualities of male friendship is the possibility of externalization. Sometimes (not always), men can channel aggression into a cathartic fist-fight or BB gun shoot-out and then move on. Male friendships have a release valve. My female friendships mean the world to me, but with other women, I do a lot of sitting around and talking and very little bowling. A framed picture that Dave gave me hangs on my wall. In it, the three of us are on a sand dune above Lake Michigan, posed in a tableau of game night. Dave aims a branch at the sky like a rifle; Justin putts with another branch, and I roll an invisible bowling ball. Don’t get me wrong—we did our share of talking, but usually, as we talked, one of us was beating the other two at something, twisting open the release valve, letting us see one another for what we truly are: writers who buck hunt, buck hunters who write. 


Maggie Shipstead graduated from Harvard in 2005 and earned an MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Recently, she completed a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford. Her short fiction has appeared in VQR, Glimmer Train,The Missouri Review, The Mississippi Review, and The Best American Short Stories 2010. Knopf will publish her first novel, Seating Arrangements, in 2012.