I’m playing Wordle right now.
Not actually right now, of course: I’m writing the words you’re reading. I am one of the countless folks who are regularly playing the buzzed-about daily word puzzle, but that’s not what I’m talking about either. Instead what I mean is that the act of writing a piece like this is fundamentally the same as playing the simple, addictive interactive word game that’s the reason your social media feeds are clogged up with patterns of colored boxes.
It’s not just writing that’s much the same as playing Wordle. Once I started playing the game, it didn’t take long before I was struck by the way that the mechanics of it are essentially an abstracted microcosm of any nonspontaneous creative process, one that allows for editing and revising. (Sorry, improv comedy and free jazz: I’m not talking about you.) Music composition, graphic art, film, sculpture, fashion design, architecture, theatre, and nearly every other imaginable artistic pursuit are all Wordle.
The gameplay itself isn’t novel. Anyone who grew up with the colored-peg board game Mastermind or earlier word games such as Jotto or Bulls and Cows should feel a tinge of familiarity upon playing Wordle. The idea behind all these games is simple in concept and complex in execution: There’s a code you’re trying to discern, and you’re given clues as to how many parts of your guess are correct, at which point you use that information to adjust your next guess. In Mastermind, the code you’re trying to get is a pattern of colors; in Wordle, you’re hunting for a five-letter word.
And when you play, you’re mimicking the act of artistic creation, boiled down to its bare bones.
You begin with an empty grid, a blank page, a formless lump of clay, a reel of unused film. And you take a stab in the dark or an educated first whack at it and see how it fits, just to get things moving. Maybe some letters are exactly right and in exactly the right place. Maybe other letters are pieces you need but don’t work where you’ve got them, so you hold on to them and keep moving them around until you figure out where they belong. And some things don’t work at all, so you go ahead and discard them, unless hanging on to them will get you to the next part that works, and then you can throw them away. You keep refining in this manner until you end up with the right result, with all the pieces exactly where you want them. (Or not — you know creative types.)
That’s how I write. The first line that you read above wasn’t my original opening, but the one I started with didn’t work. It came up all gray in my mind instead of giving me any yellow or green. So I tried again until I got a hit, and so on and so forth as I edited, moving things around that needed moving and keeping what worked where it was. What appears to be a linear product is actually the result of an iterative process.
This is, in essence, what transfixed so many of us in the new documentary “The Beatles: Get Back.” In one of the most justly celebrated scenes, Paul McCartney grinds away at his bass looking for something that sticks when suddenly, the chorus to “Get Back” spills out of him more or less fully formed: green squares on his first guess. Looking for the lyrics to build around what he’s found, he comes up with a few lines about immigrants to see if there’s anything there, but this next guess produces nothing but gray squares and he discards them out of concern that they’ll be misconstrued. Later on, McCartney and John Lennon are tossing around lyrics, circling and circling the words “Tucson, Arizona” until they finally arrive at something like a correct guess. And so it goes until the end, when McCartney has locked in all the parts to one of rock and roll’s most iconic songs. Solid green.
It’s hardly the only example of this phenomenon in the documentary. George Harrison is in the midst of writing “Something” but can’t nail down a lyric. Lennon encourages him to sing nonsense until he finds what works, so we hear “Something in the way she moves/Attracts me like a pomegranate”: Harrison has one stubborn gray square where he must continue trying new things amid all the green. Ringo Starr, the least experienced songwriter in the band, has trouble completing “Octopus’s Garden,” so Harrison works with him, recognizing that his bandmate has gotten some yellow squares but doesn’t quite know how to rearrange them so that they turn green. Try a new chord here. Move this part somewhere else. Let’s see what we end up with this time.
This is creative invention in a nutshell, and it’s also the puzzle aspect (as opposed to the social media aspect) of Wordle in a nutshell. That almost certainly wasn’t programmer Josh Wardle’s aim when he set out to update an old diversion, but the thing about art is that it can have meaning embedded within it that not even its creator intended. And if you subscribe to the belief that art constitutes everything that’s not directly necessary for survival, then Wordle is itself art, meaning that Wardle had to play Wordle in the process of inventing Wordle. By doing so, he showed that the act of making art is just a puzzle to be solved.
Marc Hirsh writes frequently about the arts for the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @spacecitymarc.