Writing and Basketball

I’ve been thinking a lot about the differences between writing and basketball. Not the vocation or career differences but rather the way I think about the practice of either discipline. Both, like many other hobbies or avocations are certainly disciplines that take hours of dedicated attention in the pursuit of getting better. Like a lot of kids, I  grew up wanting to be a professional sports player, starting with baseball, and ending with basketball. I fell in love with sports well before I’d ever tried to write a story. I was attracted instead to the thrill of bat and ball connecting or the crossover dribble that led to a wide open lay-up. This was the 1990s after all, where Michael Jordan and Ken Griffey Jr. were kings. They made it all look so easy. When you’re young, anything seems possible. You take up your bat or basketball and you practice.

Hundreds of shots, quickly become a thousand. I started off at my neighborhood park, a skinny, but tall for my age 9 year old, playing alone, running down my own rebounds for the countless shots I missed, moving closer and closer to the basket until they started going in. Countless hours watching the older kids, teenagers who smoked and cussed, play lazy pick-up games while other kids my age were still playing on slides and making up imaginative games involving the various pieces of playground equipment. So I waited my turn, dribbling on the side of the court, trying to keep a handle on the ball, so it didn’t interrupt the game I hadn’t been invited to, losing the the ball occasionally, trying not to wilt under the cusses directed at my mistake.

Some days, I never got in the game. They had enough players or the game abruptly ended as soon as someone got tired, the boys jumping in their cars and rattling away from the park, leaving me alone with my ball and an empty court, where I’d go back to hoisting up shots until it got dark and I had to go home. Eventually I got older, I got better, the practice paying off until the older kids either couldn’t ignore me or they finally needed another player. In my memory, I made the most of these early opportunities, making a great pass, grabbing a rebound, or scoring a point or two. I know there were a lot of stumbles, a lot of mistakes, more cussing, a few shoves to the ground. But I’d made finally into the game. I was accepted, though grudgingly.

There were still a lot of loneliness on the court. I lived in a town of 500 people, so there were only so many kids that wanted to play basketball, most who were not as obsessed as I was. Shot after shot, my skinny arms growing stronger, my footwork more precise, my hand-eye coordination blooming. I spent hours everyday after school and even more on weekends playing basketball, not walking off the court until I was thoroughly exhausted.  An obsessed 12 year old can put up a lot of shots in just a few hours; the mechanics becoming automatic. Dribble, dribble, shoot. Rebound, dribble, dribble, shoot. The point here is that this activity takes little brainpower, once the rudimentary skills are established. There is a graceful rhythm, where the body just reacts, a muscle memory that I assume is established and then maintained in so many other disciplines, all except writing. I’m not referring to the knowledge of grammar or punctuation, which can be taught, and scripted, it’s own unique muscle memory. No, I’m talking about the struggle against the blank page, the fight against the anxiety of creating something lasting and worthwhile.

Putting down words that lead to sentences, that lead to paragraphs, which hopefully turn into stories has the air of permanence. The jump shot or free throw creates no anxiety, no fear of releasing the ball, because make or miss, it can always be tracked down, rebounded and hoisted up again. There is only the loss of physical energy and the player knows that this kind of energy will return after a set amount of time, because it has always been this way.

The writer though feels the waning ebb of energy with every release of a sentence, the battle of mind over fear, wondering about each word, wondering if it is truly the best the writer can come up with. Sure, the writer should be able to change any word just like throwing up another shot. Nothing physically stops my fingers, but there is the mind, the system of doubt, that constantly outweighs the physical act of writing.

There, at some point, is just nothing to prove with the practice of basketball, no one waiting or expecting the player to become anything more than an amateur. Even the shooter himself, eventually, and quickly in the scheme of growing up transitions to understanding that basketball is not a realistic career path, but something done for enjoyment. Family members do not ask about the the player’s latest workout at the gym, whether they put up good stats in a pickup game. And maybe now at thirty-three, I’m making the same mistake, counting each writing sessions as leading to something larger, some kind of career. So maybe this is the larger scenario that leads to so much anxiety, so much cosmic doubt. I’ve attached serious weight to each story’s possibility for success, where it might lead me. Basketball now leads no where except it’s own enjoyment.

Writing is a war of attrition against time. Whether self-imposed or a figment of the writer’s mind, time feels fixed and fleeting. There are expectations both real and imagined, put together by the writer herself or by outside forces such as family or peers. There is a constant competition against time and self, against the limits of creativity and the willingness to revise. I’ve created this battle, one that in this current musings doesn’t take account of the joy found in creating characters and worlds, the contentment that can come from having a good writing day. A feeling that now is surely sweeter than any round of shooting around, that’s more permanent than even the rare good showing at a pickup game.

The point here, and I’ll put it so plainly, because it’s an understanding I need to come to for myself, because truly it’s a metaphor that might only work for me, is that writing, especially when drafting, could and probably should take on the appearance of playing basketball. My hope is to let my words and sentences come as freely, as mindlessly as any jump shot, to learn the muscle memory rhythm of just shooting around. That time isn’t a barrier. That there is always the rebound, the dribble, and the shot.

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Writing Life: The Persistence of a Child

I’m trying to re-frame my writing mindset to match my parenting mindset. In that I’m trying to have more patience, trying to allow both my children and my writing some room to explore their own worlds while my arms are ready to catch either if they fall.

I have a son who is a little over one year old and who is three and half years younger than his sister. Comparing the two was always inevitable and it does provide some conversation between my wife and I that is far safer than discussing the world’s other 4.5 and 1 year olds. My son has been slow to pick up most milestone aspects, except those involving motor skills. in this category he far outpaced my daughter. He can do some things that she still struggles with. But in the area of language, he reluctantly has picked up a few words, while my daughter was saying her own name by this point as well as some variations of the characters on Sesame Street. My son likes to say “dog” and “ball”, but in the last couple of months he has made great strides in learning how to communicate his wants and needs, employing a lot of pointing, a few pieces of sign language and saying something close to “this” and “that.” It’s amazing how persistent he is even though he can’t fully state what he wants. It’s this persistence and patience that i want to apply to my own writing.

One year olds both gratefully and frustratingly, don’t understand the concept of time. They want everything right this instance, but they also don’t understand the concept of falling behind, of not hitting each milestone precisely or early. I, on the other hand, have an anxious sense of time, thinking that I’ve missed my milestone for writing a novel, for having a writing career, for becoming better well known as a writer. My MFA director, informed my upon graduating that I had 3 years to write a novel or I’d be off track. It’s been 6 years since I’ve graduated and still the several “novels” I’ve started languish on my computer’s hard drive.  Just thinking about some of the time I’ve wasted makes my stomach clinch up, wondering might have been. None of this anxiety or thoughts help to shape a healthy mindset toward writing and are detrimental any time I look at the blank page.

So how can I be more like my son? Try, persist, ask for help, try again. Nothing put on a journal page or a word processor is permanent. No milestone has a true time table. What can I do in this instance to communicate? Because with this mindset, like that of 1 year old. I will move forward. I will make progress. If you find yourself stuck in any project, take the time to watch a child, marvel at their perseverance, their trust that their is always another opportunity. Be stubborn. Have joy. Make mistakes.

Some thoughts Generated by The End of the Tour

There’s a point in this film where the interviewer David Lipsky, at least according to the film, wants David Foster Wallace to live up to this idea of a glamorous, brilliant, yet generous author. A Hollywood prototype of our imagination. This author has, we feel, somehow portrayed their soul, their very essence on the page. They’ve moved us in ways not possible in regular social interactions. We feel we know them on a level that’s beyond the fleeting, “How are you doing?” Even when we rationally know that we’ve been bewitched into intimacy with character and literary devices, we ignore this reality in order to continue to live the dream of the novel, of the narrative that allowed us for 8-12 hours to feel closer to a human being, closer than most of us get on a daily basis with anyone really. Marriage and children, family, these are all portals to defeating the darkness of loneliness, but they reveal their secret depths in stages or moments, a tapestry of belonging that satisfies in their longevity. And yet the story, the novel especially due to it’s length, creates a larger depth of feeling, of stepping out of one’s life to see the mirage of connectivity, first through character, and then, usually quite mistakenly with the author.

 

Lipsky, as quoted in the movie says, “People don’t read a 1,000 page book unless they think the author is brilliant. They want that author to be brilliant.” I will confess that I have not read Infinite Jest and that I might be doing a bit of slight of hand, when I use Wallace as a stand-in for any author. Sure we want brilliance, but we also want understanding, a moment of holding this author to the highest regard, because they made us feel less alone, more understood, connected, yes to the larger world, but really to them, the author. We’d love to make them our best friend, our confidant, the person who understands us above anyone else. All because of their alchemy with words. With their story, they’ve touched a part of our consciousness that we’ve never given away to anyone. The reasons for this denial of self to those around us are varied and myriad, some justified, others not out of fear or selfishness. The writer holds up our coal of weakness and gives it the dignity and respect we think it deserves and because the writer has not asked anything from us, but rather has given us their own special consciousness, we want to thank them in ways that surely go beyond normal social interaction.

A Couple of Sentences on why I write

A natural introvert, I find solace in the creation of character and story. These people are not here to judge me, but for me to follow through the wonders of their lives. Sometimes they refuse to let me in or they hold up mirrors only allowing me to get so close. I carry them around with me, waiting, watching, to see what they will do next.

I’d like you to discover their worlds too, so this will be a space to share my work. I hope you’ll sit down awhile and find something worth reading. I hope you’ll tell me what you think too. Literature has and always will be a conversation.