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Writing as Laborious Play

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Mary | 33 comments In a past life, I was an athlete. Never a professional, I was good enough to earn a basketball scholarship to Saint Mary's, a small D-I college in California (GO GAELS!). It was in college I began to write. Below is a short essay, published in BREVITY, about the similarities between athletic and artistic pursuits.

Writing as Laborious Play

The obsessions of writers and athletes begin the same way, as play. In his memoir, Hoop Roots, John Edgar Wideman explains that his basketball obsession began, “as messing around…throw a ball through a hoop, a fun silly kind of trick at first, until you decide you want to do it better.” He might as well have been speaking about storytelling and writing.

Writing starts as novelty, as messing around, until you decide you want to do it better, and become willing, as Wideman says, to “learn the game’s ABC’s. Learn what it costs to play.” What follows is a period of joyful mimicry. Not yet aware of the limits of your ability, you are burdened only by your own evolving expectations. Try and fail and try again, until the ball begins to fall through the hoop with regularity–until the writing, once derivative, takes on its own life, and you become capable of original expression.

Because ultimately, expression is what athletes and authors crave. They live for those moments when body, soul, and mind operate in perfect unity, a kind of spiritual transcendence. Sports psychologists have named this transcendent experience “the Zone,” or, “The Zone of Optimal Performance.” Their perspective alters, so that nothing of consequence exists outside of the immediate action. Awareness expands to fill the moment. The game seems to slow, the goal grows wider and the body responds with uncalculated inventiveness to each unpredictable event.

Writers share similar experiences of altered time and heightened awareness. They, too, understand that discipline precedes transcendence. They, too, must be willing to show up and endure discomfort and labor every day, even on bad days. They, too, must find satisfaction in small daily victories, adapt to setbacks as the season or story progresses, and maintain faith in their purpose even when they have cause to doubt their abilities.

Writers and athletes recognize their pursuits to be, as Chad Hubbach writes so elegantly, an “apparently pointless affair…which sidestepped attempts to paraphrase its value yet somehow seemed to communicate something true or even crucial about the Human Condition. The Human Condition being, basically, that we’re alive and have access to beauty, can even erratically create it, but will someday be dead and will not.”

Although at times marred by ego and that false god, glory, the desire to observe beauty and to have a hand in its creation, remains the noble center of both pursuits.

Beverly Very well written! I have never been an athlete but I certainly agree that writers must understand discipline and show up. For me it was on the days I set aside to write. I needed the discipline to avoid distractions and yes, adapt to setbacks. I needed conversations with myself about my purpose, checking in, revising and reminding myself why I was pursuing this seemingly unreachable goal. Giving myself time away or attending to other tasks was always a refreshing break.

Mary | 33 comments Thank you Beverly. I think the analogy might also be applied to dancers or painter or actors... anyone who must develop a skill and use it unconsciously. I'm not so good, these days, at avoiding distraction. It's too easy for me to find fulfillment in small necessary tasks, or in frivolous ones, for that matter.

One of my friends is a college track coach. On his door is a sign I love and try (try) to live by: "Don't sacrifice what you want most, for what you want right now." I'm not sure who said it, but I like it (even if I don't always follow it:)

Beverly I like the quote too. Good reminder.

Martha Conway | 255 comments Mod
Wow, fantastic quote. That is such a common dilemma, isn't it? Like, every single day. Often what I want now (taking a nap, picking up the book I'm reading, checking email) is not what I really want long-term (to work on and finish my own book).

And then there's the stuff that you don't want to do but have to—dishes, laundry, a job that pays the bills. Focus and dedication during our "writing time" are both so important.

Mary | 33 comments Martha wrote: "Wow, fantastic quote. That is such a common dilemma, isn't it? Like, every single day. Often what I want now (taking a nap, picking up the book I'm reading, checking email) is not what I really wan..."

The have to stuff! Boy, can that ever expand with a family:)

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