HOOSIERS and Authors
How Writing Is Like Playing Basketball
In the 1986 movie Hoosiers, Coach Norman Dale (Gene Hackman) leads his Hickory Huskers into an empty Butler Field House, where this tiny-town high school team is set to play in the 1952 state tournament. The players’ jaws drop as they let their gaze roam around the place, a much larger basketball facility than they’ve ever seen. Coach Dale knows his first task is to divert his charge’s minds from their fieldhouse-induced stupor so they can think about playing basketball. And what does he do? Give some fiery speech? Run his squad through a bevy of basketball drills? Tell a joke about how size doesn’t matter? (Actually, it wouldn’t surprise me if that last one sneaked into one of the outtakes.) No, he pulls out a tape measure and directs a couple players to measure the distance from the backboard to the free throw line. They obey and dutifully report the distance: fifteen feet. Then they measure the height of the rim, which is the standard ten feet, of course. When they’re done, Coach Dale simply says this: “I think you’ll find these exact same dimensions back in our gym in Hickory.” The players all laugh, the tension is eased, and the Huskers go on to take the state championship.
So what does this have to do with writing? Well, like the players from Hickory, is it not all too easy for us writers to focus on what publication, what “fieldhouse” our writing will play in? Don’t we wonder how prestigious a magazine might print that drop-dead perfect piece of fiction we just wrote? Can we nab that big-name agent? How much money can we rake in? How much acclaim? When our thoughts run this way, are they not akin to the Huskers wondering how big a fieldhouse they will play in?
And then, if we’re lucky enough to get “the call” from that big-time magazine, or agent, or publishing house (which, by the way, hasn’t happened for me), wouldn’t we feel as awestruck, as out of place, as those Hickory players did in Hoosiers? When we dwell on the “where” of our writing, we get sidetracked from the task at hand: the writing itself.
So I have a little exercise for you writers. Go find your favorite book or literary magazine, something that makes you pine to see your own byline in print. Open it to any page. Doesn’t matter which one. Now read a couple paragraphs.
Done? Okay, now take measure of what you’ve read: The words are all English words, right? (If you happen to be a foreign language aficionado, I apologize.) Any words you don’t know? (Somehow I doubt it.) The first letters of the sentences are all capitalized, right? Sentences end with a period, don’t they?
Okay, I’ll stop. As the dimensions of the court at Butler Field House were the same as those at Hickory High, the words found in big-time publications are the same ones we upstart authors employ. The definitions are the same, the correct grammar is the same, the correct punctuation is the same. And something much more important is the same: the almost magical power of those words to communicate. Doesn’t matter if fifty-million folks or only a few lonely souls see those words. In fact, I dare say that sometimes the words read by only a few accomplish more than much of the pablum that the masses take in.
Steven Pressfield, author of The Legend of Bagger Vance, posted a great message on his blog last week. If you wish, check it out here. He talks about writing on two tracks. Track One is the way of writing from our inner, truest self. The writing that some call “bleeding on the page.” When we write this way, fulfilling our calling as a writer, we’re not one whit worried about where our writing will end up or what it will do for us. Track Two leads us down the path of writing for the market. We start writing what we think the world wants to read. We start pondering where our writing will find a home. We wonder what fieldhouse it will play in.
For the past several months I’ve been doing the marketing stuff. Things like starting this website, sending out query letters, commenting on some other blogs. And I’m far enough along in the process to see that not many in the publishing world think my first novel is a blockbuster. For that matter, I’m not sure I’ve netted more than a passing glance. Maybe I’ve even induced a few guffaws and sneers. So with my focus on what Pressfield calls Track Two, and as I face the probability that my words will never leave my own little “gymnasium,” I must confess I’ve allowed some discouragement to set in.
So I have an announcement. All that fretting over the marketing stuff? It stops. Right now.
I’m heading back to Track One, where I listen to my muse and write the words that come from within, the words my soul aches to say, because I know a couple things about those words. First, they’re the same ones the bestselling authors use. They carry the same potential to make people think, laugh, cry, or wonder. Second, as the basketball game is more important than the fieldhouse, the writing itself is so much more consequential than the shell it’s published in. Maybe only a few folks will read my stuff. Maybe nobody will. Maybe people will care about what I have to say. Maybe they won’t. But it’s all okay, and I’m no longer bummed, because from now on I’ll be focusing on how well I’m “playing basketball.” Not on where I’m playing. And if any writer out there happens to read this post, I invite you to join me.