Thursday, October 13, 2011

Tee It Up

I was talking to a friend about writing yesterday. I had written well and was feeling ebullient as a result, and because every positive emotion conjures its opposite, as though my brain can't help but hold good things up to the mirror of let's not kid ourselves, I'd spent some time, as I so often do, contrasting that afternoon's high with the frequent overwhelming sense of doom and distress that accompanies failures. "It's like golf," I told my friend. You see, I am a passionate but lousy golfer, and like most amateurs of my particular stripe -- I've never taken a lesson, I rarely waste time at the range, I step up and hit the ball without much preamble -- I shoot consistently around a hundred. That's not terrible for an unschooled hacker, but of those thirty or so extra shots, the great majority of them tend to be the kinds of efforts after which, in most other pursuits, one would say, "Wow, I am very bad at this. I should stop wasting my money and other people's time doing it." Worm burners, three-putts, shanks, fliers, straight-up whiffs -- I've done it all. And yet I don't specifically remember a single one of those shots: I only know I've mis-hit in those and many other ways because my scorecards have told me so. What I do remember are the shots where everything came together in what can only be described as the confluence of chance and divine intervention. With rare exceptions (and believe me, in thirty years, there have been some painfully exceptional rounds), there is always a little cluster of those magical shots. I hit a hole-in-one on a 130-yard par-three in a light drizzle. I've knocked down sixty-foot triple-break putts. I've pulled out a seven iron and hooked a ball up and around a sprawling maple, landing it utterly improbably on the front edge of the green. My best round ever was an 87, which felt like all the good to great shots from an entire summer's worth of golf had come together on one magnificent Sunday afternoon and said, "Have your way with us, you big stud." And have my way I did. My point is this: I've had my moments, as every crappy amateur has, and those moments are what inspire duffers like me to climb out of bed of an early Saturday morning to lace up his spikes and spoil a good walk.

I am, for all intents and purposes, no less an amateur as a writer, although I'd argue that I'm much more proficient in this realm than I am on the fairways: not a scratch writer, but probably about a ten or twelve handicap, meaning that I don't execute perfectly with every swing, but I tend to recognize where I went wrong and know how to adjust and make up for it with my next swing. In golf, I'm not convinced there's any such thing as a natural. There are simply too many variables, and the most obvious consideration, athleticism, often turns out to be somewhat of a curse: gifted athletes, with their ease and grace and flexibility and balance, tend to expect those attributes to translate into instant success. I've seen the game of golf chew those people up and spit them out on the first tee. There may or may not be naturals in the sphere of writing, I don't know, but I certainly wouldn't say I'm a natural as a writer. I am the equivalent of the aforementioned athlete: I was born with a pretty sharp mind, and I was fortunate to be exposed to an array of experiences that honed that mind in a particular fashion. I developed an aptitude based on the combination of a gift and a lot of years of incidental education.

I don't remember a time in my life when I didn't write, but I do remember the moment I decided I wanted to be a writer: it was the first time somebody adored something I'd written. I was a sophomore in college, nineteen years old, and I'd written a sad, haunting little piece called "A Splash in the Lake" for my Creative Writing 201 class, which was taught by Jenny Boylan, who at that time was known as Jim. In the story a young married couple are vacationing at a rustic lake house, enjoying a brief respite from their new adult life of too many bills, not enough money and, as I imagined it, insufficient joy. They had a child, a toddler, and while the child napped, they stole a few intimate moments together, moments that lingered into a sleepy insouciance that was interrupted by a sound that may or may not have been the closing of a screen door. As they lie there slowly coming out of sleep another sound greets them: a splash in the lake. Yeah, a bit heavy-handed, but well received by a room full of young young adults, none of whom had ever been married or had (and lost) a child. This was a beginner's writing class, so actual bare-knuckles criticism was rare, which is too bad because that story could have used some thoughtful commentary. The good news, though, is that I benefited from the experience of having impressed a handful of readers. Don't ever let anyone kid you about this: we all want to be loved, and if we're even the least bit thoughtful, we want to be loved for the things we do well. When I sit down to write a story, I'm not thinking about who might read it and then admire me a little. But I'm definitely thinking that when I finish the story. I want to put my little stories out there, knowing full well the world is filled with firing squads, but knowing too that there might be even just one someone who reads them and her eyes light up in the same places mine did when I wrote them.

Actually, there has been one notable exception to the statement that I don't start from the perspective of writing to win affection: I spent a solid year and a half writing exclusively with an audience of one in mind. My day's work didn't end until I felt like I'd written something I could show her in the vain hope it would make her love me. And god was that a terrible book. But I kept at it as though I thought it would save my life. I was almost devastatingly wrong. After the fallout, after the dust had settled over everything and I started writing a new book, I didn't immediately realize I'd managed to reshape my approach. For the most part, honestly, I was just writing, unfettered, as it turns out, but not necessarily conscious of that. It wasn't until months later, after I'd finished a first draft of the book and I showed one of the stories to my most trusted reader, that it finally hit me. She read the story called "Teachers," and when she reached the end she looked at me and said, "Dad, your writing is brilliant." I was unprepared for what it felt like to hear those words from the person I admire most. But I'm smart enough to know I want to hear her say them again and again and again. And so I write, and I keep writing until the story is finished, and then I hope the right girl loves it.

Most days the writing falls somewhere in the range between the uninspired knock-down five-iron that does little more than keep you out of trouble while moving you closer to the green, and the topped second shot that trickles into the pond, thus negating the value of a stellar tee shot, leaving you cursing and muttering while you dig another ball out of your bag and drop it roughly in the vicinity of where the last one went to get wet. But then there are those occasions when you're just tapping away at the keys and find yourself turning an exquisite phrase, dropping perfect words from a character's mouth, or taking a scene somewhere you didn't know it could go (or you could take it), and it is the equivalent of stringing together a long, straight drive, a solid approach, and a chip-in from the fringe to eagle the toughest par five on the course. For those extended moments while you wait for your partners to putt out so you can make your way to the next tee, you replay those three shots in your head, recall nuances of stance and grip and swing, smile a little to yourself, and hope some of the mystery of what you just accomplished remains when you step up to the next hole and tee it up again.

No comments:

Post a Comment