Writing as Laborious Play

October 6, 2017 § 8 Comments

zz3 copy(2)By Mary Volmer

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.


Mary Volmer is the author of two novels: Crown of Dust (Soho Press, 2010) and Reliance, Illinois (Soho Press, 2016). Her short fiction and essays have appeared in various publications, including Mutha Magazine, Women’s Basketball Magazine, Fiction Writers Review, Historical Novel Society Review, and Ploughshares. She has been awarded residencies at the Vermont Studio Center and Hedgebrook and was the spring 2015 Distinguished Visiting Writer in Residence at Saint Mary’s College (CA) where she now teaches.

§ 8 Responses to Writing as Laborious Play

  • Reblogged this on Mike Smith's Multiverse and commented:
    This is an excellent short essay by Mary Volmer, which uses John Edgar Wideman’s memoir, Hoop Roots, to talk about writing as sport. Like athletes, writers embody re-creation as recreation and grow “original” through rote practice. It ain’t easy.

  • What a fine analogy! Like any skill, writing needs practice, a discipline of sorts, as well as a proclivity to and a delight in. Doesn’t mean every moment is filled with delight and that one never encounters drudgery or ‘off days’ (as in sports or music for that matter), but as long as there is enough awe, sufficient wonder, a fair balance of drill and performance it is oh-well-worth-it. Wouldn’t have it any other way!

  • equipsblog says:

    Great metaphor. Fresh and yet quite profound.

  • jualmatrasbeladiri212 says:


  • Clay Kallam says:

    Martin Buber in “I and Thou” talks about how play transforms into ritual and can, at some points, reach the level of joy — and I think that’s true of writing and sports.

    The aspect of time is also interesting. On the court, in the game, time runs at a different pace. In baseball, for example, it runs on its own, out of everyone’s control; in basketball (and by the way, Mary was a very good player — I’ve coached against her and played against her), the stutter of the game clock manipulates time in unusual ways. While writing, at least for me, time disappears in the focus required to shape the thoughts.

    There is one key grammatical difference, though, that tells the tale: We “play” basketball; we don’t “play” writing, zone or no zone.

  • Sent from my iPhone


  • Reblogged this on Notes from An Alien and commented:
    Much to ponder in today’s re-blog………

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