Writing as Laborious Play
October 6, 2017 § 4 Comments
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.