Seriously, Cass? More baseball stuff? Well, feel free to move along if you don’t have a yen for The Perfect Game but if you stick around, I’ll try to connect it to something closer to our hearts.
The great Rogers Hornsby, famous baseball player and manager, was once asked how he amused himself after the baseball season was over. “I’ll tell you what I do,” he said. “I stare out the window and wait for spring.”
Well, by the time this post appears, the 2016 World Series will be history and regardless of who triumphs, all of us who are fanatic about the game will sit down to stare out the window until spring . . training . . arrives. In the spirit of that, I’ve been contemplating how much trying to write a book reminds me of playing a baseball game.
The first and most obvious resemblance is the air of utter uncertainty at the beginning of things. Entering the ball park, you are confronted with the tabula rasa of the emerald field, some of its features standard from park to park (pitcher’s mound to home plate, the distance between the bases) and some unique (the Pesky Pole in Fenway, the brick outfield wall in Wrigley). Is there another sport where the ground rules change from venue to venue?
Within all that blank and unruly space lies the possibility there is in the game—either game—and all the uncertainty of how to begin and where to go. For an instant, before the work begins, everything is clean and hopeful and perfect. And then . . the first pitch. The first sentence. And if you read a lot, other writers’ first sentences can stall you right there. You want to throw a strike.
“None of the merry-go-rounds seemed to work any more.” (John Dunne, True Confessions)
“Sunday morning, Ordell took Louis to watch the white-power demonstration in downtown Palm Beach.” (Elmore Leonard, Rum Punch)
“Jackie Brown at 26, with no expression on his face, said that he could get some guns.” (George V. Higgins, The Friends of Eddie Coyle)
You launch into your book with no more idea what is about to happen on the field than the peanut vendor high in the left field bleachers. You hope you can write a sentence that draws like one of those. The game begins. But slowly. Thoughtfully.
From the first pitch, the first words set, you are now the impatient victim of incremental progress. Each ball, each sentence, sends you deeper into the construction, the whole you will not see before it’s done. You lay your words in, make your pitches and take your at-bats, bit by bit, moment by moment, each one building on the ones that came ahead of it and those that might come after. But ever so slowly, with much staring and spitting and rubbing up the tools of your game. Each tiny mote of effort lives in and of itself and at the same time, contributes to a whole.
What is beautiful about this incremental process, though, what makes it both difficult and addicting, is the endless possibility. With each pitch, each word, idea, and sentence you throw out, you create a further place of possibility. What comes next? A bunt? A full swing? Fast ball or slider? A bit of dialogue, some description, a little backstory? Each bit sends you in a new direction, into more possibility, and more, until the possibilities begin to limit themselves by what has preceded them. And then you can only bet on certain acts, certain words, to take you to the end in sight.
And hovering over the whole, always? Failure. The best hitter in baseball—Ted Williams, please; Joe me no DiMaggios—only hit the ball safely four times out of ten. Most writers I know would accept that rate of success in a heartbeat. And truly? Isn’t that part of why we continue pitching the balls, swinging the bat, moving the pen? Nothing in what we do is perfectible and if it were that easy to succeed, everyone would want to do it. And none of it would mean as much.
I had a student tell me once she wished to have written a book, by which I understood she wasn’t yet willing to commit to the plodding, necessary, sometimes nasty work of shaping her ideas, building her story, learning her characters. I hope she eventually learned what she would have to do to bring her wish into the present.
Because the final similarity is this: really, no one much cares what you’re doing. It’s at bottom, a game—an important one, but still only a game—and when the stands are empty, when you type The End, your pleasure is likely not in the product you’ve ended up with, but with the time you’ve spent inside the game. The process, folks. Much as we love the sunshine of fame (minor or major), the win, we have to love to play the game even more.