During my junior year in high school I switched from team sports (soccer, basketball, lacrosse) to running. There were many reasons for this change, but one of the main ones was to escape “athletic politics.” I was a prankster who could never sit still with a natural dislike for unmitigated authority. I also had an adolescent disdain of ingratiation.
I have a fond memory of my first soccer practice freshmen year. We were done for the day and putting the equipment back in he shed. I had the bright idea that I wanted to kick a soccer ball as high up in the air as I could. But my drop-kicks were rarely predictable. When I kicked the ball it when flying back behind my head, into the field, and smacked our coach in the face. His glasses and baseball cap both fell off.
“Who the fuck just did that!?” he shouted.
“Ten laps around the field.” Kicking a soccer ball into the face of your new coach isn’t starting off on the right foot.
With team sports it is often difficult to predict “all-around-skill.” Yes there are the seen factors of points/goals scored. But what about hustle? Getting back on defense? Closing the gaps? Staying on your man? Boxing out? Preventing a pass? Getting a ground ball when everyone else was tired? I was never good at scoring points. I didn’t care that much and usually didn’t have the confidence to take the shot. But I was fast and worked hard.
So I was never a “star player” and didn’t get as much playing time as the guys who scored points. There were a handful of coaches who saw my “hustle merit” and put me in as much as the scorers, but most coaches didn’t care and I often sat on the bench. Of course my teenage mind exaggerated the injustice, but my subsequent success in running and realizations concerning the fallibility and favoritism of high school coaches makes me understand that I often didn’t get as much playing time as I might have “deserved.”
I switched to running because I was tired of sitting on the bench. Here, the game was simple. Run fast: get playing time. Hard work paid off. With basketball, I could practice all summer on my jump shot and have a coach who didn’t like my attitude and never put me in. With running, I could practice all summer and if I was the first one to the finish line, the coach had no choice. I was in.
Now, my competitive running career is (temporarily) over. If I earn enough money from the pen before my youth has withered away, I’d like to take another stab at running sub 1:50 in the 800 meters and sub 4:20 in the mile, but this is unlikely. Literature has taken precedent. Great literature takes years.
Of all occupations, writing is one of the more “just.” You put your work out there and if people like it, they pay for it. It takes a long time to establish a voice and a perspective, but once you have it, nobody can take that away from you. Art keeps many people (including myself) alive. If you can establish a connection with a like-minded audience, then all the circus bullshit of office politics becomes irrelevant.
But again I’m confronted with a similar feeling I had in high school. I’ve written a book and many stories yet I’m still “sitting on the bench.” Perhaps I’m actually a shit writer? Perhaps I should kowtow to the scorers?
Yet, when I go into a Barnes and Noble and read the fiction that’s been recently published, or peruse the NYTimes fiction bestsellers, I think, “Is this really what people are buying and praising? This stuff is boring. This stuff is crap.”
Whether I’m weird, insane, or strange for criticizing these recently lauded books (I think I’m the only person in the world who’s read all of Tolstoy and thoroughly enjoys dub-step music…perhaps my view of the world is too strange/odd to garner empathy) there’s a beautiful consolation for the aspiring writer: the words are out there to judge. Hand me a book that’s sold millions of copies or hand me a book that’s written by a Nobel Prize winner…I’ll know whether the author did something great…whether they closed the gaps, got back on defense, and hustled.
The impetus for this post were two pieces I’ve read in the last 24 hours. The first was as essay published in the New Yorker by George Saunders called: “Who are all these Trump Supporters?” It’s one of the most poorly written essays I’ve read in a long time. The subject matter was interesting, but the writing was boring, stuffy, and incompetently erratic. Yet George Saunders is considered one of America’s leading writers and will likely be praised and published in the New Yorker many more times before he dies.
Another piece I read is by Herman Melville called: “The Piazza.” The writing is also erratic, but with purpose, intelligence, and intensity. Melville was considered by the “literary elite” and the reading public at large as a hack writer for most of his life.
So amongst the glowing or scathing reviews, the prizes or lost obscurity, the publications in revered magazines or little blog posts, the six figure books deals or friendly pats on the back, the hemming and hawing, the noise…the words on the page will always be there…they will always reveal an artist’s soul.
You can run, my friend, but you can’t hide.