By SJ Crown
In the 1986 movie Hoosiers, Coach Norman Dale (Gene Hackman) leads his Hickory Huskers into an empty Butler Field House, where this tiny-town high school team is set to play in the 1952 state tournament. The players’ jaws drop as they gaze around the place, a much larger basketball facility than they’ve ever seen. Having anticipated this, Coach Dale sets out to deliver everyone from their fieldhouse-induced stupor so they can think about playing basketball. And what does he do? Give some fiery speech? Run his squad through a bevy of basketball drills? Tell a joke about how size doesn’t matter? (Actually, it wouldn’t surprise me if that last one sneaked into one of the outtakes.) No, he pulls out a tape measure and directs a couple players to measure the distance from the backboard to the free throw line. They obey and dutifully report the distance: fifteen feet. Then they measure the height of the rim, which is the standard ten feet, of course. When they’re done, Coach Dale simply says this: “I think you’ll find these exact same dimensions back in our gym in Hickory.” The players all laugh, the tension is eased, and the Huskers go on to take the state championship.
So what does this have to do with writing? Well, like the players from Hickory, is it not all too easy for us writers to focus on what publication, what “fieldhouse” our writing will play in? Don’t we wonder how prestigious a magazine might print that drop-dead perfect piece we just wrote? Can we nab that big-name agent? How much money can we rake in? How much acclaim? When our thoughts run this way, are they not akin to the Huskers wondering how big a fieldhouse they’ll play in?
Then, if we’re ever lucky enough to get “the call” from that big-time magazine, or agent, or publishing house, might not we feel as awestruck, as out of place, as those Hickory players did? Might not we find it difficult to concentrate on the task at hand, the writing itself? When we dwell on the “where” of our writing, it’s easy to get sidetracked.
So here’s a little exercise for writers. Grab a favorite book or literary magazine, something that makes you pine to see your own byline in print. Open it to any page. Doesn’t matter which one. Now read a couple paragraphs.
Done? Okay, now take measure of what you’ve read. The words are all English words, right? (If you happen to be a foreign language aficionado, I apologize.) Any words you don’t know? (Somehow I doubt it.) The first letters of the sentences are all capitalized, right? Sentences end with a period, don’t they?
Okay, I’ll stop. As the dimensions of the court at Butler Field House were the same as those at Hickory High, the words found in big-time publications are the same ones all upstart writers employ. The definitions are the same, the correct grammar is the same, the correct punctuation is the same. And something much more important is the same: the almost magical power of those words to communicate. Doesn’t matter if fifty-million folks or only a few lonely souls see those words. In fact, I dare say that sometimes the words read by only a few accomplish more than much of the pablum that the masses take in.
Steven Pressfield, author of The Legend of Bagger Vance and The War of Art, talks about writing on two tracks. Track One is the way of writing from our inner, truest self. The writing that some call “bleeding on the page.” When we write this way, fulfilling our calling as a writer, we’re not one whit worried about where our writing will end up or what it will do for us. Track Two leads us down the path of writing for the market. We start writing what we think the world wants to read. We start pondering where our writing will find a home. We wonder what fieldhouse it will play in.
Track Two thinking is all about numbers. How many folks visit our website? How many new followers on Twitter? And how can I get that big publisher to love my work? Perhaps we’re netting little more than a passing glance. Perhaps we’re even inducing a few guffaws and sneers. And the truth hits: It’s quite possible that our words will never leave our own little “gymnasium.” Thinking this way, it’s certainly easy to get discouraged.
The cure, seems to me, is heading back to Track One, where we listen to our muse and write the words that come from within, the words our souls ache to say, because I know a couple things about those words. First, they’re the same ones the bestselling authors use. They carry the same potential to make people think, laugh, cry, or wonder. Second, just as the basketball game is more important than the fieldhouse, the writing itself is so much more consequential than the shell it’s published in. Maybe only a few folks will read our stuff. Maybe nobody will. Maybe people will care about what we have to say. Maybe they won’t. But it’s all okay, because the true rewards come when we focus on how well we’re “playing basketball.” Not where we’re playing.
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