Thursday, August 21, 2014

"throw strikes" vs. "keep your shoulder back"

When I was twelve, I loved baseball above all things. I was even good at it. I still have a news clipping from my hometown paper that says "Jake Weber pitched and batted the North Canton all-stars to a 15-3 victory over the Massillon National All-Stars." I hit two home runs in that game, and pitched for four innings until we were ahead enough they saved me for a future game. I never got to play that future game; two nights later we got creamed and we were done.

As I got older and the mound moved out to the full 60 ft 6 inches from home, I had problems throwing strikes. In those days, coaches tended to deal with my wildness by offering this really helpful advice: "C'mon, Jake. Throw strikes!"

Oooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooh. Throw strikes. If only I had thought of that.

Nowadays, coaches at all levels are better informed. There are lots of videos available, many for free, where even an amateur leader of nine year-olds in Ohio can more or less trouble shoot mechanics issues of pitchers. I had to live with amateur psychiatry instead. I needed "Keep your shoulder back as you come through your motion," but I got "Just relax!"

I compare these two approaches to those used by two well-known books on writing: Writing Fiction, edited by Burroway and Stuckey-French, and Robert Olen Butler's From Where you Dream When I decided to give writing another try a few years ago, these were the first two books I read.

Butler is the old-school coach, giving advice like "Write from your white-hot center." He meant something like write from your truest, most instinctive, most pre-verbal and sensual self. Great. Throw strikes. HOW do I write from my white hot center? I know that it's what I want to do. Why am I not doing it?

He does offer a few practical ideas. He recommends writing in the early hours, while your brain is still in its addled, dream-like, pre-verbal state. He recommends writing instinctively. Then, later, you go back and edit, and just take out anything that doesn't "thrum." Again--how do I do that? The closest thing he offers to practical advice is his description of considering your scenes like a film director (with an emphasis on the Stanislavsky method). This was something I had also heard alluded to vaguely in graduate school at University of Illinois-Chicago by Gene Wildman. Basically, you imagine your scene like a director. Should the camera be wide-lens? Close-up? Should this be a montage or a slow, real-time study?

That was a little better. It was like saying "You need to keep balance throughout your pitching motion"--a general rule of thumb, but still not precise enough to tell me what the hell I actually needed to do.

The Burroway/Stuckey-French book is what I needed. (I also liked the Gotham Writer's Workshop book, which had a similar approach, but shorter.) It had tangible advice on things like pace, scene, description, point-of-view, tone, and even very specific directions on how to handle quotations and avoid too many "tags." It was humbling, after having an advanced degree in English, to realize I really didn't know how to do some basic things. But thinking back, I wasn't the only one. My graduate school workshops were filled with bad writing.

Why? Because grad school was all about emotional support and nothing about the guts of how to fix your shit. Writing programs weren't alone; in academic literature courses, we always tried to jump right into some high-level analysis of a text based on some sexy theorist before most of the class had understood the base text's denotative meaning. We were trying to throw curve balls when we couldn't throw fast balls. We wanted to delve into the white hot center without figuring out where the door to the center was.

Maybe in five years, when I've knocked off a dozen short story credits and my first novel, I'll return to Butler and find inspiration to write a magnum opus. For now, though, I'm still working on keeping my shoulder back.

Next up: The dangers of too much "how to" or an analysis of the short story "Bagram" by Tom Paine from the Spring/Summer edition of Glimmer Train. 

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