A confession: sometimes, when I can’t seem to muster my prose past some insurmountable stretch in a manuscript, I utter the words “Game Six.” Some writers, in this situation, smoke tobacco. Other writers smoke stuff that is definitely not tobacco. I’ve heard of head-banging and tea-drinking and all manner of ball-squeezing. But for me, the trick is the greatest game in the history of the Detroit Pistons.
Dial it back to the 1988 NBA Finals, Lakers vs. Pistons. Going into Game Six, the Lakers are favorites to win. They’ve got legends Kareem Abdul-Jabar, James Worthy, and Magic Johnson. They’ve got the kind of reputation where one of the least regular things in the world, an NBA Finals win, seems the natural outcome for them. Detroit? Well, they’ve got a few passive aggressive contact maneuvers and ambition. Just a few years ago, they were one of the worst teams in the league, but by Game Six in 1988, the Pistons lead the series 3-2, meaning if the Pistons win the game, they take the championship victory for the first time in history.
It’s a close game. Captain Isiah Thomas scores 14 points in a row. There’s the possibility of a playoffs win tingling in his fingertips, and in the order of the court, an aperture seems to open, one through which the Pistons might prevail to become the country’s best professional basketball team. Thomas passes the ball to shooting guard Joe Dumars and takes an awkward step. Just one. But one wrong step can end careers. The aperture closes quickly. Thomas goes down, and sprawled on the floor grabs his shin, as though he might hold his right leg together. He limps to the bench with the help of the Pistons’ trainer.
Except Thomas is not a guy who can sit idly watching his team squander a shot for the title, even if he has a sprained ankle. So seconds later, he returns to play. The rest of the game seems unreal. Sneaker rubber chirps across the court like injured birds. Thomas dogs toward the ball with a hiccupping stride, shoots, scores, shoots, scores. At the end of the quarter, he’ll have taken 25 points for the Pistons on a sprained ankle, setting an NBA record. It’s the most awing performance in Pistons history, the kind of game where somehow, no matter how arbitrary the rules, as foolish as devoting one’s loyalty to one team may be, and in spite of one’s better judgment telling you that pro athletes earn millions for what can only be called recreation, you might find yourself levitating with the confidence that the human will can manhandle any physical limit. Then the Pistons lose, by one point, on Kareem Abdul-Jabar’s final free throw. Thomas’s best is glorious, but it isn’t enough.
And this titanic insufficiency is exactly what I consider when I write, because the athlete’s work is the writer’s work. This comparison may offend those of Cartesian mind-body division persuasion, but sport and fiction are both vocations requiring incredible efforts, imbued with the potential for real beauty, and perhaps offering little utility. Try to explain what’s so important about writing a novel, and what you’ll end up with is not so far from those offered by ye of muscular bent: It’s inspiring. It manifests happiness. It interrogates limitations. It’s for its own sake. It makes us feel less alone. It illustrates the human condition.
More importantly, writers and athletes are both in the business of narrative. As any sports fan will tell you, winning is not what makes a great game; the outcome is mostly irrelevant to the grace of the sailing pass, the coy swish of the net, the steam engine hook sending a fan of glittering sweat from the dumbstruck face of a falling opponent. Yes, we know from the beginning that Humbert Humbert will be found out, but, oh, how those sentences dazzle! The coiling clauses, the bubbling rhythms, the promiscuity of meaning — that is the material of literature. No writer writes merely for the ending, just as no player is simply in the game to see themselves on the other end of the clock. Their jobs aren’t to answer, “What happens in the end?” but “How does the story unfurl?”
Not that ending isn’t a consideration. I don’t know a single writer who loves the idea of writing unfinished manuscript after unfinished manuscript ad infinitum. In fact, I think that that’s most writers’ primary fear in media res. But a book doesn’t appear fully gestated, and it isn’t formed any better by getting it over with. If that were the case, A Farewell to Arms would read in its entirety: We loved and she died anyway. The Hound of the Baskervilles might be: A mystical dog isn’t killing people. The Pulitzer would go to the most outstanding Tweet. Congratulations, Werner Twertzog.
What we see instead from writers is something like a game played with language. Of course when you’re writing, the occupational hazards don’t include facing elephantine men whose primary directive is weaponizing 300 pounds of flesh against you to bone-crushing effect; writing, though it may not always seem so in workshop, is not head-to-head competition. But what authors often do find is that when they’ve written themselves into the corner, they’re looking for the holes where they can pull an agile maneuver. They’ve got a vocabulary of plays, and there’s only one combination they’ll orchestrate for the forward drive. Often, the most spectacular moments are the ones where the constraints seem impossible to work through.
Nicholson Baker’s debut novel, The Mezzanine, takes the form of a single lunch break escalator ride. The narrative doesn’t derive tension from a single challenge or imminent threat. Nor is there a particular adversary. In other words, several years ago, Baker found himself in the complex choreography of composing a novel, one bounded by two floors, and he was going to need some fancy fucking footwork to make the narrative move. So he planted the body on the moving escalator to push his narrator forward through time, all the while the mind splintering into branches of thought — and footnotes — that pivot back in time even as the narrator continues up, up, up. In a 2011 interview with The Paris Review, Baker considered his writing process in strikingly athletic terms:
It was totally absorbing, the feeling of being sunk in the midst of a big, warm, almost unmanageable pond. I could sense all these notes I had, all these observations I’d saved up to use, finally arranging themselves in relation to one other.
Baker’s syntax reveals some ambivalence about his own agency. He could sense, but it’s the observations that arranged themselves. It’s almost as though he cannot quite take credit for his work. The novel is one part the sense of the writer and one part some alchemical miracle stepping one word beyond another, as though preparation has met luck and spat out a slim volume of genius. It’s the kind of statement that could make a lot of aspiring writers push their wheelie chairs back and reach for the good stuff, because, in moments of doubt, it’s easy to wonder the extent to which the lottery of talent muscles out studiousness.
Can every writer be a Nicholson Baker? Can every athlete be an Isiah Thomas? I don’t know. But what I can say is that in both the athletic and literary worlds, interested parties find themselves asking whether the ratio for a successful career skews more toward aptitude or labor. Francine Prose begins her nouveau classic Reading Like a Writer by asking, “Can creative writing be taught?” It’s a question familiar to those following the ongoing M.F.A. debates and one that inverts that of David Epstein, who asks in his book The Sports Gene, “Do ‘sports genes’ exist at all?”
When we consider these questions, fiction and athletics suddenly become arenas where fate and free will grapple in a confusion of twisted limbs. To call a book a work of genius is to marry it to destiny, the kismet of the extraordinary mind. We rarely, however, call an esteemed novel a work of assiduousness, even as we urge students of writing to dedicate themselves to craft considerations. Perhaps because the mind is less visible than the slight frame, we’re less likely to say that a decent prose stylist probably won’t cut it as a writer than to tell a really good defensive lineman that he may not have enough body mass to carry out pro ball-level hard hitting.
While drafting my novel The Hopeful, which, coincidentally, considers whether grand resolve can overcome mediocre ability, I sometimes did wonder if I was deluded to believe I could write a book or just doing what anyone might: working my ass off until I had a manuscript to show for it. In a way, my problem was also that of my protagonist Ali, a young woman who, after an injury, is unsure whether the betrayals of the body have disqualified her from her dreams of becoming an Olympic athlete. Ali wishes to return to the world of competitive figure skating, a sport, like literature, of individuals rather than teams — and one in which the triumphant performance requires the demonstration of both technical facility and artistic merit, a realm where most people fail. In figure skating, an athlete attempts to learn maneuvers she may or may not be capable of performing by throwing herself into the air, falling, trying again and again, and maybe never succeeding. She’s invested not in the agony of defeat, but the agony of hope. And wasn’t I, too, as I wrote, throwing myself on the page to find out whether or not a novel would land?
There was the moment I got to page 40 and didn’t have a clue what my character would do next. There was the period where I decided to cut up a chapter and insert sections throughout the novel as flashbacks but couldn’t see how without sinking the narrative momentum. After the first draft was complete and the middle still felt flaccid, I pondered whether the whole scheme had been an enormous waste.
In his essay “Digging the Subterranean,” Charles Baxter notes that the board game Careers gestures toward a fundamental strain of narrative. The players are meant to choose which life goal they most desire: money, fame, or love. The part where everyone trips up is that you aren’t rewarded for points won in other realms. Want money and instead receive love? You lose. Want love and not fame? You and Taylor Swift both. “To ask for certain outcomes in life and to get another result,” he writes, “is tragic or comic or some combination of the two, depending on where the observer is standing…These discrepancies are at the core of many great stories, and myths.” This was the center of my novel. Ali wants to be an elite athlete, but she’d be much more successful if she just played to her skills, became a litigator or something more cerebral. It occurred to me that life would be an easier and more champagne bubbling existence if I took a job as a pharmaceutical rep instead of writing something that would only maybe one day be a novel. I was possibly situated in a losing round of Careers.
But this is where Game Six really factors in. Perhaps it’s Pollyannaish, but I do believe that that night in 1988, Isiah Thomas returned to the court with his gimpy ankle not for the win or big coin or fame but because he loved basketball. It’s easy to fantasize about the published book or the championship victory, and it’s easy to believe that whatever handicaps we suffer, whether the blocked mind or the swelling sprain, are too difficult to circumvent. Yet, I didn’t start writing to publish a novel, even if that’s what ended up happening. I started because I liked the late-night game of turning sentences, plowing clauses to the top or bottom to vary effect, whispering paragraphs to listen for the caught rhythm and assonant glide. So when the story goes flat or the words snag, I don’t convince myself I can knock out a novel or bribe myself with imagined printed books. I think of Isiah Thomas in ungainly pursuit of baskets, throwing that orange globe, hands hanging like autumn’s last leaves from raised wrists, not quite enough and rapturous.
Image Credit: Unsplash/Noah Silliman.