Game Six: On the Sport of Writing

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: Flickr/slgckgc.

Hemingway for Hotels: The Ritz-Carlton’s Flash Fiction Ads

It could almost be a writing workshop prompt: tell a story, do it in six words, go for the wow effect — and that’s exactly what the Ritz-Carlton wants. Recently, the hotel company launched a campaign inviting social media friends and followers to provide six-word stories about their Ritz-Carlton experiences with the hashtag #RCMemories. The company calls these stories “Six Word Wows,” and the campaign, if one were to believe the corporate website’s press release tagline, is “Paying Homage To Classic Ernest Hemingway Line.” “Which classic Hemingway line?” we might ask. “If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them”? No, Ritz-Carlton is referring to the probably apocryphal anecdote that when bet he couldn’t write a story in six words, Hemingway replied, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”  Although the stripped-down prose of #RCMemories might be seen as loosely inspired by the Hemingway legend, the nonfiction specifications have more in common, perhaps, with SMITH Magazine’s Six-Word Memoirs®, which became so popular that they were released as a series of books in conjunction with Harper Perennial. Six-Word Memoirs® have included micro-narratives such as “Waves lapping. Pages turning. Perfect day,” “Be silly often, and invite friends,” and “I am my neighbor’s weird neighbor.” Someone cynical might note that Six-Word Memoirs®is a registered trademark. “Six word wows,” on the other hand, is all the Ritz-Carlton’s own.  To model the ideal #RCMemories, the company has released eight “Six Word Wows.” They’ve included: “Dinner ‘til dawn. Laughter. Years regained,” “First tooth. Fairy knocks. Girl delighted,” and “Sold out. Last seat. Dreams transpire.” These bytes suggest that accommodations are not just a bed and shelter but Tweetable—an enviable narrative arc in a storied life.  Not only that but Ritz-Carlton suggests that by providing a personal narrative gratis for the benefit of a company that netted $626 million in 2013 — after paying to stay at one of their properties, of course — is honoring literary genius.  The conflation of the artist-rebel and consumer is not an entirely new problem. In the mid-nineties, Thomas Frank described a new type of capitalist: One raised knowing that conformity, at least conformity embodied by 1950s suburban life, wasn’t cool. Rock ‘n roll was cool. Beat poetry — cool. Dionysian gratification, diversity, not affecting seriousness, and getting away from what seems like boring homogeneity — cool. The result? The Culture Trust: a corporate America that deploys the sensibilities of counterculture for profit. Its branding offers the reassuring image of nonconformity and heterodoxy that helps the Establishment materialism go down easy and is typified by the logic whereby a company makes Henry Rollins a spokesperson for his purported punk individualism. “The countercultural idea has become capitalist orthodoxy,” Frank wrote. “Advertising teaches us not in the ways of puritanical self-denial (a bizarre notion on the face of it), but in orgiastic, never-ending self-fulfillment. It counsels not rigid adherence to the tastes of the herd but vigilant and constantly updated individualism… We consume not to fit in, but to prove, on the surface at least, that we are rock ‘n roll rebels.” The ads tell us that buying stuff is spinning away from the buttoned up commuter home lifestyle and indulging our individual anarcho-hedonistist. Today, the very jargon of advertising gestures toward this ethos. Ad firms offer “creative solutions.” Their online efforts are focused on “social storytelling.” “Brand ambassadors” lead promotions. This vocabulary reframes advertising as artistic and creative, which on some level, it is. The problem is one of dishonesty by omission: Advertising has become more creative and progressive, but its primary object is still capital gain. The Six Word Wow campaign takes the Culture Trust and raises it a couple of copywriters’ salaries. Where once the Ritz-Carlton LLC was satisfied with its customers merely feeling their consumption to be rebellious, now it asks for user-generated content to supplement their $10-15 million-a-year worth of advertisements. In other words, it asks its customers to first pay for hotel rooms and then advertise them without any compensation. And it’s all done with a playful call to arms, not unlike the announcement for a flash fiction contest — except the prize is always won by the corporation, not the writer, or in more modern terms, the content provider. Of course, Ritz-Carlton is not alone in adopting a user-generated content strategy. Last year, when Belkin and Lego collaborated on an iPhone case, customers were invited to share phone selfies with the hashtag #legoxbelkin. Burberry’s Art of the Trench campaign asked for trench coat photos to be uploaded to a Tumblr. In Culture Trust 2.0, we’re all Don Draper, and we’re all susceptible to his slick salesmanship. Our complicity via ad content generation allows us to believe that our consumerism is a new, better consumerism; we aren’t bragging about the stuff we bought as much as sharing our stories with the online global community.  Some might protest that user-generated content campaigns are simply a new iteration of word-of-mouth recommendations. We’ve always asked our friends advice. We’ve preferred a reliable consumer report to a fast-talking sales guy. Indeed, according to a study conducted by Ipsos Media CT and the Social Media Advertising Consortium, Millennials trust user-generated content 50 percent more than advertisements, primarily because they find it more “authentic.” The question is: What happens when user-generated content and advertisements amount to essentially the same thing? Furthermore, what happens when the purportedly authentic UGC ad is sought by asking for stories inspired by an unverified story about a fiction writer’s classified ad-styled narrative? Perhaps, like Saatchi & Saatchi’s Team One, the brains behind the Six Word Wow campaign, the best place to turn for answers is fiction. Toward the beginning of Jonathan Franzen’s 2001 tome The Corrections, there’s a scene in which Chip Lambert, a young professor at an elite Connecticut college, shows his critical theory class a series of videos from an ad campaign. In the videos, an enviably brassy, chatty group of women working in an office discover that one of the gang, Chelsea, has a lump in her breast about which she’s too frightened to see a doctor. Her boss, a woman of compassionate technological savvy, has news for Chelsea: She can use the W—Corporation’s Global Desktop Version 5.0 to research cancer, join support groups, and find medical care. It’s all very emotional, not least of all because after Chelsea dies, women around the world look at images of dead Chelsea on their personal Global Desktops before the video cuts to a message urging viewers to “Help us Fight for the Cure” and explaining that W has given more than $10 million to the American Cancer Society. After the viewing, one student praises the bravery of the ad for allowing its protagonist to die, but Chip expects “someone to observe that it was precisely this self-consciously ‘revolutionary’ plot twist that had generated publicity for the ad.” The class does not take Chip’s bald baiting. Instead his favorite student says of the ad, “It’s celebrating women in the workplace… It’s raising money for cancer research. It’s encouraging us to do our self-examinations and get the help we need. It’s helping women feel like we own this technology.” And of course, in a sense, she’s right. The ad doesn’t serve only one purpose, and that one of those is to promote a brand does not negate the company’s charitable donation. Like many texts, the W—Corporation’s commercial is complicated, and the author’s aims may be manifold.  It is exactly this advertising “author” that Colson Whitehead zeroes in on in Apex Hides the Hurt, a novel in which the sixth most popular bandage manufacturer in America hires slick consultants to increase sales. On the advice of one consultant, the brand’s new strategy becomes selling bandages in a range of hues, unlike their competitors that offer only a single “flesh” tone. After all, as he says, “You manufacture this thing and call it flesh. It belongs to another race. I have different ideas about what flesh color is… We come in many colors. And we want to see ourselves when we look down at ourselves, our arms and legs.” The brand is renamed Apex and soon ads showing white, black, and Asian mothers sticking Apex bandages matched to white, black, and Asian children appear on television. Apex begins selling well. As the nomenclature consultant who conceives of the name Apex recalls later, “The packages spoke for themselves. The people chose themselves and in that way perhaps he had named a mirror… In the advertising, multicultural children skinned knees, revealing blood beneath, the commonality of wound, they were all brothers now, and multicultural bandages were affixed to red boo-boos. United in polychromatic harmony, in injury, with our individual differences respected, eventually all healed beneath Apex.”  Whitehead’s bouncy prose is flush with satire: The bandages do not create a society in which it’s understood that the similarities of the soul belie differences in skin color. Throughout the novel, Apex bandages will fail to heal a minor toe injury incurred by the brand-namer—who, notably, is nameless himself—yet he does, ostensibly, believe his own observation that the image of multiculturalism at work in the ads is beautiful. Apex may fail the very man who has marketed the product, but the product also does, to a degree, rectify a sin of homogeneity. What Whitehead captures is the way that advertisements act as limited utopian fictions, reflecting the fantasies of the target demographic. Seeing—and therefore being reminded of—the values signified in a commercial may not be such a bad thing when so often the real world fails to live up to these ideals. Even the authors of these ads are enchanted by their own fairy tales. Yet at a time when 89 percent of adults ages 18-29 use social networking sites, perhaps the most relevant example of advertising in fiction arrives via Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story. Set in the near future, the novel depicts a world in which its characters are never without their electronic devices, personal and financial information is (often humiliatingly) public, and men and women are Mediastuds and Mediawhores. Books are rare, but ads coyly branded as social media “hints” are not. When users log in to send messages, the Super Sad Facebook equivalent GlobalTeens posts these “hints,” such as “Switch to Images today! Less words = more fun!!!” and “Harvard Fashion School studies show excessive typing makes wrists large and unattractive. Be a GlobalTeen forever — switch to images today!” Language itself has been perverted so that its chief use is to keep the Mediastuds and Mediawhores of the world vapid consumers — proud of their electronic savvy and low on emotional savvy. Most insidiously, the desire to connect digitally is exactly what exposes GlobalTeens users to ads meant to silence them. Ultimately, however, it doesn’t. The characters of Super Sad True Love Story still air their frustrations through GlobalTeens messages and stream their love letters. The need to be heard cannot be quashed by the machinations of social media advertising. A writing workshop might carefully call them unsuccessful texts. Perhaps what draws Franzen, Whitehead, and Shteyngart to address advertising in their fiction is its kinship as a type of text. The difference, of course, is that ads can be consumed in seconds, and the author company is the text’s distributor. The text doesn’t need to be chosen by the reader. Yet in each novel, the limitations of authorial intent loom over advertising; advertisements are never purely exploitative vehicles toward consumerism. Copywriters may intend a particular effect, but it is the reader who interprets it. Filtered through the complexity of the human mind, the ads may generate a multiplicity of meaning, and we readers must ask for what advertorial texts we’ll suspend our disbelief.  One reason the Six Word Wows have been effective is that in some sense, the Ritz-Carlton has called for patrons to take some authorial role. Ed French, chief sales and marketing officer of the Ritz-Carlton, provided a statement for the #RCMemories campaign press release: “The Six Word Wows are yet another way for us to celebrate the special memories that guests take away from a visit to our hotels all over the world.” The company has said, don’t kill your darlings; make them for us to share. Like the characters of Super Sad True Love Story, those who choose to provide #RCMemories do want to celebrate their travels by re-narrating them on social media. They want to be asked how their trip was; they want the singularity of their experiences to be acknowledged. And like many writers, they want to believe that with just a few words, they can convey the romance of a moment. “Look!” they say. “Lots of people go on vacation, lots of people sleep at hotels, but I am narrator of my extraordinary life.” And we do all live extraordinary lives. So perhaps the problem isn’t that brand campaigns are exploiting users for content. Perhaps the problem is that we can’t buy an audience, and in the absence of empathetic ears, our default narrative mode is the fiction of advertising.  #RCMemories does not really pay homage to Hemingway, and it’s certainly not art for art’s sake, but like any writing exercise, the Six Word Wows provide a formal frame to display the unwieldy sprawl of human experience. What’s important is that we remember Hemingway’s advice to, “Write the truest sentence you know.” In that spirit, here’s a Six Word Wow: Our stories. Their profit. Share wisely. Image via vitroids/Flickr