Writing on Fire

JSB basketball TaftI loved playing basketball. Too many twisted ankles and a knee surgery have taken me off the court and onto the golf course. But my happiest times as an athlete were from junior high school to college, running up and down a hardwood floor.

High School was best. There is nothing quite like charging into a packed gym with fans cheering, warm-up music blaring, and cheerleaders making with the pom-poms.

Then the game begins, and you’re into it, and sometimes you’re hot, sometimes you’re not. And sometimes you are somewhere in between. You win some, you lose some. There are major highs—like hitting the winning shot at the buzzer. And dismal lows—like losing a championship.

But every one of them is a memory wrapped up in the rush you got from playing, and for that you gladly take the whole package.

And then there are those times when you are in “the zone.” That’s when everything goes so right it feels almost effortless. It’s the apex of athletic experience. It’s like a surfer catching a perfect wave. All you do is ride.

There’s no telling how long the ride will last. You’re just glad it happened.

When I think of my own zone times, there’s one night that stands above all the rest. It was the night I was on fire.

I could not miss. I was swishing 20 footers all over the place. I was dishing passes that would have had Magic Johnson nodding in approval. My Chuck Taylors had wings.

But in the opposing stands there was a guy sitting close to the sideline who started with the smack.

Now, it is every fan’s right to talk trash. They pay for a ticket, they can try to get into the head of the player who is carving up their team. When it happens, you have to answer on the court. You don’t want to give any indication that the digs are getting to you.

So I kept hitting shots.

And the guy kept running his mouth. Get in his face! He’s not that good! He’s slow! He’s afraid!

Yadda yadda yadda.

Then came the play. It’s the most vivid memory of that wildfire night.

I was on a fast break. A fast break is when you try to beat the other team down the floor to their basket. On this particular play I was dribbling up the right side when a player from the other team ran across the court to pick me up.

Without any hesitation I executed my favorite move, the crossover dribble. I switched the ball from my right hand to my left without missing a beat, changing direction as I did. It’s a move I picked up from watching Pete Maravich when I was a kid.

Now I was dribbling across the key toward the hoop. The guy I’d left behind was charging hard to catch up to me.

I could hear the smack-talking fan yelling his lungs out.

As I got close to the basket I sensed the other player getting ready to try to block my layup.

The fire took over.

I jumped in the air, switching the ball to my right hand. I was now actually facing the opposing stands. Without looking I flipped a shot over my head. As I did, I heard the smack talker laugh. He really did. Like I’d just thrown up the worst shot in the history of hoops. He stopped laughing when the ball banked off the backboard and through the net. Just as I knew it would.

As I started back up the court to play defense, I put a huge smile on my face and jogged slowly in front of Mr. Smack. I didn’t have to make eye contact with him. He saw my pearlies. And as I recall he didn’t make another sound the rest of the game.

Writers have a zone, too. You’ve been there. You’ve felt it. Sometimes for an hour of pure creativity, or maybe one whole, glorious day. You can’t force it. It comes unbidden. The fire is spontaneous, but there are some things you can do to lay out the wood.

Why was I able to perform a perfect crossover dribble at just the right time? Because I’d spent hours practicing dribbling on my driveway, often with a chair set up as an “opponent.” I’d go left-to-right, right-to-left, so in a game muscle memory could take over.

How could I shoot over my head without looking at the basket? Because I’d played countless games of HORSE, wherein you try to make trick shots that your opponent can’t duplicate. As a HORSE ninja, I’d always include over-the-head, no-look shots in my repertoire.

Finally, how did I sense where the other player would be? Because I’d been in hundreds of pickup games—two-on-two, three-on-three, four-on-four. Virtually every combination of play near the basket I’d experienced many times.

So you must practice. Not just any kind of practice. I’ve quoted the famous basketball coach Bobby Knight before: “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.” If you repeat the wrong things over and over, that’s not going to help you.

Which is why I’ve said that merely writing is not going to make you a better writer.

When you learn something about writing, when you observe the craft at work in a novel, jot yourself a note and then try to do the same thing in your own work. That’s the way you drill. That’s the way you get better.

Second, remember to play. Try things out. Be fearless. In pickup games I’d try out new moves. When I found one that worked, I kept using it.

Finally, do something every day to groove your writing. I used to carry a basketball when I walked to school. Sometimes I’d bounce it, sometimes I’d toss it from one hand to the other, just to implant the feel of it on my fingertips. You can do something each day to improve as a writer. You can:

  • Write your quota of words.
  • If you can’t write your quota, you can read something about writing (a chapter of a how-to, an article in Writer’s Digest, a blog post from a trusted source).
  • You can read a few pages of a novel and think about what the author is doing.
  • You can listen to an audio book as you drive or exercise.
  • You can write in a journal for five minutes.
  • You can carry a small notebook and jot down ideas as they come.

What other things can a writer do? Tell us in the comments.

I’m going to be out most of the day, so talk amongst yourselves. When have you experienced “the zone” in your writing, or in any other pursuit? How’d it feel? What did you do to get there?

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JSB Meme

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11 thoughts on “Writing on Fire

  1. Just as important for writers as the mantra “Read-Write-Repeat” is Pay Attention.

    I think the best writers are especially aware of the world around them. They should notice details others gloss over. They should be sensitive to the reactions of others.

    It’s a self-feeding loop of interaction between yourself and the world that heightens your ability to describe things vividly and make others care and more tuned in to life.

  2. There’s a sad irony in reading other fiction as part of your writer’s education. Admittedly, probably 95% of the fiction I read I find to be just average. So it’s no surprise that I’m always analyzing the story and trying to figure out why–in fact, it’s almost impossible to turn off.

    But then there’s that other 5% of books that are so sensational that I literally am lost in the story and can’t put it down. There is no time to think about craft, I’m too busy being marvelously engaged with story world. But at the end, when I should be thinking “What elements of writing make this book so awesome?” I resist the urge to analyze because I don’t want to spoil the magical story moment.

    And quite frankly, when the stories are THAT good and THAT seamless, I find it hard to tease apart why they were so good anyway.

  3. In the zone writing is the best, when the area around you drops away and magic pours from your fingertips, setting the keyboard ablaze. I’ve read articles on how to get in the zone every time you write, but I don’t buy it. If we could do that, it wouldn’t be special. I agree that it’s quality over quantity. Writing poorly for years won’t help anyone. Perhaps it’s laser-focus concentration that causes the inner bestselling author to take over. It’s folks like you, writers who share their knowledge and techniques, who help others find their inner bestselling author and, in turn, cause more and more in the zone days.

  4. I find that I’m more likely to hit the zone if I’m excited about the scene in writing. Something about the conflict excites me, like getting to eat a hoarded candy bar. I’m currently using the outlining technique from the little book Take Off Your Pants, and I’m finding that it helps me hit the zone quicker than any other system I’ve used.

  5. Jim,
    Love your menu of practices.

    Seven years ago this month I began an eight-week intensive fiction writing class from author Eric Witchey that kicked off my journey on “the path of craft.” Every morning for a week we speed-wrote for 15 minutes, using story prompts (3 random words from 3 different books, or 3 pictures etc) on a particular point of craft–scene, POV, tension, setting ETC, not correcting as we went, letting our subconscious absorb our efforts. We coupled this with 15 minutes later in the day doing a conscious sketch, outline etc of said technique.

    The speed writing to internalize was especially valuable. It meant losing yourself in practicing a technique without controlling it, letting the technique seep down from the conscious part of your mind into the vast lake of the subconscious. Then, few weeks later I’d find myself better at the craft point I’d practiced to internalize. Pretty cool.

  6. Appropriate post with the announcement of Moses Malone’s passing. Thanks for this! It’s so important writers realize writing a lot doesn’t mean writing better.

  7. Practice looking at things. Say you’re sitting in a doctor’s waiting room ir entering a classroom. How many people are there? What are they doing? What does their body language tell you; are they tense, reading, joking? What are they wearing? Make up their stories.
    In the TV series Psych, there was a diner scene where the father, Henry, wouldn’t be Sean dessert until he closed his eyes and told dad how many hats were in the room. It was one of countless lessons Henry used to teach his son to be observant. My own dad used to use the Kim Game (from Rydyard Kipling) putting out a tray of items and giving us two minutes to study, then quizzed us. As our performance improved, he’d increase the number of items and reduce the time. I can’t do it very well now, lack of practice, but there was a time when I was pretty good at noticing details. And if you’re using it while in a “waiting” situation, then you’re not just wasting time waiting for the teacher to arrive or your number at the DMV to be called. You’re working.

  8. Love this. As an old worn out jock myself, I can relate, and have a few zone stories of my own. As a writing teacher, I sometimes use the story about Michael Jordan when he shut his eyes to shoot a free throw… and nailed it. The crowd went wild and a legend was born.

    There are two take aways from that story. First, he had to be in the zone – his zone – to even consider it. And… he’s Michael Jordan. That’s the key lesson.

    Like any sport, writing has lines on the court defining where you can go, and where you can’t. And also like any sport, there are core principles that define how you play the game. Some writers like to say “there are no rules,” and that may be true, because there is nobody with a whistle telling you to stop. But there is a scorecard (readership, reviews, or even getting published at all), and when you mess with those principles you are at risk. If you know what Michael Jordon knows, then sure, take a chance, do something unheard of. Which translates to, when you know what Stephen King knows (and a small room full of other literary names), then go ahead and color outside the lines. Just know that it doesn’t happen for Jordan or King or any other “player” that gets away with it until their learning curve has ascended to incredible heights. That’s where the zone awaits, after you climbed the steep stairway to access it.

  9. You see this same kind of “in the zone” with musicians ~ and when there are several zoning together at the same time, the performance becomes as magical for the audience as the books BK referenced are for the reader(s).

    And writing yourself into the zone gets that time stops-and-flies feeling that makes me feel worn out and rested at the same time.

    Oh, and I have a picture or two of myself wearing the same short pants/high socks shown at the top here~ 🙂

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