Writers Know Perfect Pitch Exists
A new baseball season reminds me of the fulfillments associated with
failure. After all, a great hitter is successful only a third of the
time. And pitchers rarely throw shutouts, much less no-hitters. Yet they
keep trying. Why? The thrill of getting a hit or striking out a batter
far surpasses the disappointments of failure because the players realize
how extraordinarily difficult it is to hit and pitch a baseball.
the craft of writing is often a struggle against failure that requires
constant practice and deep reservoirs of resilience. Hour after hour,
day after day, the writer seeks to make contact with an elusive clarity,
just as the hitter struggles to hit the tailing slider.
the right words requires a keen eye. Many errant words have to be
discarded, just as a batter selects which pitch to hit. Our own limited
supply of words repeatedly fails us. As Mark Twain recognized, "The
difference between the right word and almost the right word is the
difference between lightning and the lightning bug."
devilishly hard to find words to express our strongest feelings and
concerns. While yearning for clarity and coherence, pungency and
brevity, we usually end up settling for imperfect expressions that only
approximate our ideas and observations.
Still, we persist. For we
know that the right words do exist, they can be found. And the search
is seductive. "It's a grim sort of pleasure," wrote Petrarch, the
medieval Italian poet, "but pen, paper and ink and midnight vigils make
me happier than sleep or rest." He knew that the act of writing promises
the happiness of getting it down right — like a perfect bunt.
demands focused intensity and coiled patience. Like the batter waiting
for the pitch, the act of writing is charged with tension, for it
involves the insecurity of a mind painstakingly puzzling its way out of
its own shadows or disentangling knots of emotion. "Writing is easy,"
said Gene Fowler. "All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper
until drops of blood form on your forehead."
To retrieve the
right word from our memory-laden brains, to agonize over the form and
impact of each phrase and sentence, demands the fierce concentration of a
hitter at the plate. It sometimes takes hours or even days to craft the
right cadence of a single sentence. "What a beastly thing prose is!"
exclaimed the French novelist Gustave Flaubert. "It's never finished;
there is always something to do over."
Yet the strenuous effort
to merge language and insight offers special rewards. When the right
words magically converge, the results are thrilling. The poet Hart
Crane, who hoped to write and live "beyond words entirely," expressed
the rapture of such convergence in "Repose of Rivers." The poem
concludes with the Mississippi River flowing into the sea, an ecstatic
moment when the river loses its identity by becoming one with the gulf.
Like the convergence of hurtling ball with swinging bat: the result is a
The challenge of crafting prose requires an act of
absorbed self-examination that enables us to explore ourselves —
honestly. Writing is about posing questions, making choices, and
establishing convictions amid the broth of our experiences. As such, it
is an activity that puts the self in direct contact with its sources.
When writing flows through intellect, it is talent; when it expresses
emotion, it is passion; when it propels us out of provincialism and into
new worlds of thought and feeling, it is liberation.
struggle to write our thoughts reveals the unwillingness with which we
often arrive at self-understanding. As the British writer W.H. Auden
acknowledged, "How do I know what to think until I see what I say?"
baseball, however, success in writing is fleeting. The act of putting
words to paper empowers us, but with a power always susceptible to being
erased. Writing confers only fleeting impressions of control; it rarely
awards our efforts with a sense of mastery. Frustration abounds. And
unlike baseball, writers have no pinch hitters to ease their burden.
can't yank a novelist like they can a pitcher," Ernest Hemingway
explained. "A novelist has to go the full nine, even if it kills him."
writings, like our lives, are unfinished efforts. Failure haunts us.
Yet no sooner do we strike out than we resolve to make more solid
contact the next time.
Success in writing, says Joyce Carol
Oates, "is distant and illusory, failure one's loyal companion, one's
stimulus for imagining that the next book will be better. For,
otherwise, why write?" Play ball.