About Your Writing: Swing for the Fenches by Steve Adams

I’m Steve Adams, a writer, writing coach, and a freelance editor who’s studied a wide range of artistic forms before landing, quite late, on prose. As I’ve always been fascinated by the artistic process, I decided to start working my ideas out on the page, using a quote from a writer or other kind of artist as a prompt. I hope my column, “About Your Writing,” is useful to you.

“You’ve got to loosen your girdle and really let the ball have it.”—Babe Didrikson

For those who don’t know, Babe Didrikson was a larger-than-life character and athlete who lived from 1911 to 1956 and excelled at professional basketball, baseball, track and field, and golf. She won two gold medals and one silver medal in track and field at the 1932 Summer Olympics, then turned to golf and won 10 LPGA major championships. She is considered one of the greatest athletes of all time.

But probably the thing I love best about her, is she played with joy. She also provides a powerful example in opposition to the stereotypes of submissive, subservient women in the early-mid last century. Plenty of them were badass, and I proudly come from bloodlines of such women who had huge hearts, big personalities, and frankly, could be a little intimidating. You read just a little about Babe and you realize she wouldn’t even consider letting anyone stop her. And that she loved the game, any game.  

I continue to be fascinated with the very blurry line between top athletes and successful artists. In both arenas there is only the thinnest line between excelling and being an also-ran. And, as with sports, art is about both control and release (or inspiration). Too much control, well, you’ll write a well-crafted story where the sentences may be pleasing, but it lies flat on the page. Too much release, then you can end up confusing and frustrating your reader, or lost in the woods because you got excited and ran off the trail.

With art, I don’t see the play between control and release on a continuum, with control on one side and release on the opposite, but more as two opposing forces coming together in the same moment. Over and over when I’m working with a client, I find myself giving some specific advice, then having to tell them the opposite is true as well. This is what makes the magic happen in art—two opposites merging in the same space, giving you that spark, that explosion. It sounds a little big-bangish, and it is.

So, back to what Babe is saying about loosening our girdles and really letting the ball have it. What she’s talking about is not holding back. You still must have the craft and discipline, because that’s what gives you the grounding and stability to truly release, or go for the gold, or go the distance, or whatever sports cliché we want to use. The fact is, succeeding at a high level with your art as far as publication etc., is something you have limited control over (as we can tell from the history of our greatest writers). So you might as well commit to your heart and distinct vision as opposed to the perceived marketplace (which is constantly changing) and, while supporting yourself with your strongest, most developed technical skills, fully commit to the moment, and then…go for it. Release. Swing for the fences. Really let the ball “have it.”

I also feel, ironically, while it’s the most personally fulfilling way to proceed, at the same time this is your best chance for public acclaim. The way to get noticed is to be unique and do something no one saw coming, which is what can happen when you swing for the fences, when you trust the creative impulse and your heart, because that’s so specific to you. Once you swing like that (whether you hit a home run, a foul ball, or one caught on the warning track) you’ve created a field of possibilities. Since you’ve hit (or established) a “10,” now you can see with your more rational editor’s mind if that’s the best move, or if it should be dialed back. You can examine all the space between that 10 and a more cautious choice, so now there’s a wealth of real estate to choose from as you calibrate your writing to manage the reader’s responses and design the best story you can. Control remains your ally as much as inspiration and passion, but there’s an old saying among the many stellar professional baseball players who’ve come from Puerto Rico: Don’t try to get on base via walks, but swing at the plate, even if you fly or strike out, because “you can’t walk off the island.”

I’ll add this though—one of the advantages of being a writer, as opposed to a professional athlete, is no one’s watching you. So relax and, again, have courage and commitment, and bring you into the equation, even if it’s frightening (and it should be, a little anyway, if you’ve got hold of something). I encourage you, I give you permission (if you need it), to take your best shot, loosen your girdle, say damn the torpedoes, and swing away.

Steve Adams’s writing has won a Pushcart Prize and Glimmer Train’s New Writer’s award, been listed as a “Notable Essay” in Best American Essays, and anthologized. His prose is widely published, and his plays have been produced in New York City. He’s a writing coach and freelance editor at www.steveadamswriting.com, and you can follow him on Twitter at @iamsteveadams.

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