About Your Writing: Yogi Berra, the “A-rational,” and Magical Thinking 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.

“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”—Yogi Berra

One of the risks of an art form that arguably enters the world through the mind is that it’s easy to overinvest in the idea of the rational. Because we’re not like dancers who take cues from their bodies and the space they move in, or musicians who can follow a melodic line or a beat that a member of their band hands off, or a sculptor responding to the cues and limitations and possibilities of the clay taking shape in their hands.

Nope. Our writing pours from our mind onto the page. At least on good days. And I should clarify I’m talking about narrative work: fiction and memoir and narrative nonfiction. And here is where some of the trouble arises. Because much of the writing training we get coming up through our schooling teaches us to build logical arguments, much like equations, leading to rational, inarguable conclusions. Either that or journalism where reportage is expected to provide “just the facts, ma’am,” and the subjective perspective is buried as much as possible, if not eliminated (though I think we’re safer acknowledging that the subjective is never eliminated).

But when we’re asked, or ask ourselves as writers, to spin joy or love or meaning from an inner impulse into the world, I think we, at least for a time, have to step away from the math, or the rational, and open ourselves to the possibilities of instinct and impulse that come from a different center, the pulse that drives a painter to impulsively slash a line of yellow across a black image, or a dancer to unexpectedly leap, then fall.

“How can you think and hit at the same time?”—Yogi Berra

A story about my mom. She was a middle-school teacher and one of the most magical-thinking people I’ve ever known. She and my dad would follow horse races—it was a thing they did together as a couple—except my father studied the racing analysts rationally as far as what horses to bet on. My mom went by feel. The name of a horse would speak to her, and she’d bet it. Or she’d see something in the gait of a horse, or some cue in its beauty, beyond the rational. My dad did okay with his bets, on average won more than he lost, which is pretty great. My mom, though, she had an uncanny ability to pick ridiculous longshots and cleaned up from them. And I’ll give my dad credit for this—he loved the crazy wins she pulled down from the sky. He’d brag to his friends about them while shaking his head.

And this is horse racing, where there is a physical, tangible outcome from overt quantifiable physical factors. And still, something in her imagination allowed her to leap gaps of logic to hit unlikely winners. Now, she was especially talented at this, and it would be unwise for most folks to do deep bets along these lines. However, if she had, she would’ve pulled down real money.

Consciously or not, here and in other parts of her life she accessed something separate from the rational (known physical rules and limits; see: order), as well as the irrational (anti-logic, anti-science; see: chaos), and focused on what a philosopher friend of mine calls the “arational,” something in-between, or at a point in space that’s not even on the map of this field of opposites with the rational on one end and the irrational on the other. Arationalism would ignore irrationalism while insisting that rationalism is still an “ism.” In other words, as useful as the rational can be, it is a lens, like every “ism,” with which to view and engage with the world. Its uses are many, but it has its limitations. It also, like all lenses, can distort.

“You can observe a lot by just watching.”—Yogi Berra

Professional athletes are renowned for their superstitions. There’s Serena Williams who refused to change her “lucky socks” during tournaments, Jason Giambi, the barrel-chested A’s and Yankee slugger who wore a “golden thong” under his uniform when he went into a protracted hitting slump (hilariously, when his teammates saw that it snapped him out of his downturns they started asking to borrow it), and Michael Jordan who wore his University of North Carolina shorts under his Chicago Bulls uniform while winning six NBA championships.

Listen, these people are far from stupid. Athletes – and this is something they share in common with artists – operate at the thinnest sliver of achievement. They’re willing to do anything, try anything, believe anything if it’ll help them achieve; they don’t care if you think they’re irrational or an idiot. They don’t care what you think at all.

“Baseball is 90% mental and the other half is physical.”—Yogi Berra

But artists, and especially writers, can get caught by overthinking. Have you heard the phrase, “paralysis by analysis?” I think what you must be able to do as a writer, or at least try to do, is access that “arational” part of yourself, that part that animated a teddy bear when you were a child, a stuffed bear who became at least as real to you as any of your friends. Get in touch with that, say yes to that unapologetically. Allow yourself such creative imaginings.

“I never blame myself when I’m not hitting. I just blame the bat and if it keeps up, I change bats. After all, if I know it isn’t my fault that I’m not hitting, how can I get mad at myself?”—Yogi Berra

You want this channel to be open. Because when it is, that’s when a character you’ve created might start speaking to you, or taking off across the landscape in a direction you’d not planned. And when that happens, you’d best let them run. You don’t want to hold them back. You can edit and manage whatever they do later, but in the moment you want them to feel free and, yes, even heard, even respected. You want them to feel safe to take off should they wish, knowing you’ll follow them, knowing you’ll catch them or lead them back to the road if that’s really where they belong.

And that—my last paragraph—shows an example of arational thinking. You see how I separated these characters from “me,” from “you,” and allowed them a space to operate outside consciousness and control? And it’s not an intellectual stance – I promise, this is really how I see them – outside me. What this imaginative stance does is loosen my rational, conscious grip from what I’m creating, and possibly more important, it gives me some distance to my characters, to my storylines, so they can travel to places I never could have planned for them, just by serving them, by giving them guardrails and direction and room to run.

Note: Until I wrote this I mostly considered Yogi Berra an amusing baseball character from the past who played a decent game and said funny things (which are increasingly looking more and more to me like mid-American versions of Zen koans). They’re light and amusing, but they spin the brain if you let them. So I looked up Berra’s stats, and here’s what I found:

Even if his career coincided with the Yankees’ glory years, he still holds the record for most World Series games played (75), at-bats (259), hits (71), doubles (10), singles (49), games caught (63), and catcher putouts (457). In the 1947 World Series, he hit the first pinch-hit home run in World Series history. He was an All-Star for 15 seasons. He won the American League MVP in 1951, 1954, and 1955. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972. Clearly, he was one of the greatest baseball players of all time. After he stopped playing he became an excellent baseball manager, guiding his teams (Yankees and the Mets) to an American League pennant and a National League one.

As if that wasn’t enough, in WW II, Berra was with a six-man crew on a Navy rocket boat, firing machine guns and launching rockets at the German defenses on Omaha Beach. He earned a Purple Heart, a Distinguished Unit Citation, two battle stars and a European Theatre of Operations ribbon. President Barack Obama posthumously awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Not bad for a stumpy, funny looking 5’7”, 185-pound Italian-American from St. Louis who dropped out of school after the 8th grade. And the point I’d like to drive home is this—he was brilliant, he was a magical thinker, and through everything he did, like my mother, he remained wide open and available to the arational.

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. His debut novel, Remember This, will be published by The University of Wisconsin Press in Fall 2022. 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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