Sunday, June 12, 2011

On Tennis and Writing and Being Too Nice

I've recently been recruited to play tennis for a local 4.0 ladies tennis league team, referred to as either "Team Debbie" for the nice woman who manages us, or "Have Fun," which is our pre-match chant. We're still looking for a proper name. But we do have fun, despite getting creamed most outings. Last Saturday, we played in the Edith Kanakaole Tennis Stadium in Hilo. Good thing, too, since outside it was pouring, complete with thunder and lightning. It's a substantial structure, covered, yet open all around, most famous for hosting the annual Merrie Monarch Hula Festival in April. It was about 85 degrees outside and 100 percent humidity, air so thick it took three sucks of my albuterol inhaler just to breath. Several of us arrived early to warm up, but after twenty minutes' steady rallying with my teammate, Keiko, the human backboard, I was drenched. I played doubles with a nice, extremely fit and excellent ground-stroker named Cynthia from Pahoa. Our game was respectable through the first set, but faltered in the second. The final score: 5-7, 0-6.  Cynthia and I came up with a chant of our own, high-fiving each other with "Tally Ho" after every court switch. It didn't help us win, but it made us feel better about losing.

I've been struggling lately with my put-away shots, choking on those easy, powder-puff balls, the ones  delivered straight up on a silver platter. They should be sure winners, or as they say in basketball, slam dunks. On wednesday, playing with my usual morning group, I missed several of these.

"What's happened to your killer instinct?' asked Kathy, the most intense member of our foursome. If anyone plays the game with murderous intent, she does. I shrugged and smiled, transported instantly back to my too-serious-about-tennis-for-my-own-good high school days. I recalled a comment from my coach. It was one of those moments we all experience as kids, when someone you respect flattens you, saying something you'll never forget.


It had come after what I had thought was a particularly good hitting lesson. I'd been working with Bruce for a couple of years, and he'd always been encouraging.  "You've really come along way," he said. "Your strokes are solid, with such a nice, topspin kick on your second serve. And that backhand down-the-line is coming along." I smiled.  "But nice strokes aren't everything. You'll never go far on the tournament circuit, I'm afraid. You just don't have the killer instinct for it."
"What do you mean?" The smile was gone.
"I mean that you have to hate your opponent while you're out there on the court. You have to want to crush her every time you connect with the ball. You're too nice."
I was incensed. "No I'm not!"
"There's nothing wrong with being nice," he said.

For weeks I brooded about it, decided he was an idiot, did everything I could to dredge up distain for whomever stood on the opposite side of the net from me, especially if it was him. I've never forgotten that statement and, of course, years later, realized he was right.

I've since been called too nice in other areas of life. As a department manager with Deluxe Corporation way back in the gnarly nineties, my colleague and pal Janine dubbed me, Toni the friendly manager. She'd draw out the word friendly, for emphasis.
"Shut up!" I'd say.
"You're too nice. Sometimes, you really do have to be a little tougher on people to get the job done."  "You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar," I might say to her, that old, tired cliché, to which she might respond, "Maybe, but you can catch a lot of flies with shit, too." A valid point. For the record, we're still great friends.

And I'm still too nice. My husband tells me this all the time. If it were up to me, we'd pay full price for all our cars at some exorbitant interest rate because I'm such a pushover with unscrupulous dealers. Oh I can haggle and be tough if I must, but it's not a comfortable role. That's probably why I've never gotten rich, either.

Believe it or not, there's an analogy to writing here.

In thinking about the sorts of stories I read in literary magazines and even novels nowadays, heavy, wrenching, depressing stories, and considering my overt niceness, I know I don't have that in me. I will never make my readers gasp with some disturbing, cutting edge, nightmare-inducing prose that makes them squirm in their seats and want to chew on nails for relief when they've finished reading it. In fact, I admit I don't mind an occasional happy ending, not necessarily a Hollywood happily-ever-after sort of thing, but one where life goes on in some capacity and not everyone's completely miserable or dead.

Yesterday, the Have Fun/Team Debbie ladies played another match. I was a little surprised not to be included on the roster, but then I am the newest member, and several women have not had the chance to play matches yet, so it seemed fair.  Without me, they won for the first time all season.

Tennis is an individual sport. Doubles team play aside, when the ball comes to you, there's nobody to pass it to, nobody to share the burden of your shot. It's yours alone. You either hit it and make the shot, or you don't. You win matches on the merit of your play and you lose them for the same reason. Tennis also requires myopic focus on a single objective. This is the most challenging part for me, to train my attention on the ball and only the ball, not let my mind wander to consider what I might want to cook for dinner or if I remembered to turn off the coffee maker before I left the house. It's hard to do for an entire match, to block out everything and just play. It's especially difficult when the going gets tough, when the competition is tightest, or when you've fallen behind.

The ability to tune out distractions is critical in writing, too. Those places where you find yourself injecting something personal, painful, or just plain stuck regarding what might happen to your protagonist next -- those are the worst. That's when you suddenly get the urge for another cup of coffee, or to pull the laundry from the washer and throw it into the drier, or to puck your eyebrows, anything but sit there and grind it out.

With writing, it's not so much about winning as surviving. It takes no small amount of tenacity and courage to wring words out of yourself and onto the page. And like a hotly contested tennis match, it can be exhausting. Given my lack of a killer instinct, I'm often content in tennis with a series of well-executed shots even if I don't win the match, or even the point. So too, do I find great satisfaction in a kick-ass sentence, a brilliant paragraph transition, or in striking that perfect balance between scene and summary.

I don't know what this all means, really. It's just musings on the page. Sometimes, I escape the most challenging aspects of writing with other writing. That's what I'm doing now. So, one more cup of coffee, then it's back to my story. Focus. Focus. Focus. See the ball. Be the ball. There's nothing but that ball.