26 November 2006

on writing: baseball again as the mother of all metaphors

If (as it seems almost everyone is) you’re writing a screenplay (or at least claiming to be doing such), then likely you’ve already aligned yourself with one of two different camps in the screenwriting world: those who look to experts and gurus and coaches for advice and guidance, and those who look at such experts and gurus and coaches and shout “Charlatans! Fakers! Quacks!”

If forced at bayonet point to declare my affiliation one way or the other, I’d likely fall more into the latter camp than the former, but not because I think the experts are intentionally trying to scam or delude their followers. Well, some are, likely, but I’ll not waste time debating or describing who rates such labels versus who rates merely a “means well but knows nothing” tag. I believe that the majority of the so-called experts actually believe that they are providing valuable information and enlightenment, but as with many issues it seems prudent to remember that Belief and Reality are not necessarily contiguous much less congruent.

I was glancing at the blog site of one supposed screenwriting guru, one which many of my friends seem to like and respect. He might be a wonderful human being—I honestly don’t know—but I do know that I find his advice and theories consistently uninspired, uninteresting, and (worst of all) not at all useful for personal application. He writes well, with an undeniable elegance and fluency and passion for his specific area of concern, but ultimately, for me... there is no ‘there’ there.

And suddenly I remembered an exchange from baseball coaching earlier this year. In my real world life I’ve been a youth baseball coach for many many years: Little League baseball, teeball, girls softball. Usually I wind up assigned to be the hitting coach, as (for whatever reason) over the years I’ve accumulated some ideas and techniques on effective ways to help kids find and improve that swing.

(Yes, I'm a coach, and yes I appreciate the irony of referring to my own coaching expertise in a blog post largely dedicated to the proposition that coaches are of little usefulness in many situations. Don't interrupt me, kid.)

I was working with this one batter—a nine year old with good size, great strength, loads of “want to”—who just couldn’t seem to get his swing working. His form was so messed up that he was actually working muscles against themselves to get the bat moving, with the result being a very messed up swing which seldom made contact and almost never generated power.

If you are not a baseball person, understand that this is “not good.” The name of the game in hitting is “bat on ball—hard.”

As I was watching the kid and talking to him and trying to adjust a few odd quirks, his dad was watching close by and also trying to help. The dad kept stepping in to give advice and adjust things—often at cross purposes with what I was trying to do—and the kid was getting confused and frustrated. At some point the kid twisted himself into a truly odd-looking stance, but as soon as the ball came in, he suddenly uncoiled and PING the ball exploded to the outfield on a line. A solid hit. I just lifted my eyebrows and thought “huh!”

But the dad was very upset. He jumped in and immediately started getting the kid out of that odd stance, saying “I don’t wanna see that again! You’ll never see a professional hitter do that!”

”Well...” I interrupted. “Actually, you might. Especially if you look back to Carl Yaztremski’s hitting. His stance was a mess for more than two decades. Now he's in the Hall of Fame.”

The dad looked at me like I had a badger on my head.

“All this stuff about ‘what the pros do’ is just hopeful guidance. Stuff we throw out there in the hope that it proves useful or beneficial. But ultimately every hitter has to find their own swing.”

The dad was upset by such sacrilege and blasphemy. “That’s ridiculous. You can’t go up there [with such and such in your swing] and expect to hit!”

I told the boy to step out of the batter’s box, and asked the dad to go feed some balls into the pitching machine. I grabbed a bat, dug in to face the machine, and adapted an even more affected exaggerated version of the boy’s “wrong” stance.

“OK. Gimme some.”

I put three of the next five balls over the fence, the other two both skipping to the fence on a single skidding bounce.

I smiled to the dad. “I dunno... doesn’t seem an impossible proposition to hit that way. Feels kinda weird to me, but it seems workable from a mechanical point of view.”

I winked at the boy, and he smiled in a way that was clearly not meant to be noticed by his dad.

The dad walks in and just stares at me. I just smile, and then drop to a knee to talk to the boy some more.

“Look—there are hundreds of different variations you can try in your stance, with tens of thousands of combinations. Some people stand upright, some crouch low, some are tight with the feet, some are spread legged. Some have a closed stance, some are open in the extreme, some folks have a dull boring nothing special looking stance. Some hold the bat high, some hold it low, some start hands high, others have their fists low. But here’s the thing: nothing matters unless you can put the bat on the ball with force. If you can find a stance that let’s you do that every time you dig in for an at bat, then that’s a good stance. Bat on ball. Everything else is gravy.”

And right now, today, sitting at my cluttered desk as I contemplate more changes in the rewrite to my cursed damned Flying Dutchman of a romantic comedy script, that baseball metaphor seems one that might be useful for writers: there are all sorts of experts and well-meaning coaches out there who will try to convince you that their way—their philosophy of hitting, their basket of techniques and tricks, their trademarked System™ taught in seminars and via online CD’s and books—is the One True Path.

Don’t believe it.

When it comes down to it, it’s about a bat, and it’s about a ball, and it’s about bringing the two into contact in an explosive moment of ballistic perfection.

At the end of the day, nobody gives a damn about your process. Nobody in the audience gives a hoot in hell how you managed to address “theme.” No reader hunkered on a sofa or at a desk gives a flying fig about what techniques (if any) you used to ensure that your major act breaks fell at the right moment in your work.

What they will care about is “did you make solid contact? Did you put the bat on the ball and put it in play hard?”

As a writer, that is your job—that is your fuckin raison d’être.

Put the bat on the ball, by any means necessary.

Swing hard. Run fast. Pray often. Have fun.

Everything else is gravy.


wcdixon said...

so who's the guru who's advice isn't working for you? just curious.

suzbays said...

But you *should* read the Mernit book. Just skip to the part where he has the diagram of the story beats. That's all. I've never read his blog so I have no idea what it says. The book. Read the book.

aggiebrett said...

WC--- no names are needed. My point is not directed at any one expert anywhoo.

Suz-- why?

Curtis Edmonds said...

Well, now. Can't speak for the screenwriting world, mind you, but let's extend the metaphor a bit. Most of the stuff that I hear from novel-writing guru types has less to do with the approach and the swing as to making sure you're showing up with your uniform pressed, no grass stains, not spitting Copenhagen juice at random passers-by, etc. To the extent that any advice is common-sense and makes sense for you yourself individually, follow the hell out of it. (i.e. omitting needless words, killing the ruddy living hell out of adverbs, getting rid of commonplace dialogue, etc.) You gotta show up looking like a ballplayer.

There is some quirky stuff people tell you to do (starting cover letters a certain way, paper size, Fed-exing documents instead of mailing them) which have nothing to do with the craft but are indicia of your professionalism, the same as wearing stirrup socks and not wearing your hat backwards.

Anyway, this does nothing to diminish the general point -- you still gotta make it do what it do, however it gets done.

aggiebrett said...

Clearly there are lines and taboos in any field of endeavor, be it baseball or wordslinging, but too often the so called "experts" (and most comonly the non-credentialed self-annointed types you run into online) seem far too focused on things like the color of your tie and typeface used in your query letter than they do on the quality of the actual work being produced.

To continue stretching the baseball analogy, it's like some know-nuthink American Legion coach pulling aside Randy Johnson and saying "you gotta start throwing over the top, son -- you'll never get anyone out with that side-arm three-querters delivery."

Or "come on, Bagwell -- stand up straight and swing like 95% of the other hitters in the game! That's the only way you'll succeed!"

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.

If these experts are so damned expert, where is their success? If they hold the Great Truths in their thumb-sporting fisted feet, why do they not enjoy greater praise and acclaim?

Might it be that they are merely parroting the common similarities of other random successful people, confusing narrow focus observation for broad scale rules?

Birds are covered in feathers, and birds can fly, therefore anything which intends to fly -- even an airliner -- must have feathers.

Uh, sorry, Charlie.

Whatever path gets you up the mountain... that's the right one.

Chesher Cat said...

Mernit's book will help you learn the rules of writing a romantic comedy...

so, then you can break them.

aggiebrett said...