Winning Even When You Lose

I love the World Cup.  It is the only event that seems to bring the world together and remind Americans that we are but one out of many nations. I have watched this year’s World Cup in bars, at work, with friends and listened to it on the radio as I drive (that own goal by Ghana in their game against Portugal almost sent me off the road). All of which is why, in honor of the World Cup, I am going to tell you about the single greatest game in my own brief soccer career — a moment in time that taught me a lesson I have never forgotten. The lesson that one game taught me? It’s a lesson that most writers would do well to remember: glory can come in unexpected moments and you have to grab it while you can. It’s not always about winning it all.

You have to remember that I played soccer back in the Dark Ages, before Title IX changed the world of women’s sports and before the UNC and Olympic teams made women’s soccer a household reality. After I graduated from college and moved to New York, I continued to play soccer in a women’s league that would face off each Saturday along the East River or, if we were lucky, in Central Park. Although I sometimes played midfield, eventually I ended up as the goalie because no one else wanted to do it and that’s always an irresistible temptation for me. I had my work cut out for me. Everyone was in shape and more than a few were exorcising their New York City angst on the soccer field. I took a beating and spent a lot of Saturday afternoons icing sprained ankles and massaging pulled hamstrings. I was young then and thought it was proof that I was invincible. I was having the time of my life.

Out of all the teams in that NYC league, the Super F’s were the best. They were from Queens and almost all Haitian women who had learned to kick a soccer ball as soon as they could walk. When I say they could run rings around the rest of us, I mean that quite literally. These were formidable women. I remember the captain of the team was a woman named Jocelyn who had six children. Yes, six children – and yet she was one of their leading scorers. It was not uncommon to go down in defeat to the Super F’s by double digits or more. Still, it was almost an honor to be defeated by them. They were skilled, they were relentless and, although they treated us with suspicion off the field sometimes, they were great competitors and good sports. If they knocked you down, they’d extend a hand and haul you back up. And some of them were my friends. I had gone to a tournament in Alabama with a few of them and spent a great weekend eating take-out joint barbecue ribs on the hoods of our rental cars with their unbelievably talented striker, a jolly young girl named Evelyn who worked as a maid at a hotel when she wasn’t playing soccer.

One day, my team — whose name I cannot remember, and probably for a good reason – was scheduled to play the Super F’s as the opening game in a popular men’s soccer tournament in Queens. When we arrived at the field, it turned out to be a stadium. Over 5,000 Haitians were already assembled in the stands, ready to spend a Saturday viewing soccer. Now, I had a very white team. I was the brownest person on it and that was only because I tanned easily in the sun. There was not a single white face in the crowd and I started to imagine what it was going to be like when the bloodbath began. We were definitely not playing for the home team.

The moment the game began, it was clear that we were way out of our league. Not only were the Super F’s at the top of their game that day, my team was sluggish, irritable and distracted. Within minutes, our strikers and midfielders were arguing with one another and the halfbacks had let player after player get so close to me that I quickly decided I had absolutely nothing to lose. I became a crazy person. The goalie can get away with a lot in soccer when they’re getting pummeled–the referees will look the other way out of pity. I began diving at the opposition’s feet, wrapping my arms around their legs so they could not wiggle away and get at the ball again. I threw myself sideways, first to the left and then to the light right, again and again, to keep that ball out of the net, determined that if my team was going to be useless at least one of us, by god, would play their hearts out. I shoved my way through my own players to stop the ball the moment it entered the goalie’s box and I was bouncing off the goalposts so often it was a wonder I didn’t detach a retina.

I was so busy concentrating on the game I did not realize that the stadium had continued to fill with spectators and that the noise level had risen to a roar. I just kept defending that goal with every fiber of my being. My efforts helped but, of course, they could not stop the onslaught of Super F players drilling soccer balls at the goal. By halftime we were down 11-0 and completely demoralized. My teammates looked at me oddly during the halftime huddle, but I dismissed their glances. If they weren’t going to do their jobs and defend me, I would have to do it all myself.

Haitian Soccer Fans_2I took the field for the start of the second half with dozens of saves already under my belt. But almost immediately, a Super F broke free and came straight at me with the ball. I looked at her, she looked at me, and she knew that I was going to run right at her and dive at her feet. So she did what any good soccer player would have done: she kicked the ball as hard as she possibly could, straight at me, hoping to loop it over me and into the goal. I had my hands outstretched, getting ready to grab her legs, when I saw that ball coming straight at my face. I jerked my head up in horror and, somehow, the ball deflected off the top of my head just enough to clear the goal as if I had planned it. A massive roar went up from the crowd as I fell straight back onto the field, arms still outstretched in a Christ-like pose. The crowd went nuts, cheering and stomping and whistling as a referee ran over to make sure I was okay. I staggered to my feet, dazed, and wandered in circles while the referee checked me out. Through a haze, I heard the crowd and realized that they had taken up a chant: “Goalie! Goalie! Goalie!” The crowd wasn’t cheering against me, they were cheering for me. They had been cheering for me all along, I just hadn’t known it. That stadium was packed with probably 10,000 Haitians by then, and every one of them had all decided to cheer for the underdog — and that underdog was me.

That did it. For the rest of the game, I played like I was possessed. I played like I had never played goalie before. I was a madwoman. I dove, I rolled, I kicked, I screamed, I did everything but dribble the ball down to the other end of the field to score myself. (I actually did make it the half field at one point, but knew enough to get my ass back into the box.) Having that crowd behind me was an amazing experience. It kept me going. It gave me strength. It pushed my adrenaline rush to new heights. I felt like I was on the shoulders of 10,000 people, being raised up to the top of the world. It was glorious. But the point I want to make is this: we lost that game 19 to 0. I may have had god knows how many saves by the end of it, but we still lost 19 to 0. That is a thrashing by anyone’s standards. It is humiliating and surely nothing to be proud of. But by the time the game was over, the crowd was chanting “Goalie!” once again and did not stop until I took the field and did a victory lap, waving at each cheering section as I passed by. It’s not something you ever forget. In the midst of truly ignominious defeat, I had found glory.

I try to remember what I learned that day when it comes to my career as a writer. Like most people, I do not make the New York Times bestseller list (although there are days when I feel like I must be the only one) and I have yet to score a huge advance from a major publisher. On the other hand, I am proud of every book I write and I pour my heart into each and every one of them. I have devoted readers who pay attention to what I write and who get it. They understand and appreciate what I am trying to say. They cheer me on and they let me know that what I do matters to them. They want me to take risks and when I do, they reward me for it. And do you know what that is like for me? It is the game changer. It makes writing fun. It makes me feel like I am on the top of the world, being raised up by thousands. So don’t ever let anyone tell you that being at the very top is the only thing that matters. Sometimes your greatest glory comes from doing your best and having others realize the effort that takes.

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What’s Your Story?

My grandmother on her 105th birthday -- she never forgot whose life she was living.
My grandmother on her 105th birthday — she never forgot whose life she was living.

My grandmother died this week at the ripe old age of 105. Up until the very end, she remained vivacious and ever present. As is the case with anyone who has lived through so many years, there are many things people could probably say about her. But I don’t think anyone would argue with this: my grandmother was always right there, at every event, no matter how big or small, savoring every moment and making the most of her presence. Every day was a party, and if you were there with her then, by god, you better be paying attention. Perhaps it was a reaction to a solitary childhood lived at the base of a remote lighthouse on Lake Superior. Maybe it was just the way she was built. But whatever the cause, few people could get as much out of life as my grandmother. Continue reading “What’s Your Story?”

Gonna Be Starting Something

RunnersBeing a writer is like being asked to commit to saying “I do” every day. It requires a monumental leap of faith and a belief in yourself that, in the end, you will indeed prove worthy. It doesn’t matter whether you’re working on a freelance writing assignment or trying to finish up your new novel, each time you sit down to start a writing session there’s this dance with yourself that begins — and the music isn’t always inspiring.

It usually starts with a handful of questions that race across your brain: “Maybe I would be more productive if I waited until tomorrow morning and got started first thing while I’m fresh?” “Shouldn’t I put the chili on first and let it simmer all day?” “I wonder if a little nap would refresh me and leave me more open creatively?” And on and on it goes.

This is why many writers have pristine kitchens, well vacuumed carpets and meticulously organized closets. It is also why writers often excel at rationalization — we wrestle mentally with ourselves every day. But it is also why so many of us are crippled with self-doubt. After all, who are we to think that we have the magic to take a blank page and transform it into cohesive thoughts with the power to move strangers thousands of miles away? Who are we, indeed?

In a way, sitting down to write each day is a lot like foreplay – except the process lasts longer. There you are, approaching this pivotal moment, not knowing if it will be glorious or disappointing. So you get your head into the game and tell yourself that it’s all up to you. You can either make the effort and get something out of it, or half-ass it and waste your time. See? Foreplay!

I go through this psych-out every time I sit down to write. So far, I have won the battle. For 40 years, I have managed to produce an ungodly word count to foist on the world. How? Here are some of the things I do to get going. Think of it as the writer equivalent of pumping the gas pedal and turning the ignition key:

I start by revising something I wrote the day before, then pick up my speed as I near the end and pray my momentum will take me into fresh content. This almost always works.  Although, just as often, I get bored revising and leap right into creating. Thank god for editors with longer attention spans than me.

I decide to fill in a few character details or deepen an outlined scene, then convince myself that I really need to create that character or scene while I have the details fresh in my head. This works, but not always — as is evident by the incredibly elaborate outlines and schematics I use to create my books.

I lie in bed, going over a scene, letting it take form in my brain until it becomes so real that I have to jump up and sit down in front of the computer and get it all down on paper before it disappears. Perhaps creativity cannot be rushed, but it can certainly be ripened, like expensive fruit you’re not sure you like. It just takes the will and time to daydream your vision to life.

I pretend I’m a dog and give myself treats to perform. Before I started paying attention to my blood sugar levels (something none of you want me to ignore, trust me on this), if I finished a page, I rewarded myself with chocolate and Little Black Dog would get a Beggin’ Strip just for sticking by me. But now, I go big or go home. If I meet my page deadline for the day by noon then, by god, I am sitting down with a grilled ribeye and salad for lunch. Just try to stop me. And there’s no scraps left for Little Black Dog, either.

I create artificial deadlines and heap enough urgency on those deadlines to scare the crap out of myself. This particular psych-out can be tricky, especially if certain unnamed persons in your writing circle regularly blow off even their publisher deadlines with little more than a shrug (you know who you are, people). But I seem to be imbued with more than my fair share of Catholic guilt. If I tell myself I must have a chapter finished by the end of the week, than that is enough to light my fire. I am pretty sure there is an obsessive-compulsive disorder lurking behind this technique, but like so many things, I choose to ignore it.

I use procrastination to fight procrastination. This is not as crazy as it sounds. It goes like this: I love writing, it’s just the getting started each day that makes me feel as if I’m staring into the abyss. On the other hand, I really hate filing taxes (a writer never quite knows what penalty the tax demon will bring). So starting every March, I begin my most productive writing time of year by using writing to put off filing my taxes. Sure, I could compile my receipts… but why not finish that chapter instead? It’s genius! By the time mid-April rolls around, I’ve banked a couple hundred pages and somehow managed to file another tax extension request. It worked again this year. I think. I’m still fanning the flames of my tax panic to keep going. These things cannot be rushed.

But what I really need are equally unpleasant tasks I can use throughout the year to make writing an attractive, viable alternative. Getting a colonoscopy? Having a root canal? Getting my eyebrows threaded? If I weren’t so darned healthy, and had not already tried threading — surely a technique created by a sadomasochist? — I am sure I could find something in that arena. Alas, I come from sturdy stock, and so I am still searching for another effective procrastination tool. The trick is to find something almost as urgent and important as writing, which is why I can’t use running as an excuse to put off writing or vice versa. You see, I don’t give a crap about running. And being an optimist, I too easily blow off walking as well, convinced as I am that another beautiful day will always come along. So I’m still searching for seasonal procrastination tools and your suggestions are certainly welcome.

In the meantime, good luck to my fellow writers as they face the day’s blank page. I’ll be thinking of you as my fingers approach the keyboard… and pause.

Now, if you will excuse me, I really must begin today’s writing session.

Empaths and voyeurs and parrots, oh my…

wizard-of-oz-scaredOne clear advantage to getting older is that you care less and less about what other people think. That’s why a blog post like this would have been unthinkable 10 years ago. But these days, I am perfectly happy to officially announce that decades of reading has led me to believe that all writers can be divided into three categories: empaths, voyeurs and parrots.  Knowing which type you are can help you better balance your books as a writer, and knowing which one you prefer can help you better choose your books as a reader.

Let’s start with empaths. Being an empath can be downright painful in real life — you are often buffeted about by other people’s emotions and motivations. But it is a powerful advantage when you are a writer. The ability to instinctually feel what other people are going through, coupled with the inability to contain your sympathetic emotions, add richness to a writer’s characterizations and give their scenes a level of genuineness that can distinguish a good book from a bad one. When you are reading a book by an empath, the author’s understanding of how others act and feel can be both humbling and moving. Every character comes to life. Every moment counts.

Voyeurs, on the other hand, can be both wickedly entertaining and devastatingly cruel. Their ability to see every move you make and then use it to their own story’s advantage is literary opportunism at its finest. We all know people who specialize in sitting in the corner at parties, watching everyone else, having a grand old time keeping karmic score. They don’t miss a beat and they have the memories of elephants. They can be a real pain in the ass because it’s so hard to hide anything from them and even harder to illicit a genuinely personal reaction from them. They risk nothing but see everything. I can only imagine what life with a writer voyeur would be like. No privacy. Nothing sacred. No real emotional involvement by the writer, just a constant watchfulness – and a willingness to turn your life into words on their page.

To me, though, the very best writers are a combination of both empath and voyeur. To feel for others alone is to lack perspective. To observe without feeling is to lack warmth. But give me a writer who can not only convey what it is like to be someone else, but also fill in the details and put that life in perspective — and you can sometimes achieve greatness. I will give you two wildly different examples of books that fit this bill:  A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin and Floaters by the inimitable Joseph Wambaugh. Their characters breathe with life and, as authors, they respect the worth of even the most minor of their characters. Yet they also offer observations about what it is to be human that ring with a wisdom transcending a single lifetime. They are a joy to read.

Then, of course, we have the parrots — and that’s the best word I can think of for writers who emulate other writers or follow a formula they think will bring them success. It is not enough to describe what is happening in your story, as if you were providing people with a television show on paper. It is not enough to pile plot twist upon plot twist unless there is some meaning behind all those machinations. But still people do it, book after book, and many succeed, through luck and a willingness on the part of publishers to clone bestsellers. That doesn’t make them good writers. It makes them lucky writers who wind up in the hands of readers (readers who, upon hearing that a book is on a bestseller list, make the mistake of thinking it must be better than all the others). But reading a book written by a parrot is like eating Lean Cuisine for dinner. The satisfaction is short-lived and you are soon left hungry and wondering, “You mean that’s all there is to it?”

All of which leads me to an irrefutable fact that most writers would like to avoid: to be a good writer, you must first know yourself and you must be willing to dive deeper than simply putting words on paper. You have to be willing to embrace the joys and sorrows of others. You have to be willing to pay attention to the lives of others. And you have to be driven to put it all together in a story that offers readers a glimpse into life as you — and only you — both see and feel it.

Cross posted to www.katymunger.com

Who wants to be right as rain?

The Subconscious MindBy Katy Munger

My favorite Adele song is called “Who Wants To Be Right As Rain?”  The song begins with two lines that pretty much describe decades of my life:

Who wants to be right as rain, it’s better when something is wrong.
You get excitement in your bones and everything you do is a game.

It’s not that I thrive on being unhappy. On the contrary, I have been described at various times in my life as “maniacally cheerful” and “insanely optimistic.” But I was raised in a large family that included more than a handful of actors and after years of living in such a high-pitched environment, anything short of high drama often comes off feeling flat and boring. It has taken me a long time to realize that some of the nicest moments in life sneak up on you and are very quiet while they are happening. But even with that realization, I have  never quite managed to quench the thrill I get when things are wrong and I feel excitement in my bones. I am aware enough of this legacy to keep a sharp eye out for those times when I might sabotage my happiness just for a fix. But, like a lot of things we discover about ourselves and can only change so much, I have also looked for ways  to turn this drama gene into a strength, rather than seeing it solely as a weakness. One of the ways I think it has helped me most has been in my writing.

You see, I love the architecture of a book — creating the characters and the plots, layering the scenes on top of those bare bones, building a story paragraph-by-paragraph, inch-by-inch. But you can do all those things right and still end up with a book that lacks emotional richness. And when you do all those things without being emotionally involved on some personal level, you also walk away from the magic that happens when an author’s subconscious is driving the choices he or she makes as they write the book. Because the truth is, whether we know it or not, we authors use writing to work out all sorts of subconscious dilemmas and to indulge lifetimes of emotional currents. Especially crime fiction authors.

Continue reading “Who wants to be right as rain?”

How writers are made

At any one time, there are five dozen different ideas, responsibilities and obligations running through my head. Sometimes I feel like a juggler trapped in his worst nightmare. There I am with nothing but my mere two hands to keep hundreds of balls in the air. The problem can get particularly bad late at night as I’m trying to drift off to sleep. Here the unwanted thoughts come: appointments I’m afraid I will forget (no matter how many times they are written down), things I failed to finish that day at work, the next day’s priorities, a litany of school meetings or other mom obligations and on and on and on.

Somehow, along the way, during some forgotten but nonetheless pivotal night long past, I discovered that the best way to escape these thoughts and to calm my mind was to start going over the plot of my latest book in my head, visualizing the characters as alive while I searched for ever better ways to tweak the plot. There is something so wonderful, so restful and so immediate about disappearing into my imagination in this way. As I concentrate on my characters and what they will do next, my whole mind calms. My body relaxes and my thoughts focus on a single track, bringing satisfaction, relief and, eventually, sleep. I don’t always remember what comes to me in those moments before I finally fall asleep, but I know they play an important role in making my books real when I sit down to write.

A few nights ago, it happened to me again — I had so many things to think about that, though I was physically tired, I was finding it hard to fall asleep. So I did what I have learned to do. I pulled up the latest Casey Jones plot in my mind and began meandering through it, enjoying the journey through a world that existed only in my head. But this time, something felt different. Disappearing into my story laid open a flash of memory so fresh it was as if it had happened to me only days ago. Suddenly, I was nine or ten years old, living in the rambling Victorian house on Park Drive in Raleigh, hidden away in a bedroom closet I had lined with pillows. With only a flashlight for illumination, I was carefully printing out my latest story on notebook paper, lost in my own world and completely oblivious to the world whirling around me.

That was when I felt it. That was when I got it. Continue reading “How writers are made”