The Value of the Junk Pile (Or, Discovering the Right Service Stance)

I was riveted, glued to the television set, watching a sport I had never paid any attention to, and realizing, even though I was just a kid, that sports history was being made.

To put it mildly, it was a surprise I was watching the 1985 Wimbledon Men’s Singles Final. Though I was a big sports fan, at the time my tastes were limited to football, baseball, basketball, and a little bit of ice hockey sprinkled in.  Tennis?  I didn’t know a break point from a deuce point; a baseline from a service line.  But when my older brother John came into the family room on that hot July morning, he turned on “Breakfast at Wimbledon.”

breakfastwimbledon

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“I heard this guy has a huge serve,” he said.  “I wanna watch it.”  This was a surprise, too.  John had recently graduated from high school, and I’d always looked up to him.  Nearly a decade my senior, he was patient with me and rarely told me to get lost when I’d hang around with him and his friends.  He’d been a star athlete in school, but, like me, had never really been a fan of the game of tennis.

Even so, he followed the world of sports enough to know that a significant story was being written on the lawns of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club.  Kevin Curren, a veteran of the professional tennis circuit, was making major waves, beating John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors in succession to reach his first Grand Slam final.  Curren wasn’t regarded as a top player–but he had one of the game’s strongest serves.  This my brother wanted to see.

kevincurren

Curren’s opponent that day was a seventeen-year-old prodigy named Boris Becker.  Few people knew who he was at that time, apart from tennis aficionados.  I certainly had never heard of him.  But that was about to change.  He shocked the tennis world, instantly becoming a worldwide star, by defeating Curren to become the youngest Wimbledon champion in history.

becker

I was struck by Becker immediately.  With his daring, net-rushing, athletic style, his charisma and hustle, he was a joy to watch.  And, as it turned out, it was Becker, not Curren, who had the truly dominating serve.

beckerdive

I was hooked.  I loved the one-on-one aspect of the sport, the geometry of the court, the strategy and tactics, the way the crowd would grow whisper-quiet between points and then erupt when a brilliant stroke was made.

hookedwimbledon

The very next day, I went to the local public courts, borrowed one of my parents’ old wooden rackets (!), and worked on my serve.  I hadn’t ever served a tennis ball before, so it took some getting used to.  But, first and foremost, I adjusted my service stance to mimic Boris Becker’s.  It was natural enough–he was a right-hander, and so was I, after all.  So, I opened up my stance, just as Boris did, facing the corner of the court where I aimed to hit the ball.

Try as I might, it just didn’t feel right.  I attributed it to my being a beginner.  But as the days moved forward, as summer break rushed toward the inevitable and unwelcome start of another school year, I realized I wasn’t making much progress.  My serve was still not working.

summerbreak

That’s when I understood.  It wasn’t my serve I was practicing.  It was Boris Becker’s.  The stance that worked so well for him felt awkward and uncomfortable for me.  It just took me some time to figure it out.

So I changed my stance, closing it up, with my front foot now to the right of my back one.  I felt the difference right away.  This position felt easy, natural, and fluid.  My serve improved literally overnight.  And to this day, I still serve with a closed stance.

At first, I bemoaned the fact that it took me so long to make the switch.  Couldn’t I have become a better player, a better server, if I had just started in a closed stance to begin with?  But then I saw the truth.  I had to go through the awkwardness in order to pave the way for the finished product.

learningfrommistakesendtennis

By learning what didn’t work for me, it made it easier and clearer to see what did.

**********************

Have you ever written a scene, or even an entire chapter, only to discover, after the fact, that it’s all wrong?  It doesn’t need a little tweaking, or a few minor edits.  It is just . . . wrong.  Awful.  A complete and unequivocal flop.

awfulfirstdraft

I’ve certainly written such chapters.  In The Eye-Dancers, for example, I remember vividly the quagmire that was chapter eighteen.  It was one of the longer chapters in the novel, and, after writing the first draft of it–all twenty or so pages–I reread it, and said, “What was I thinking?  Seriously?  This is horrible!”  I was shocked that I hadn’t noticed this earlier, when I was in the process of writing the chapter.  Admittedly, during the writing of the chapter, I was aware that the words were not flowing, the dialogue not coming smoothly.  But I had no idea just how bad it was until I went back and read the entire thing.

My first reaction was predictable.  I bemoaned the fact that I had just wasted so much time writing such drivel.  I took a breath, shut off the PC, and resolved to keep away from the manuscript for at least a day.  I needed a break.

backsoonneedbreak

When I returned to it two days later, I reread the chapter, this time with more patient and much fresher eyes.  While I still thought the output was atrocious, I was able to focus more clearly and spot where it was I’d gone wrong.  The germ of the idea was fine.  It was the execution that was lacking.  The chapter needed more energy, more gusto, more forward momentum.  By rereading the first draft, the second draft came clear.  The fog lifted, and I felt invigorated.

liftingfog

I rewrote the entire chapter, and this time the words came more easily, the dialogue popped, and the POV character (a tip of the cap to you, Marc Kuslanski!) came into sharper focus.  When I read through it upon completion, I knew it was right–not perfect maybe–no chapter ever is.  But right.  I scrolled to the bottom of the screen, inserted a page break, and keyed the words, “Chapter Nineteen,” into the yawning mouth of the white space.  I was ready to press on.

No doubt, it had been a frustrating and time-consuming experience, but I was thankful for the first draft of chapter eighteen.  It was a necessary part of the process, a sharpening of the pen, so to speak, a way to clear the creative cobwebs and allow the real story, the true story, to come through.

sharpeningpenhoning

I have no doubt I’ll have more “chapter-eighteen experiences” in the future.  I’ve had a few already while writing the sequel to The Eye-Dancers.  And, while I may never fully embrace these authorial detours, these mazes through the junk pile to sift out the trash and unearth the jewels, I will always appreciate and acknowledge, however grudgingly, their value.

junkpile

gems

Because, when it comes right down to it, sometimes you just have to serve a few double faults with the wrong stance before you can hit those perfectly struck aces with the right one.

aceend

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

32 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Carrie Rubin
    Jul 23, 2015 @ 18:34:23

    It is frustrating to have to wipe out something we’ve written and start over from scratch. I’ve wasted a lot of time trying to convince myself a scene is okay just so I wouldn’t have to change it. But eventually I know I’m deluding myself and out it goes. Like you say, we know when it’s right.

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Jul 23, 2015 @ 20:01:54

      Hi Carrie! Yes, it is definitely frustrating. I guess there are just times when that awful first draft simply has to happen, and we learn from it. I’m not sure I’ll ever learn to take it with a smile though.:)

      Reply

  2. stockdalewolfe
    Jul 23, 2015 @ 19:58:53

    Interesting– the process of writing. Great post!

    Reply

  3. joey
    Jul 23, 2015 @ 21:35:57

    I always hold onto scenes or descriptions, thinking they can be used elsewhere. Sometimes they can, but mostly, they end up wiped.

    Reply

  4. Rosaliene Bacchus
    Jul 23, 2015 @ 22:43:47

    “No doubt, it had been a frustrating and time-consuming experience, but I was thankful for the first draft of chapter eighteen. It was a necessary part of the process, a sharpening of the pen, so to speak, a way to clear the creative cobwebs and allow the real story, the true story, to come through.”
    ~ I agree. Sometimes, it’s the only way to clear the clutter in our brain cells and move forward. Frustrating, yes, but an essential part of the writing process.

    Reply

  5. Lyn
    Jul 25, 2015 @ 09:14:49

    That’s a great analogy, Michael. We need to write with our own voice, rather than try to mimic someone else’s, or write with a voice other than our own.

    Reply

  6. fifi + hop
    Jul 25, 2015 @ 22:03:01

    I love this analogy – as an avid tennis player (who worked on a new serve all year to finally get it to where I’m happy with it) and a writer, I completely relate. Sometimes it’s just a matter of time and paying our dues, as frustrating as it may be. And that Becker match – so good!!

    Reply

  7. Ste J
    Jul 26, 2015 @ 07:52:37

    Intriguing, I had never equated writing and Tennis before but I do like the psychological feel of the one person battling away, internalising everything as they write, adjust and hopefully ace it. I got totally hooked on the curling at the last winder Olympics but I was jobless at the time so it didn’t take much!

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Jul 27, 2015 @ 17:09:53

      The battling away and the internalizing are definitely similar when it comes to writing versus sports–but I tend to think the agony in the writing process is always more intense.:) And you know, I have never really followed curling at all, but you now have me very intrigued!

      Reply

      • Ste J
        Jul 27, 2015 @ 18:20:25

        If you have a fetish for brooms then curling is definitely for you. You’re right the writing process isn’t over quickly like a tennis match, it is something worked at that is scrutinised and lived with for years, it’s much more of an epic challenge but thankfully less sweaty.

  8. Russel Ray Photos
    Jul 26, 2015 @ 22:20:04

    I started playing tennis in sixth grade in 1966 so watching tennis was always a given for me, making me a huge tennis fan. My husband is even more of a tennis fan, being able to cite winners of all the Grand Slams going back to the dawn of man……..

    Reply

  9. jjspina
    Jul 28, 2015 @ 00:45:46

    Great post, Michael! I never cared for tennis. Played with friends in my twenties but could never really hit the ball well. Liked wearing the cute skorts back then. Lol!
    Hard to believe that you could write a bad chapter!

    Reply

  10. Sherri
    Jul 28, 2015 @ 14:35:18

    I love your tennis/writing analogy here Mike. I’ve watched Wimbledon every year since I was about 12 and I remember this match very well! I also remember when McEnroe beat Bjorn Borg and what a sensation that was! But yes, this is such an important reminder on so many levels, we are doomed to fail when we try to be something or someone we are not. And it is amazing too when we step away from our work how we get a much clearer perspective when we return a few days later and suddenly everything works…we smash that ace and what a great feeling! Just like this ace post, thanks Mike 😉

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Jul 28, 2015 @ 16:59:45

      Hi Sherri! That is very true that taking a break for a few days is often extremely helpful and can do wonders for our perspective. I am still trying to figure out, though, which ace feels more satisfying–the written ace or the service ace! While I love the feeling of a well-struck tennis ball, there is just nothing that can compare with the written ace.:) Always such a pleasure to hear from you, Sherri!

      Reply

      • Sherri
        Jul 29, 2015 @ 15:40:53

        I agree, the written ace is the best one of all, although watching chalk dust fly up is a great feeling too 😉 Thanks Mike…and likewise, I would say the very same to you 🙂 Have a great day!

  11. JoAnne
    Jul 31, 2015 @ 02:41:46

    I played better tennis as a beginner, maybe playing by instinct. Fortunately writing is not like like that. When I read a section of my manuscript that I’ve been away from for a while, I’m often amazed at how much work it needs. Thank you for this encouraging message, that I’m not alone!

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Aug 01, 2015 @ 00:42:06

      Thanks so much for reading, JoAnne! I’m very glad you enjoyed this.:) And you’re right–we are definitely not alone. One of the things I love about WordPress is that it allows a place for writers all over the world to share with each other and read each other’s thoughts and ideas!

      Reply

  12. Stephanae V. McCoy
    Jul 31, 2015 @ 20:27:49

    This is such a powerful reminder for each of us to be the truly unique individuals we are. I also like how you tied the tennis story to your writing frustration. Reminds me of this quote by Oscar Wilde “ Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”

    Reply

  13. 2chicks2go
    Aug 05, 2015 @ 18:43:35

    “I had to go through the awkwardness in order to pave the way for the final product.” Says it all! Thank you.

    Reply

  14. Sue Dreamwalker
    Aug 06, 2015 @ 08:30:40

    I have written many things Mike that I have torn up 🙂 because it didn’t sound or feel right.. and some things I have wrote I intended to tear up, just so I could get off my chest my thoughts.. 🙂

    Wishing you well Mike.. and thank you for an interesting read.. And thank you for your visit x Sue

    Reply

  15. Ellen Antill
    Aug 13, 2015 @ 22:14:42

    Nicely “served,” Mike. Thanks for sharing this great story . . . and thanks for following my blog.

    Reply

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