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.”

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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