Golf is a tricky game. It takes a long time to learn, for most people, and the many components that have to come together to make a great score can be daunting. As I set out for eighteen holes yesterday, fervently hoping to improve my score from the previous round, it occurred to me that writing a novel is a lot like playing eighteen holes of golf. Silly? Maybe. But I've just finished a 415,000 words manuscript, and as usual, I don't know how I did it. Looking back at a great round of golf, I often have the same feeling. So here are what I think are the similarities:
1) We play golf a single stroke at a time. There's no other way to do it. The average player will swing the club about a hundred times, plus practice swings, in eighteen holes. We also write a single stroke at a time--or rather, a page or a scene or a chapter, depending on your process. It's not possible to encompass the entirety of your novel every time you sit down to work. The great science fiction writer and teacher Nancy Kress draws a comparison to driving at night: the writer can only see as far ahead as the headlights reach. It's not that you don't know where you're going, ultimately, but that, ideally, each step along the way absorbs all your attention. If, in golf, we start worrying about the seventh hole when we're still on the sixth, our game suffers. If, in writing, we can't focus on the seventh chapter for obsessing about the eighth, our creativity suffers. We do have a way around that--we can skip ahead and write that eighth chapter, and for some writers that works--but we're still going to have to go back and write the seventh, sooner or later. For me, the "beat" in drama is just like the stroke in golf--one at a time.
2) Golf, like many other sports, is better if the player's preparation and process is dependable. There are the clothes (a favorite of mine), the equipment, the warmup, the address of the ball, the stroke preparation, and so forth. A writer's creativity benefits from the same preparation and process. That might mean a comfortable place to work, a bit of warmup in studying a reference book or reading something someone else has written, a certain kind of music, a bit of silence. As with golfers, the preparation and process will vary according to the individual. But as with golfers, it all needs to happen. Waiting and hoping that suddenly our game will magically come together doesn't do it. Discipline, practice, preparation, process--it's all vital to adding up those strokes to make a satisfying whole (or hole!)
3) Golf is a game we can play nearly forever. I have the honor of playing regularly with a delightful woman who brags that she has a "double snowman"--she's eighty-eight years old. She plays a full round at least once a week. Players of all ages can be on the course simultaneously, because golf is a game that is adaptable. Similarly, writers, unlike the singers who were once my colleagues, don't have to worry about their age. Editors, agents, and readers want great stories. They don't care how old the writer is. This is a rare and wonderful thing, something to be treasured in an era that seems to overvalue youth. Any field that is above ageism is to be treasured. There are some fabulous young writers; there are some magnificent old writers. As readers, we just want to enjoy their work.
I hope I'm still playing golf--and writing books--when I have my friend's double snowman.