On Demand*

I've been struggling more this past week thinking of things to blog about than I ever have in the (brief!) history of this blog. It's an important discipline, writing. You have to be willing to write even when you have nothing to say or, rather, feel like you have nothing to say, like doing your scales or rolling that yoga mat out or settling in for just a few minutes to say Morning Prayer even when you don't really want to. If you're not there, nothing can happen. Nor does it help to wait for the right mood. If you wait, the mood never comes; being there even when you aren't in the mood is the trick.

But neither do I want this blog to become a stream of consciousness record of what I've been thinking. I'm not sure you're really interested nor do I think you really should be. Stream of consciousness is---as C.S. Lewis put it so well in his A Preface to Paradise Lost (at work, so I can't check the passage right now)--a fiction, an artifice having nothing to do with what it really means to have a mind. Strip away everything that makes up our consciousness--our thoughts, emotions, motivations, passions--and what you have left (or so Lewis argues) is chaos, or nothing. His metaphor: it's like the policeman standing in the middle of the intersection having stopped all traffic remarking on how strangely silent everything is. It is as unnatural for there to be no traffic moving as it is for our minds to be utterly empty and still.

And yet, and here's something from a book I do have to hand, this is the state that we--as meditants and athletes--seem so often to crave. One of my birthday presents on Thursday was a collection of essays by David Foster Wallace (may he rest in peace). I've only read one of them thus far, but if you know the collection (Consider the Lobster [2006]) I'll bet you can guess which one was the first one I read. Yes, that's right: "How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart," about the banality and irresistibility of sports-star autobiographies. I don't myself read them, but then I do read the corollary genre of sports-star advice books, so I think I know what Wallace is talking about here.

We want, as Wallace puts it, the Story: how did you, this person no different from me in so many respects, but so utterly unlike me in some indefinable other, learn to do that--fence, play tennis, draw, write, think--so well? There is a terrible poignancy in Wallace's reflections on how, as a tennis player himself but nowhere near Austin's level, he longed to learn from such memoirs what all of his readers must long to learn from him: "What goes through their [his] minds? Are these athletes [authors] real people? Are they [is he] even remotely like us [like me]? Is their [was his] Agony of Defeat anything like our [like my] little agonies of daily frustration? And of course what about the Thrill of Victory--what might it feel like to hold up that #1 finger [get the telephone call from the MacArthur Foundation] and be able to actually mean it?" (p. 143)

Genius that he was, Wallace seems to have had a hard time seeing it in himself, and yet he knew, as painfully as all of us must, what it meant to want to be able to perform at the level that he did as a writer. Or did he? Why is it that we read the athlete's stories hoping that they will tell us How They Did It? "Here is a theory. Top athletes are compelling because they embody the comparison-based achievement we Americans revere--fastest, strongest--and because they do so in a totally unambiguous way.... Plus they're beautiful.... And they're inspiring. There is about world-class athletes carving out exemptions from physical laws a transcendent beauty that makes manifest God in man. So actually more than one theory, then. Great athletes are profundity in motion. They enable abstractions like power and grace and control to become not only incarnate but televisable. To be a top athlete, performing, is to be that exquisite hybrid of animal and angel that we average unbeautiful watchers have such a hard time seeing in ourselves" (pp. 142-43).

I sobbed when I read that the first time and I'm nearly in tears now. Oh, what it must be to be able to perform on demand, with millions of people watching, everything hanging on that free throw, that serve, that putt, that attack--and not choke. To be able to take the advice that we have heard from our coaches so many times--"One touch at a time," "You have to want to make the attack," "Have fun!"--and simply, physically, transcendently--make it so. This is the experience I have been yearning for, like the doe panting for the stream: to know God in the moment of surrender to the action, to be there in the instant so wholly absorbed as to be conscious of nothing else, my thoughts everywhere and nowhere, pure and exact, uncluttered by anxieties and fears, confident that God will be with me as I move. And how well Wallace describes this yearning. I wish that I, a writer on a level compared with him as he was a tennis player compared to Austin, had thought of putting it this way: great athletes as a hybrid between animal and angel, profundity in motion, beauty making God manifest in man. Oh, my God, how exquisite!

And yet, Wallace concludes having trudged his way through Austin's "breathtakingly insipid" memoir, this--i.e. putting their experience into words--is the one thing great athletes (and perhaps great writers) can never do. It's not that they don't want to; they gamely answer the interviewers' questions on television, after all. It's just that the words don't really mean the same thing to them as they do to us, their audience: "It is not an accident that great athletes are often called 'naturals,' because they can, in performance, be totally present: they can proceed on instinct and muscle-memory and autonomic will such that agent and action are one. Great athletes can do this even...under wilting pressure and scrutiny. They can withstand forces of distraction that would break a mind prone to self-conscious fear in two" (p. 154).

And then comes the stinger: "The real secret behind top athletes' genius, then, may be as esoteric and obvious and dull and profound as silence itself. The real, many-veiled answer to the question of just what goes through a great player's mind as he stands at the center of hostile crowd-noise and lines up the free-throw that will decide the game might well be: nothing at all" (p. 154). Nothing at all?!!! But, of course, isn't this what "no-mind" means? The Zen of sword-fighting is to empty one's mind of all expectations, be wholly in the moment, not anticipating (i.e. guessing) what your opponent is about to do, not thinking anything at all because thinking anything would be to get stuck in that thought.

"How can great athletes shut off the Iago-like voice of the self? How can they bypass the head and simply and superbly act? How, at the critical moment, can they invoke for themselves a cliche as trite as 'One ball [touch] at a time' or 'Gotta concentrate here,' and mean it, and then do it? Maybe it's because, for top athletes, cliches present themselves not as trite but simply as true, or perhaps not even as declarative expressions with qualities like depth or triteness or falsehood or truth but as simple imperatives that are either useful or not and, if useful, to be invoked and obeyed and that's all there is to it" (p. 154).

I think Wallace is right here, if not precisely for the reasons he gives. He goes on to suggest that great athletes share something with those whom we think of as enlightened (saints, monks), wise and profound with a childlike simplicity, somehow exempt from all of the angst-ridden self-struggle to which the rest of us are prone: "That is, for me, the real mystery--whether such a person is an idiot or a mystic or both and/or neither" (p. 155). The paradox, Wallace concludes, as well as the explanation for why athletes' autobiographies are inevitably so disappointing, is that it is only those of us who are denied the experience of the gift that great athletes (or mystics?) enjoy who are "able truly to see, articulate, and animate [it]," while "those who receive and act out the gift of athletic genius must, perforce, be blind and dumb about it--and not because blindness and dumbness are the price of the gift, but because they are its essence" (p. 155).

Think about it; great athletes won't. Or can't. Because thinking is exactly what action is not. Why can't I tell you about those touches that I made yesterday in practice that were so precisely right, but can go on for pages and pages about all of the ones that were wrong? I can describe for you the thoughts that I'm struggling with, the ones I'm trying to get past, about whether I will ever be any good at this sport or about how wanting to win seems to get in the way of being able to fence, but the moments that I am able to escape all this chatter I am simply there and the only words I can find are the ones that everyone else has been using to similar effect: "I was having fun"; "I wasn't worrying about the score but just about this touch"; "I knew I could catch up"; "God loves me."

I really didn't know what I was going to write about when I sat down at the keyboard an hour ago. I just started typing and the words came. I recalled being taken by what Lewis had said, and I agree with him: stream of consciousness is dull. Doris Lessing made much the same point in The Golden Notebook (1962), when Anna tried to escape the artifice of her various notebooks by writing exactly what she was doing for a whole day (a little like Facebook updates, but more continuous) and found that this exercise was just as artificial as dividing her observations into their disparate colors (black, red, yellow, blue) had been. And yet, not to think, but simply to act; not to listen to the Censor ("Radio Fuck-you," as Anne Lamott puts it), telling me over and over again, "You have nothing to say," and to write. How different is this, in the end, from being able to stand there on the eighteenth green or on strip no. 1 and not give into the voices that would counsel despair?

It's not that I write without artifice, anymore than I would fence without using my footwork or knowing the parries. It's trusting that the structure, the practice, will be there for me when I need it and taking the plunge. "You need to trust your attacks," my coach tells me. And he's right. Now where did I read that just the other day, about what it means to be able to surrender to God? We don't want to; we want to believe ourselves in control, to think that we can control how we act, how we think, but simply thinking that thought stops the action, stops the thought, and we are no longer thinking but judging, no longer in the moment but watching it from outside.

It's also hard because it means being rapt out of our selves. I had meant to spend the last hour reading Emma and getting the laundry done. Instead, I've been here at the keyboard and it's suddenly time to be going. What would I tell you if you asked me how I came up with what I've just written? "I don't know, it just came to me. I just relaxed and I suddenly realized what I wanted to say." And how frustrated you would be as a writer, hearing me say this, when you had been struggling with an essay or letter or proposal all day, not finding the words, struggling to wrestle the sentences into shape, much as I would be hearing someone like Emily Cross or Erinn Smart (whom I've never met) describe how she fenced a particular championship bout. Does this make me a "natural"? Did writing as well as he did make Wallace a "natural"? Are great athletes really so immune from self-doubt as Wallace supposed? Or are only writers given to this degree of introspection and angst?

Somehow, I doubt it. What does it take to be able to act--or write--on demand? I think I know the answer, as you must by now, if you're still reading. "Just do it," much as I did now nearly two hours ago when I sat down to write this.

With thanks to Jonathan at Thicket & Thorpe for his musings on why if one has a blog, one should write more.

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