Every March my eyes turn south toward spring training. The sunburned announcers report from director’s chairs on games that don’t count. The players work on their autographs and perfect their sunflower seed spits. Teenagers called up from the lowercase “a” team —hardly more than little leaguers—pitch, bat, and field, hanging crooked numbers or laying goose eggs. The crack of a bat, the thwack of ball and glove, the collective groan as a player on the other team sends a homer over the wall: hearing this soundtrack out of sequence reminds me that change is coming, despite the hard crust of snow lingering in my front yard.
In the same way, whatever story I’m working on is often playing in the back of my mind, even when I’m not writing. My fictional people are alive and going about their business in another dimension that might as well be Florida. While I am preoccupied with daily life, they are working up stats, track records, and expectations. When I sit down to write, I don’t pick up where I left off so much as catch up with them, the same as my baseball team every spring.
During baseball season, the announcers narrate my nights and days. I know them by their first names: Don, Jerry, Joe and Dave. I know their cadence, their vocabulary, their storytelling style. They tell me what’s happening, and shape my understanding of it. I become aware of emotions and dynamics between players, coaches, and teams that I wouldn’t notice otherwise. Baseball announcers are like great narrators: they can make a boring story interesting and give depth to a shopworn plot. They’re known as color men for a reason. Writers can nick their techniques to wring drama from a ho-hum scenario: know your characters, recognize the need for drama, and don’t be afraid to fill in the backstory and punch up the action. (Steve Almond wrote about this recently for The New York times.)
People criticize baseball for being boring: night after night, nine guys wait in a field for something—anything!—to happen. But while other writers, from Bernard Malamud to John Updike, have eagerly praised baseball’s soaring poeticism—the homers, stolen bases, and perfect games—I think the sport’s real appeal for writers lies in this apparent tedium. It’s deceptive. Like writing, there is repetition and craft to the game. You find yourself doing the same things over and over again, refining little inconsistencies, tweaking form, learning from mistakes. It is this patient training, this slow accrual of mastery, that makes the excitement possible and perhaps, by contrast, even more exciting.
In baseball, structure is front and center: here is where you bat, here is where you catch, here is where you pitch. That’s why you can listen to a game on the radio: you know where all the characters are, you’re only waiting for the action to unfold. If the game is good, you don’t notice the structure anymore. You get caught up in the drama—whether the pitcher adjusts his cap three or four times, whether the batter performs his twitchy, once-twice-three times batting glove readjustment ritual. You know the characters so well—whether a hitter is swinging or taking on 3-1, what the left-hander likes to throw when he’s up in the count—that you even have some ideas what might happen next. But you keep listening (or watching) because you never know for sure. The interplay of these knowns and unknowns is why baseball is still popular to watch on TV: it’s unpredictable in a way scripted shows aren’t. Keeping an element of uncertainty or surprise in play makes it more satisfying. It has the randomness of real life.
In writing, too, work on structure and form is invisible when done well. All of the plotting and character development fall away when characters fight, kiss, or divorce. The hardest work comes early in the game, when we’re setting up the crises that come later. The success of our stories depend on that hard work; so quotidian, so boring. That’s why people complain about writing so much: like everything worth doing, it takes hours and hours of work that seem totally disconnected with the final product, but are in fact the reason the finished product sings. We too are in training, and not just for the spring: building muscle, perfecting our skills, getting ready to play. All of that work makes later success possible.
Baseball is boring, but unpredictable too. That tension holds our attention. So train hard and make room for the unexpected. As they say in baseball, that’s why they play all nine innings.