Between Judgment And Spontaneity


Sabonis_bobbleheadAging literary scholar, Mark Edmundson reflects on his final days on the basketball court. "Many activities that we pursue with particular fervor," he notes,  "are attempts to make time go away, to let us live in a pure present."  Edmunson finds in the art of writing and the art of sport a deeper awareness of life's constant push forward. "This process of imagining a physical act, doing it, then revising it, isn’t far removed from what a writer does. I like to think that the two activities, writing and playing ball, might feed each other. There’s no basketball weakness quite so severe that I can’t figure out a way to begin to compensate; no first draft so chaotic that the right kind of patient, smoothing hand can’t make something out of it. I once heard the novelist Bernard Malamud say that he found revision to be one of the most humanly ennobling things that a person could commit himself to. To be a good reviser, you need the ability to throw yourself out there and, possibly, to make a mess. You also need to put aside doubts and let your thoughts run. A lot of potential artists never become artists because they can’t bear to write rough drafts, and (surprise) they can’t write final drafts the first time through. After the initial burst, you need to be able to look clearly, in a way that’s both harsh and charitable, at what you’ve made.

Maybe what can be done to a page of writing, a canvas covered with a first layer of paint, a jump shot, can also be done to character. I sense that Malamud felt that by learning to revise his pages, he was also getting some practice in revising himself. He was learning to look at himself, to see flaws, to see areas for development, and to savor the strengths and the lusters (of which he seems to have had plenty). You might even say that art and sports have an ethics code in common: the ethics of revision. Some of the most engaging writers are people who seem to have come of age without a lot of verbal facility. Their sentences don’t glide. This has made them revisers, and had the effect of deepening their work. I’m fairly sure this was true of Malamud, but it was also true of Saul Bellow who, despite the amazing fluency of his final products, was a ferocious reviser, standing up over his drafting table, looking out at grimy, gray-stained Chicago, his muse, and giving it one more go. As writers struggle to make the sentences shine like silver or, under certain conditions, radiate the right dull glow, like iron does, they descend more deeply into character, plot, and meaning.

I like reading these writers; it makes me feel as if honest effort might actually pay. For similar reasons, I like to watch great athletes at the end of their careers, when they decide that they’re going to go at things in a new way, because their bodies won’t do what they did before. Bird and Doctor J. and even Magic got slyer and sometimes more humorous in their late phases. Doctor J. would pretend that he was going to sail off like a glider to the hoop, and the young guy on him got ready to jam the ball down his throat and school the old man. But the Doctor would cancel the house call, pull back, and pop a floater through the net. Michael kept trying to do what he’d always done and got sulkier and sulkier when things didn’t go as planned. He could probably have made himself into a player who got 15 assists a night and spent four more years as one of the premiere point guards in the league, but he had to have his 20 points."

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