I played a lot of sports when I was a boy and young man. I learned early on that to enjoy playing the game I had to care whether I won or lost. The goal line, the net, the boundaries, and the score had to mean something, or the game lost its purpose. Yet to improve at any sport, and indeed to deeply enjoy actually playing that sport, I had to forget temporarily about those very outcomes that gave the game its shape, and focus instead on the pleasure of whatever I was doing at any given moment.
For instance, one of my favorite games was football, and my favorite position in that game was wide receiver. I loved to catch balls the way a dog loves to catch Frisbees. First, I loved to run. I loved what it felt like to coordinate all the parts of my body into one fluid expression. But running with a purpose was better than plain running, and that ball became the purpose. How satisfying to be aware of both my body and this sphere travelling across the sky, to time my run so that the one aligns with the other, and then to feel that intimate moment when we arrive at the same place at the same time and my hands arrest the ball’s rotation and we are one.
That’s why I got better at football. Because I loved doing that. I did and it and did it and did it because I loved doing it. The winning and losing, the dropped passes and interceptions, were more like stories I laid over the moment-to-moment experience of playing. No outcome that I named good or bad could strip the game of its inherent pleasure – unless, of course, I paid more attention to the story than the experience.
Sports were excellent preparation for a writing life. I did not begin having any success as a writer until I stopped paying so much attention to results and started caring more about my moment-to-moment experiences. It is easy when writing to become hypnotized by acceptance letters and rejection letters, by sales and Amazon rankings. Results can offer me information about my experiences. A dropped ball told me my attention had wandered ever so slightly, and rejection letters gave me information about the people to whom I’m submitting or about the readiness of what I’ve submitted.
In the end, the writing life is composed of the experience of sitting at my desk and looking for the right sentence and the right word, or the experience of looking for the right agent or the right publisher, and then the experience of meeting those readers for whom my story was the right story. When I look upon my writing life, or my career, as an opportunity to have more and more and more experiences that I love, my career and life make sense, and grow as naturally as a tree grows. There is nothing more immediate and more knowable than experience, and there is nothing that offers greater and more instantaneous satisfaction than an experience I enjoy. An experience is what I actually have. A result is only the residue of that experience and has no lasting power in my life unless I tell a story about it.
It is tempting to tell myself triumphant stories about those results when they’re what I hoped for, but this also requires me to tell a tragic story when they are not. Better if I don’t tell any story about those results. I have to keep my attention on where I’m going if I am going to catch the stories I am meant to tell.
You can learn more about William at williamkenower.com.