Episode 70—Erica Westly on Softball and Structure

Erica Westly is the author of “Fastpitch: The Untold History of Softball and the Women Who Made the Game.”

By Brendan O’Meara

Tweetables by Erica Westly (@westlyer on Twitter):

“That sense of discovery when you come across a story you had no idea existed.”

“The book project was my last hope for getting to do the type of writing I wanted to do.”

“I’ve kind of learned to live with the self-loathing I think.”

“I try to picture myself telling the story to someone at the bus stop.”

It’s the Creative Nonfiction Podcast where I speak to the world’s best artists about creating works of nonfiction. Leaders in the world of narrative journalism, memoir, essay, radio, and documentary film share their tools and tricks with you so you can improve your own work.

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Ernest Hemingway on Why Hunger Made for Good Discipline

By Brendan O’Meara

I hate being hungry. I can’t focus. I get angry. Irritable. Get that man a slice of pizza. Anything!

So years ago when I first read A Moveable Feast, one of my favorite books, by Ernest Hemingway, his sketch “Hunger was Good Discipline” struck me as total BS.

Hemingway wrote,

You got very hungry when you did not eat enough in Paris because all the baker shops had such good things in the windows and people ate outside at tables on the sidewalk so that you saw and smelled the food. When you were skipping meals at a time when you had given up journalism and were writing nothing that anyone in American would buy, explaining at home that you were lunching out with someone, the best place to do it was the Luxembourg gardens where you saw and smelled nothing to eat all the way from the Place de l’Observatoire to the rue de Vaugirard.

In a few words this sounds like a nightmare, skipping meals, but I’ve lived it. To this day. Because money is tight and nobody is buying what I sell and the government must take 50 percent of anything I do make. I eat a vegetarian diet because for $70 a week, it feeds me and my wife.

There’s the gnawing at the gut that Hemingway says,

There you could always go into the Luxembourg museum and all the paintings were heightened and clearer and more beautiful if you were belly-empty, hollow-hungry. I learned to understand Cezanne much better and to see truly how he made landscapes when I was hungry.

This was where my infantile reader mind flew off the handles. If I were looking at paintings on an empty stomach, the growling would far distract my senses from anything other than the most primal need to eat.

But upon re-reading this section, I realized this wasn’t food-hunger at all. It was the hunger of the hustler, that when you deeply want something, when you can’t think of anything else other than whatever-that-is, that hunger creates the discipline to hit the page with rigor.

Hemingway says,

You dirty phony saint and martyr, I said to myself. You quit journalism of your own accord. You have credit and Sylvia [Beech] would have loaned you money. She has plenty of times. Sure. And then the next thing you would be compromising on something else. Hunger is healthy and the pictures do look better when you are hungry. Eating is wonderful too and do you know where you are going to eat right now?

Of course he visits a cafe to eat and get “tight” as Jacob Barnes or Lady Brett may say. And of course he refers to his lecherous ways by “compromising on something else,” but if we look past that we see the discipline all artists must have to succeed.

Here again we see hunger for food as a conduit for the deeper hunger of literary stardom and artistic integrity. His deep pursuit for telling stories created the discipline. He had a ritualized morning schedule that only the truly hungry ever adhere to (more on this soon).

A Moveable Feast is such fine read, of the famous writer looking back to a time when nothing was certain, when the belly was empty, and hunger was, in fact, good discipline.

My Top Writing Books

Written by Brendan O’Meara

Writing books may as well be writing procrastination books. There’s a big market in writing procrastination and writers capitalize on it. That’s the dream of every writer: to get to a point where he/she is reputable enough to write a book on writing. He/she knows there’s a new generation of saps looking to put off their writing by learning a new tip from the incumbent writer emeritus. I’m a sap that says, “No, it’s continuing education.” Which it is, but there’s no better way to become more skilled than to put the pencil to the paper.

There really is only one tip: write like it’s a job (because if you’re serious about it, it is). Or, more bluntly, write like a mofo. (How great is Cheryl Strayed?)

Hemingway didn’t even know he wrote a book on writing, which makes his one of the very best. It’s titled: Ernest Hemingway on Writing, Edited by Larry W. Phillips. One my faves. Tons of great nuggets from letters to friends. He had a social network where they shared tools, tricks, and insights. They helped each other.

Stephen King doesn’t get enough credit for being a great writer (Have you read Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption?). His book On Writing is excellent. Buy it.

The New New Journalism by Robert S. Boynton is a series of interviews with great narrative journalists. They talk about writing and reporting. I reference it all the time.

Roy Peter Clark’s Writing Tools is the best of his many books on writing. If you can get ahold of his laminated Writing Tools Quick Sheet, do it. It’s like being an NFL head coach holding a laminated card like Andy Reid.

Good Prose by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd is a wonderful collaborative book between a writer/editor tandem. I reviewed it here.

Lastly, Creative Nonfiction by Philip Gerard lays out what it takes to do great reporting and writing to make a work of nonfiction read like great fiction.

Well, that’s it. I hope these books help. Got some others? Throw them in the comments.

Honorable Mention:

Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott

On Writing Well, William Zinsser

Glamour of Grammar, Roy Peter Clark

How to Write Short, Roy Peter Clark

Help! for Writers, Roy Peter Clark

Fictional Dabblings

Written by Brendan O’Meara (email sign up ============>)

hemingway, fiction, brendan o'meara

I have a ton of respect for the short story. I have a ton of respect for the (well done) long form magazine piece. Why? It’s all about word economy and pacing. The real estate to get the story told can’t be too expansive. I’ve been reading the short stories of Karen Russell, George Saunders, Ernest Hemingway. There’s something so underrated about the short story.

Unless you are Russell, Saunders or Alice Munro, short stories just don’t sell. As a collection anyway. Another drawback could be that as soon as you feel invested in a character the story is over and it’s onto the next one where the reader must start all over again and get to know new characters. It so one-night-standish, but that’s also the beauty. The reader gets to know to new characters, new flings and no walk of shame.

So, I’ve been dabbling. There’s a sports short fiction contest put on by Winning Writers. Last year’s story, Fight Night, was the annual winner. It’s a nice little story about a good doctor in debt to his patient. In 2013 I entered their essay contest and submitted an essay version of The Last Championship and lost. I felt defeated, but what are you going to do? So this year I decided to write a short story about a former Major League baseball player who moves to a small town and is courted by all the slow-pitch softball teams in the area. The story is The Ringer, and it’s an allegory for modern sports negotiations. Here’s the opening:

I was a middling baseball player. I was aware of my middlingness and thus saved my money while I was in the pros. I never made much, but it was above average and for a short time you might even say I was wealthy. I mean, I once test-drove a Maserati. My best season saw me play 93 games, bat .271 with 14 RBIs and one home run (an inside the park homerun when the center fielder, the great Ken Griffey, Jr. tried to make one of his typically outstanding plays. Show off.) After my career was effectively over I took a year or two to do nothing more than be a bullpen catcher. I made something like $40,000 a year to watch professional baseball players do their thing, warm up a relief pitcher late in the game, and otherwise reflect on how good I had it.

There came a time to give that up. I had my money, yes, but I had no education so I was basically unhireable. I wanted to do something and I didn’t really care what that something actually was. I lived an extraordinary life for a time and now it was time to blend in as best I could. I’d be the red to somebody’s blue and make purple.

I could walk into any hardware store, diner, or supermarket and not draw the slightest bit of attention. That was the hope.

I loved playing ball and there were twilight leagues I could join, but that didn’t seem fair. Plus seeing middle-aged men in baseball uniforms stretched like bat-wing membranes over their midsections was depressing or, at least, it depressed me. Strangely, what seemed more age appropriate, like mom jeans, was playing slow-pitch softball.

It was fun. I’ve got a few other short stories in the hopper and I’m going to try and land those at magazines and journals.

There’s so much allure to the NOVEL that the short story gets pushed aside. If nothing else the short story is good exercise. There are plenty of novels that are written that could have been saved had they just been a short story. Same goes for a LOT of nonfiction books. A 10,000-word magazine piece or Kindle Single would read so much better than a 70,000-word book.

What do you think?