Playing Dodgeball (Why I Write)

(in response to Chuck Wendig’s question:  Why I write)

Two third-graders remained, back-to-back survivors outside on the basketball court during a sunny day at recess. Only, it wasn’t basketball these two kids were trying to endure. They were surrounded by their squabbling classmates bounded only by a painted yellow line on the asphalt. I, through no amount of athletics, had been one of the two kids that lasted this long in a sadistic version of dodgeball.

Some call it ‘poisonball’. The rules are simple. No teams. Players outside the square try to hit the players inside the square with a dodgeball. Players inside dodge, and if an insider player can catch a ball thrown from a player outside, then the outside player has to come in the square. Last player standing inside the square wins after successfully dodging or catching a ball.

I remember the other kid next to me took it hard on the face, and then all eyes fell on me with brutally-honest looks of disbelief. This guy? The last one? He never makes it this far. I’m even bewildered. The fatass coach from faraway is whistling the kids back in, time for next class, but Hell No! I’ve made it this far. And the crazy thing is, the other kids don’t leave. Let’s just see if this loser can win. They defer to the gunslinger to throw the killing blow — the one that took out the girl just before me. All I have to do is dodge it. Don’t even try to catch it.

I tried to catch it.

Next class was English. I sucked at English like I sucked at catching a ball. There were the other kids from recess with their disapproving looks. “Why did you even try to catch it?” one of them asked. “You know you can’t catch anything.” I think he might have been my best friend.

The assignment for the class was to read out loud whatever creative drivel a third-grader could muster from the night before. Mind you, this was during the 80s, and we had no inkling we’d be part of the aged pop-culture stereotype of neon-colored shirts, Pac-Man and Sony Walkmans.

I remember being so damned nervous (an anxiety that stays with me today). That night before, I wrote four pages of scribbly long-hand about what? Skeletons? Skeletons in caves? Why did I write about that?

Then I remembered that when I was writing the piece, I had such fun with it — a painful kind of fun. The story came out haltingly at first and then gushed out into a swashbuckling romp about a kid that gets lost in the woods and finds a cave full of reanimated skeletons. Fighting ensues. Bones get broken.

I read that story to the class, voice quavering. This was the failed dodgeball survivor. I never looked up from the pages, reading out loud and telling the story to myself (and strangely enjoying it from afar). When I was done, I felt like I was zapped once by an electric cattle-prod because kids were clapping. Loud applause. Genuine. Suddenly, I’m not that kid who tried to stare dodgeball fate in the face and lost. I had transcended that, and all of this from words I plucked from my mind and put on the page. It was magical. Not everyone clapped, my best friend among those looking at me like I came from another planet, but that writer-spirit that had revealed itself to me that day was too powerful to deny. It said, “Finally, you’re listening to me. Now get your shit together and start writing more.”

Years passed. I tried to rekindle that school-day magic and found myself too distracted and aloof, periods of my life without putting words to story. Youth excuses a lot, but the muse stuck with me somehow. Even during those periods of my life where other talents and events took over and tried to quiet down the writer inside, the nagging itch to write remained.

College was more than confusing. So confusing I didn’t even try to improve my writing through academia. One semester my writing is loved and heralded by an English professor. The following semester an English professor is beheading everything I write with a sea of red ink.

I cleverly tried to destroy my writing urges by hanging around those that had no business or interest in fiction writing. It’s pretty easy to find people waiting to throw rubber balls at you (real or imaginary). Then I realize I’m that kid again in the middle of the square waiting to get hit. Do I dodge or get hit? Don’t even try to catch the ball.

But that’s what writing became.

I tried to catch the ball because it wasn’t part of my logic. Writing can be something SO difficult and improbable, I shouldn’t even try to attempt it. Yet, here I am, still doing it, wondering if I can actually catch that ball this time and put something amazing down on paper.

I’ve spent countless hours recording music, creating entire fully-produced songs lone-wolf style. It’s as exhilarating as it is exhaustive. You create as a god. First there is nothing, then there is something: an intangible thing spawning from neurotransmitters traveling across synapses. The end result, whether good or bad, is something that is tangible, sonically, at least. It’s here and it’s real.

As much of a rush that may sound like, it compares nothing to the feeling of the writing process for me. It’s a mad thing to do, and yet it’s what I want and continue to do. There are so many great writers and great works, known and unknown, everywhere, fueling and goading me on.

After decades of aimless writing and wallops of rejection, I am now a published writer, but I’m still just breaking the surface. And though they are still out there, along with my dangerous self-doubts and time constraints, dodgeballs in hands, I’m still crazy enough to stand there waiting for them to throw.

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