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Try Harder

2 February 2010

Over the past few months, I’ve half-jokingly told anyone who’ll listen – friends, acquaintances, house pets – that writing a book is a terrible idea, and that no one should ever do it.

There are obviously fun elements to writing a book. I particularly enjoyed the reporting, traveling from city to city and talking to people inside and outside baseball, tracking down subjects’ friends and family members to add the little details that will hopefully paint a more vivid picture for readers. The writing can be fun in its own way, writing and rewriting paragraphs, phrases, even single words, until you find the bon mot that brightens up your day. Exchanging ideas with fellow writers, brainstorming over titles, planning exotic, if impossible, book tour stops in one’s mind (hello Budapest!) – all of these are great parts of the process.

As with everything in life, though, it’s tough to understand opportunity cost until you see what you’re missing whiz by. There’s no way to sugarcoat the big things: Spahn and Sain turn 4 months old tomorrow, and I haven’t held them nearly as much as I’d like. Wife time, sadly, must also defer to The Book. There are times when I want to chuck my computer out a window, go sit in the babies’ room with Dr. F, and just watch the future co-presidents of the Independent Republic of Live Free Or Die sleep for a few hours. Actually, this happens a lot.

What really sneaks up on you, though, are the little things. I miss watching Jon Stewart belittle Democrats for having no spine, and Republicans for having no policies, other than “no.” I miss thrice-weekly pickup hoops games. A full night’s sleep is almost too luxurious to imagine.

What’s bugging me lately is the lack of time to read. I’ve been stuck on one book for about five months now, reeling off two or three pages a day, tops, due to lack of free time. Fortunately, this book is so good that even these short bursts of reading are enough to jolt me out of any bouts of lame self-pity.

The Catcher Was A Spy by Nicholas Dawidoff is a funny, tragic, eye-opening, meticulously-researched gem. I can’t imagine how long Dawidoff spent poring over old letters Berg wrote and stories Berg told, how much effort he expended verifying little things like how fluent Berg really was in Italian, which pitchers liked throwing to him, and which teammates found him aloof. Several years, certainly, not just in raw time but with intense commitment and precision. A reader might decide he’s not that into tales of espionage; another might tire of tales of a .220-hitting catcher and his decidedly uneventful on-field career. But no one will throw this book down in disgust, upset over a lack of detail or the author’s failure to fact-check. Dawidoff has invested far too much of himself in this book for that to happen.

One of the first pieces of advice I got in the book writing process was to tell stories. Vivid stories, stuff that stays with you long after you’ve shoved a book onto your bookshelf and forgotten about it, or lent it to a friend knowing you’ll probably never see it again.

When you think of Moneyball, for instance, what comes to mind? The general theme of exploiting market inefficiencies in baseball, or the image of Billy Beane chucking a chair at a wall in the draft room? Michael Lewis would probably hope your answer is, “both.” When you’re writing a book, especially a work of non-fiction, you certainly want some kind of thesis, a coherent theme that carries you from beginning to end. But without colorful studies, many readers (myself included) will bog down by page 25. Unless you’re writing a textbook, it’s imperative for the writer to dig and dig and dig until he’s found the little nuggets that make you want to keep reading. When I talk to other writers, they often say that’s what keeps them going. It sounds so simple, but they want to write the stories that people want to read.

The privilege of being chosen to write a book, much less getting paid to do so, is awesome, in every sense of the word. I’m still amazed that a publisher has placed its trust in me to produce 90,000 words that will make people want to spend their hard-earned money to read them. When it’s 3 a.m. and you’re struggling to remember if “Naimoli” has two i’s or seven, you imagine the people you can’t let down by mailing in a paragraph or failing to triple-check a tiny factoid. You hope that you’ve got enough chair-throwing stories to liven and leaven discussion of Ultimate Zone Rating and keep the reader interested.

Even though the subject matter is vastly different, I go to bed after a full day’s writing hoping I can approach what Dawidoff did with his tale of Moe Berg, the light-hitting catcher who became a spook. Like this tidbit on major league players’ 1934 good-will tour of Japan:

Babe Ruth had been in a malaise when he left the United States. Thirty-nine years old, with a body he’d lived in hard, the Bambino hoped to retire and manage a major league team, but none wanted him. Japan perked him up. Ruth arrived to find himself everywhere: on the cover of the program sold at ballparks; in newspaper headlines — “Babe Ruth, Sultan of Swat, Arrives,” bannered the Osaka Mainichi; and in milk chocolate advertisements. Everybody wanted to see him and fete him, and so the Americans were rushed from appointment to appointment — to welcoming ceremonies in which players and politicians exchanged messages of friendship, to garden parties, teas, luncheons with royalty, and dinner dances, and to private tours of department stores, castles, Buddhist temples, and, inevitably, a geisha house. At the last, the subtleties of young women attired in layers of silken costume, shuffling across a room to perform ancient ritual ceremonies, were lost on Ruth. He pawed at one increasingly flustered woman every time she passed. Watching nearby, Berg wrote down some characters in katakana and handed them to Ruth’s victim. The next time she felt a large hand groping beneath her carefully tied obi, she paused, bowed, smiled sweetly, and said, “Fuck you, Babe Ruth.” That, Ruth understood.”

“Fuck you, Babe Ruth.” If that doesn’t inspire a reader to smile, or a writer to try harder, nothing will.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. thehemogoblin permalink
    2 February 2010 6:49 pm

    My favorite anecdote in a nonfiction story was in David Halberstam’s Summer of ’49. Somewhere near the end of the book, Halberstam details the clown of the locker room (the man’s name escapes me), and how even Joe DiMaggio wasn’t even exempted from a quick slap of the man’s phallus across his face while DiMaggio was on the trainer’s table. I was in stitches for quite a while because of that one…

    • Jonah permalink*
      2 February 2010 11:01 pm

      That is tremendous. Anything involving obscene gestures or curse words aimed at Yankees legends is comedy gold.

  2. 3 February 2010 12:05 am

    I just want to say this is awesome.

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