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The Follow-Through

Categories: MFA Confidential Blog.

The atmosphere in the St. Viator’s gym was electric. There were twenty seconds left on the clock, we were losing 21-20 (a fairly high score in the world of seventh grade girls’ basketball), and some chick with a long stringy ponytail and Horace Grant goggles had just hacked at my arm while I was trying to shoot from the perimeter. Now here I was, standing on the foul line, the dreams of the St. Mary of the Woods Blue Knights riding on my trembling shoulders. I dribbled the ball a few times and tried to drown out the mild roar of the smattering of parents in the near empty bleachers. In my head, I remembered a steady stream of advice I’d been given from my coaches, and particularly my dad: “Fundamentals, Jess. Bend your knees. Keep your eye on the rim. Follow through.”

I’d been practicing all summer, thousands and thousands of free throws in my driveway, hundreds of games of HORSE and Knockout at Wildwood Park, countless weekends spent shooting and dribbling and shooting some more until I was cross eyed from squinting into the sun for so long. I hadn’t grown at all, was still the shortest girl in my whole grade, so if I wanted to get any playing time, I was going to have to improve my game. And all that summer, I’d been chanting the jargon and the advice to myself until it became like a prayer to me, an incantation, its very own rosary of basketball talk. Create a routine. Shoot from your knees. Okay, now hold the ball just like I toldja, and then let it go. Use your wrist to follow through. Good goin’. Now let’s try it again.
After a few million bouncings of the knees and a few thousand shots, I finally got it down, my fingers rolling off the raised surface of the basketball, so that it would turn in the air, just so, and then thhhfffttt, nothing but net.

“Just like we practiced, Jess,” called my coach, and his voice reassured me. I bent my knees and angled in on that orange square.

Thunk.

The ball banked, hard, off the backboard, and bounced back into my hands. Okay. One more chance to tie things up. Saint Mary of the Woods, pray for us. I bounced again. I held the ball, its nubby curves, in my two hands. Bend those knees. Zero in on the orange square. Shoot from your knees. And don’t forget to follow through.

After the game, during the quiet ride home, my coach said, trying to hide the disappointment in his voice,

“You know what happened, right?”

And I’d nodded, holding back tears.

“I didn’t follow through.”

It’s been my problem all my life—the follow through. I’ll do half of the dishes, put the clothes in the washer but forget to put them in the drier, shave one leg and forget to do the other one. And when it comes to my writing, my inability to follow through is a source of endless frustration and despair.

Since I started my program I have begun three novels, and each one has at least 30,000 words, probably more than that. I’ve started countless short stories, and while I’ve finished quite a few of those, far more remain incomplete. I have trouble committing to any one sustained piece, and now that thoughts of my thesis are looming, I know I need to make a decision and stick with it. That’s where I’m hoping my MFA will come in—forcing me to choose a thesis and finish it if I ever want to graduate.

Once I started high school and realized I would never grow taller than 5’3, I was content to become a spectator in the game of basketball. But as the clock ticks on my third year of graduate school, I fear that I will become a spectator in the literary world, too. At the risk of sounding like an angsty art student, I have to ask, what if, after all this time and money and dedication, my writing career goes the way of my basketball career, ending with a big, fat anticlimactic thunk?

How do you “follow-through” with your writing? How do you make decisions about which projects to pursue, and which ones to shelf? Do you have trouble finishing longer pieces? Any advice?

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3 Responses to The Follow-Through

  1. Dana says:

    Also, have patience. Finishing a novel is a wonderful goal, but it is not easy. The false starts and stops and frustrations you are experience are all perfectly normal and happen to EVERYBODY.

    The important thing is to keep working at it. The discomfort is important, even if you don’t write specifically about it, the discomfort will work its way into your writing and help provide dramatic tension and human relevance. Everybody experiences discomfort, it is good because it demonstrates you are human and gives your human readers something to connect with emotionally.

  2. Dana says:

    I follow through by going to a writing group on a regular basis. I have been doing so for nearly four years. I have written on a mostly regular basis for longer than that.

    Right now, I am writing mostly sketches. Whenever I read a good novel or short story, I always find myself wondering how the author did it. So I have, over time, devised exercises where I try to learn how to exercise different technical skills.

    I have also been going through a lot of emotional and spiritual changes in the last few years. I am a firm believer that blocks in artistic output most likely have something to do with what is happening in the artist’s life outside of the writing.

    I moved twice this summer and was taking a class in addition to working. I set my notebooks aside for a couple of months, but I did start therapy for some problems I was having and that led me to some reading and reflecting on some different spiritual beliefs and helped me solidify some lifestyle changes I had been working on, etc.

    So I came back to my notebooks and continued with my exercises but of course a little differently since I had taken some time off and made some changes in my life. Now I’ve had some nice pieces and sketches to bring into the writing group and my whole attitude and energy are a little different in a satisfying way.

    There is one specific aspect of my life that is difficult for me to address and it has held my own writing back for years (Hint: it has to do with sexuality). With the work I’ve done this summer, I feel empowered and emboldened to confront it in writing with pieces I’m bringing to the group. This is a good thing. It’s not the final component or the resolution to all my problems, but it represents a big step forward for me. Now I just need to make sure I don’t chicken out before my next meeting :)

    Advice? Hmmm. First, I would say don’t worry too much about the expectations and feedback you are getting from teachers and classmates. You are learning to write for you. Try to position you writing as something you do to enrich your own life.

    Also, maybe you will be able to find some time to reflect on any problems you might be having outside of writing. Is it possible that there are some nagging issues, behavior patterns, feelings of anxiety or alienation, relationships that could use some time and energy?

    In my case, there is often something that needs addressing in my personal life that I’m afraid of or unable to address and express. When that happens, I still can write but I have to find a way to address the problem through working with other people, because writing alone isn’t always up to the challenge of solving my problems, no matter how hard I work at it.

    I think I’ve labored under the idea that writing is just how I express myself best. But really, that puts a lot of unfair pressure on writing. I’ve found that when I take care of myself outside of writing, it takes the pressure off and the writing is freer, looser, more fun, and ultimately more expressive.

    I used to put people and relationships off to make time for writing. This approach has become rather counter-productive. I’m now trying to do the opposite, to take advantage of opportunities to be among people and build relationships. I am still able to spend time writing, but now spend less time worrying about it (but that’s just me… your problems are probably vastly different LOL).

    Sorry for the long post. Thanks for asking the questions, though, and for providing this nice little writing venue :)

    Hang in there!

  3. Jimmy says:

    Glad you wrote this. I was feeling lonely in this department. I spend the early morning hours writing because it’s the only time I have. And I wonder if losing all this sleep is worth it, especially since I find it hard to follow a project through. I’m currently writing a novel but will often feel inadequate and start a short story. My Document folder is filled with four-to-five paragraphed short stories. I keep coming across this idea, though, that its the love of the process that a writer should focus on and when I think about it, I love getting up in the middle of the night. I love writing and whatever comes from that will come. In seventh grade the only time I got to take a shot was a one-and-one. I was terrible and played sparingly. I was in the game for just a couple of moments and in that short time was forced to the foul line. Your story reminded me how I miraculously sunk them both. Thank you.

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