The Follow-Through

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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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