If you’ve ever played golf, you’ll understand how frustrating the sport can be, especially if you’re a beginner. You’ll think to yourself: “This is such a waste of time,” or, “What kind of sport allows you to drive right up to your ball?” or, “Wouldn’t this be much better if we just stopped at the twelfth, maybe the eleventh hole, and went back to the clubhouse for a hot dog and a beer?” But then you’ll get that one shot that sails high and straight, the one you’ll have to squint to see as it flies onto the fairway, and as your foursome pals give you some attaboys, you think, maybe I should stick with this game. Because it’s a game, really. Not a sport. Sports you have to practice at every single day to get better.
Creative writing incidentally ranks in the same frustration category as golf, this rated by the NVA, the National Vexation Association, CWI, Creative Writers International, and the PGA, Professional Golfers’ Association. For every good sentence that comes from the mind to the paper by a creative writer, the same amount of decent drives make it onto the fairway, which isn’t many if you’re a novice. Each put sunk is equal to one okay paragraph, as a novice player. A nice chip shot is a sublime rhyme, if you’re a poet. Par is a relevant essay. A birdie, an essay someone will read. An eagle: a story someone other than your loved ones will read, and a story a journal or a magazine will read and say, “Not this time, but do submit again.” And a hole-in-one—an ace—now that’s a story or an essay or a poem a magazine will actually publish.
As with getting a story or essay or poem published, holes-in-one don’t happen every game. Fact is they may happen only once in a lifetime. According to www.holeinone.com, the average number of years of golf played before getting a hole in one is seventeen. The average age of a hole in on golfer is 45. The site also says most holes in one occur on a Friday, the least on a Sunday, and 7-iron is the club most used in making a hole in one.
So in theory, if you started playing golf around 30 years of age, and kept at it for the rest of your life, you might get a hole in one when you’re 47. Same is true for writing: start writing when you’re about in high school or college, let’s say 20 for average’s sake, add 17 years, and you might get something published, at 37. Sure you’ll have little successes in writing: a little column picked up here, an editor might want to talk to you there, a good friend will read a manuscript and give you some positive comments. Just like golf. You’ll hit the ball straight consistently for a while. You’ll sink some puts. You’ll make birdie, eagle. You won’t be a disgrace to your golf buddies. You get a little better.
At a fundraiser golf tournament a few years back, when I didn’t like the sport at all and went along on such outings with much anxiety, pro golfer Perry Parker provided golf swing analysis on the driving range prior to the start of the event. Perry has a confident and professional demeanor and balances it with a natural jocularity that belies the stereotype of a serious athlete. With his tall fit frame and ball cap you’d think he hadn’t reached his fourth decade yet, but his laugh lines, lightly etched beside his intensely wise eyes after more than a few rounds under the hot California sun, indicate he’s matured both into his life and into his sport. He watched my swing, taped it with his camera, and played it back for me on his laptop. He suggested I relax the knees at bit—sit into it—and try not to bring the club so high up at the top of the swing. All the power, he said, resides in those few feet at the end of the swing, just before the club face hits the ball. That’s where you want to give it all you’ve got.
Two volunteer photographers stopped my mini-lesson to capture a couple of photos of Perry in action. He took his stance and gripped the club just like he had showed me, then proceeded to give that ball one hell of a ride. One of the lady photogs said something like “Wow!” or “How do you do that?” to which Perry said with zero sarcasm, “When you spend eight hours a day practicing, you get good.” They snapped their shots and drove off. I thanked Perry and went on to play another horrible round of golf.
Perry didn’t reveal a big mystery to me or anyone that day. The fundamentals he taught me— the ones he teaches everyday to scores of beginners—are nothing new, but he makes them look new because he does them so well. He makes the average shot that would take someone like myself years to make right, look easy and painless. He’s risen to professional status, and professionals have to practice every day all day just to get good. Perry will be the first to tell you golf is only a game, and that’s something I learned from Perry about everything I do, including writing: you have to have fun with it and keep having fun with it or you’ll walk away.
I’ve since improved my golf game. A little bit. I still can’t drive the ball worth anything, but my short game, my iron work, is getting…decent. I’m almost good at chipping and I can sink a put on occasion. I haven’t taken any lessons but instead picked up various tips from people I’ve played with and integrated them into my own little game of golf, the one that no one knows about. It’s the game where I get out there and try to just hit the ball and have a little fun and nothing else. It’s really tough to do when every second shot sucks, and especially when you’re out with co-workers who’ve been golfing for years, but it works and it makes the game much more enjoyable. That little personal game of golf matches quite closely the little game I have with writing. That game involves hours of sitting and pulling thoughts together to make sentences and paragraphs that turn into journal entries or stories or novels or the rare essay, like this one. When the words come together, I enter a private space where no one else watches me game. I try to have fun with it, but sometimes that doesn’t happen. Just like in golf. Sometimes crappy words are all that come, just like bad shots. They will always come and you have to take them. One day you’ll land up in the sand trap, in a mother of a bunker, and think you’ll never get out. You’ll pound that sand a few times and add strokes and think why the hell am I doing this? When guys like Perry land up in the bunker, they do what they’ve been doing for years: get in their stance, grip their club, and swing. They take their swing and get out of that unholy beach with dignity. When a golfer is in a bunker, like when a writer sits staring at files of drafts that have gone nowhere and when he’s asking what’s the point, the professional is the one who knows right up over that ridge is the green and ultimately the cup, and the only way they got there, even to that damn gulch of sand in the first place, was through countless hours of practice. The pin is there. You might not get an ace, but the hole is there. Just right over that lip of smooth grass. It’s really always that close.