How Roger Federer can improve your writing.

September 27, 2007

Let me explain.Today on I saw a link to a piece about Roger Federer and his “relaxed concentration.”

It’s a subject that’ s interested me for a while now, since I’ve always loved sports and had a fascination with zen. A good book on this subject, which was what got me thinking about it ages ago, is The Inner Game of Tennis.

When preforming at their peak, athletes typically report being “in the zone.” I know that beautiful feeling first-hand, albeit at a much lower level than a pro.

It is definitely a time of relaxed concentration, a zone of calm fluidity that’s conspicuously devoid of doubt, hesitation, or self-consciousness. You don’t think. You just do. Act. React. Flow. And if you’re thinking at all, it’s really more like a knowing or trusting than thinking. Knowing the ball’s going in. And it does. (Think Luke Skywalker trusting the Force to work through him.)

Great athletes are those who can get in the zone more often, stay in it longer, or summon it in big games/tournaments. The later are called “clutch” performers, like Derek Jeter or Tom Brady, and they are contrasted by the “chokers” (until last year, the incomparable regular-season star Peyton Manning was criticized for choking in the big games).

Kottke also links back to a previous post on relaxed concentration in acting, which links out to another piece by John Lahr about stage fright, the antithesis of relaxed concentration (something I’m also familiar with).

That got me thinking about writing. Or rather not writing: writer’s block.

“Stagefright is a traumatic, insidious attack on the performer’s expressive instrument: the body. According to the psychoanalyst Donald Kaplan, who studied this morbid form of anxiety, the trajectory of stagefright begins with manic agitation and moodiness, proceeds to delusional thinking and obsessional fantasies, and then to “blocking” – the “complete loss of perception and rehearsed function.” [Bold emphasis mine.]

Because the immediacy and intensity of the stage actor’s experience (unlike the actor, the writer can walk away from his desk, never go to his desk, or simply sit and doodle without any immediate consequences), stage fright typically has more obvious and dramatic outward symptoms.

But at the core, I really think it’s the same underlying issue as writer’s block (as well as some sports performance issues).

It’s self doubt. It’s personal insecurity. It’s being watched (or read) by the audience. It’s the critics.

“Stagefright, with its ties to both terror and shame, inspires a powerful desire to hide.”

The actor experiences more intense terror because he/she will be watched, and the choice to hide has more dramatic and immediate repercussions for him/her, all the cast and crew, and the audience members already present in the theater.

Writer’s in general have the greater ability to hide. They simply don’t write. Writer’s block is the writer hiding. Hiding from anxiety. Hiding from responsibility. Hiding from scrutiny, critique, rejection, destruction.

Some types of writers with specific assignments and tight deadlines, such as journalists and tv staff writers, share the actor’s experience even more. Though in some of those cases, a meaningful distinction would be that the end product is either shared (staff will write the episode together) or not personally identifiable (copywriter for an e-commerce website).

Sometimes to write well (and on deadline) you need to get out of your own way. You need to trust that it will happen and be confident in the outcome. You need to court [pardon the pun] that Roger Federer inside you.
You find a way to get in the zone, so you’re just relaxed and focused and engaged, and the ideas and words just flow. And you know it’s good. And you try to stay out of the way and simply let it happen. Ahhh, it’s a beautiful (and too rare) feeling.

Like being Federer at your keyboard. Game. Set. Save As…


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