The Best Books on Writing

I have had dozens of great writing teachers over the years. The best writing teachers were those that taught through example: Isaac Asimov, Stephen King, and most recently, Red Smith. The lessons I took from these three writers were more valuable than any lesson I ever saw in a how-to book on writing. I’m always suspicious of how-to books on writing because nearly every writer works differently. Something that works well for the author of a how-to book does not necessary work well for the reader of such a book.

My approach to learning to write has been different. I’ve read lots of books about writers (autobiographies, or biographies) and tried to find those writers whose work styles are similar to my own. It is much easier for me to take lessons from writers who think like I do than it is for me to try to change my behavior based on a series of exercises and instructions in a how-to book.

Isaac Asimov’s 2-volume autobiography In Memory Yet Green and In Joy Still Felt (which clock in at over 1,500 pages in total) is one of three best books on writing that I’ve ever come across. The book is an incredibly detailed account of the first 58 years of Asimov’s life. In its introduction, Asimov justifies his reasoning for such a lengthy tome:

At twenty-nine, I had never published a book. Now I have published two hundred. There seems to be a widespread belief… that no one can possibly write two hundred books of both fiction and nonfiction, in dozens of categories at all age levels, without being, somehow, an interesting person.

Asimov goes on to then give the reason I found the book so useful for learning to write:

Besides, it might be helpful to ambitious young people or to curious not-so-young people to see How I Did It.

That is, the book details how one writer made his slow, methodical way into print. The lessons are far more practical than anything I’ve seen in how-to book on writing because you get a peek into how one writer actually did it. And in Asimov’s case, how he became so prolific and successful. It is not a get rich quick manual; it is not a manual on how to write the next bestseller. Asimov didn’t write his first bestseller until 1981, two years after the autobiography first saw print.

The lessons in Asimov’s biography went beyond the craft of writing. It was from this book that I learned a lot of the business of writing, and my worldview was formed through Asimov’s eyes.

For craft, Stephen King’s On Writing is the best book on writing that I have come across. Parts of On Writing form more of a traditional “how-to” for writing, but the emphasis in those part are on the basic tools that all writers need. Good spelling and grammar, a grasp of the language, some basic skill to begin with.

King’s book was a revelation to me. I’d been flailing around, before I’d read On Writing. I’d sold two stories, and was trying to figure out what my process was. Reading how King worked, I realized that we worked similarly and he had figured out a way that worked well for both of us. He refers to his method as writing with the door open, and writing with the door closed. In his first draft, he tells himself the story, no one else. It can be messy, and disjointed. The important thing is getting the story out. In the second draft, he writes with the door open, telling the story to the reader. This is much easier for me, once I know the story. I found this method to be incredibly useful, and I’ve stuck with it ever since.

Red Smith was a famous sportswriter from the late 1920s through the early 1980s. I was recently reading a collection of his columns, and found them to be so good that I just had to find out more about the man. It turned out that the person who wrote the forward to the collection, Ira Berkow, had, in the mid-80s, written a biography of Red Smith called Red: The Life & times of a Great American Writer. I procured a copy and set to reading it. I was immediately engrossed.

It is one of the best biographies of a writers I’ve come across, and it contains countless lessons in the craft of writing–through the example of one writer. Smith was prolific in the sense that he write a thousand-word column every day. That takes stamina. It takes even more stamina when you don’t get it right the first time. As readers we see only the finished copy, and we might be forgiven for believing that what we are reading came out of the typewriter or word processor exactly as we see it.

The Smith biography showed that even the best try and try and try to get it right:

He’d sit at the typewriter and paper would pile up. You know, false leads, crazy leads. He’d crumble ’em up and throw ’em away. Until finally he got what he wanted, and he’d bat it out in an hour or an hour and a half.

Smith learned to write surrounded by interruptions, something that I had to learn to do when I realized that often the only time I had to do writing was when the kids were home and the TV was blaring in the background. Smith learned how to adjust his writing when necessary. After selling a piece to the Saturday Evening Post

Smith understood that if he were to continue selling to the slicks, he must of course avoid the “sportswriter’s occupational ailment of overwriting.”

Lessons like these, lessons based on life-experience, have been far more useful to me than any single lesson in a how-to book on writing. They have been more valuable than any single creative writing course, or even feedback from a writer’s group. These kinds of lessons have made me a better writer, and it is part of my continuing education to see out more books like these, and read about writers I admire, in an effort to find ways of improving my own writing.

I am lucky to have had Isaac Asimov, Stephen King, and Red Smith in my corner.

A Better Offer

Occasionally, while reading a really good book, I get a better offer. I have to set what I am reading aside, no matter how good it is, and start reading something else. I don’t do this lightly, and I take on quite a bit of guilt for doing it. (This post is my penance.) Such a sudden shift is almost always the result of the serendipitous nature of reading. Let me give an example.

Back in April, after reading a couple of books by or about journalists, I decided I wanted some more. It so happens that the baseball writer, Tom Verducci, had just come out with The Cubs Way, his book on the Chicago Cubs World Championship last year. I decided to read that.

Well, one thing led to another, and I went on a baseball rampage. I read Zach Hample’s Watching Baseball Smarter, then Jon Pessah’s The Game. I followed that up with Jason Turbow’s The Baseball Codes. Then I read Stephen Jay Gould’s outstanding collection of baseball writing, Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville. I read Verducci and Joe Torre’s The Yankee Years, and because I was reading so much baseball, I decided to re-read W.P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe. I wanted some good old school baseball writing after that. I had a Roger Angell collection and a Red Smith collection, and I opted for the latter, Red Smith’s On Baseball.

One can’t read Red Smith’s wonderful baseball writing without wanting to know more about Smith himself. Wikipedia wasn’t enough. I happened to be doing a search for the fellow who wrote the forward to Smith’s collection, Ira Berkow, and discovered that he’d written a biography of Red Smith. I ordered it at once.

That book arrived today, and although I am only halfway through Smith’s On Baseball (a young kid named Mantle just made his major league debut), I am so eager to read the Smith biography that I am setting aside the Smith collection to do so. I hate doing it, and I feel suitably guilty for my action, but Ira Berkow made me a better offer.

I rationalize this better offer by telling myself that the second half of Smith’s collection will be even better when I know Smith better thanks to the biography. I don’t know if that is true, but that’s my story, etc., etc.

There is a danger to better offers. One better offer has the chance of leading to another, and you end up spending a month or two doing nothing but reading the first half of books. Then, too, there is the chance that the Smith biography will lead me down some unseen serendipitous path. Down that path is madness; I might never make it back to the Smith collection. But it’s a chance I’m willing to take. I’ve honed this instinct of mine for decades, and I’ve learned to trust it.

I just wish I didn’t feel so guilty about it.

Last Impressions of My Karma Go

Way back in August 2015 I wrote about my first impressions with my Karma Go hotspot device. The service was just what I had been looking for: a no-fees, pay-as-you-go hotspot for those times when I was away from normal Internet connectivity.

Last week, I canceled my Karma Go account. I used it with fair frequency in the intervening months, but the service offerings changed so dramatically from what was initially presented that it just wasn’t worth it anymore. When the Karma Go was introduced, the company emphasized that users did not require subscriptions:

With Karma, you always pay-as-you-go. We’ll alert you when you are almost out of data and confirm before you pay. Simple.

This was just what I wanted. Karma called this their “Refuel” account. Later they added a “Neverstop” option that allowed for unlimited access for a monthly fee. This was eliminated eventually, and other services were added, all of which seemed to require some kind of subscription. But Refuel limped along until last week. That’s when I received notice that Karma was no longer offering the Refuel option. I was given the choice of grandfathering in my Refuel account for “a small \$2.95 monthly Grandfather account fee.” That was it for me. I canceled my account.

I see two reasons for Karma’s rapid move away from Refuel accounts and unlimited data accounts:

  1. Simple bait-and-switch. Get a lot of people using the service, and then swap things out in order to make more money. This is the cynical viewpoint, and I try to avoid this, but the alternative isn’t much better.

  2. Poor business planning. It could be that the folks at Karma really wanted to offer the service they set out to provide, and were too naive to realize how people would take advantage of pay-as-you-go and unlimited data options. This is simply poor planning, and shows a lack of understanding in how people use the Internet, how people pay for services, and the costs of providing such a service.

This was one of those instances where I found a product that seemed ideal, and slowly morphed into something that was more of a hassle than it was worth. I wonder how many Refuel users will opt-in to the Refuel program and pay the monthly fee. I decided to opt out and cancel, leaving data on the table. Three dollars isn’t that much, but months go by when I don’t use my Karma at all. Karma started out by promising no subscription, and has since morphed into what seems to me to be an entirely subscription-based service. That’s not the kind of service I’m looking for, and it’s not the kind of company I’m looking to give my business to any longer.

Intentional Nonsense

It happened the other day in the Yankee game. With a runner on second (and possibly third) and less than two outs, Joe Girardi signaled the home plate umpire to indicate he wanted to intentionally walk a batter. No pitches were thrown. The batter just walked to first base.

Prior to the 2017 season, an intentional walk was executed by the pitcher deliberately hurling four outside pitches, usually with the catcher standing behind the plate and holding a glove to one side to indicate intention. The rationale for the new rule, omitting the tosses home, is that it will save time and speed up the pace of the game. I said it before, and I’ll say it again: that’s a bunch of nonsense.

In 2015 Major League Baseball saw an average of one intentional pass every 5 games. Assuming it takes one minute to complete an intentional pass from the time the batter steps into the box to the time he reaches first base, that’s about 12 seconds per game on average. With an average game time of 3 hours and 26 seconds in 2016, the new rule shortens the average game to 3 hours and 14 seconds.

What’s more, the new rule removes some of the wonderful randomness from the game that makes it a delight to watch. Occasionally, a ball will get by the catcher and things can get exciting when that happens. Major League Baseball, looking to speed up the game by 12 seconds, ignores the potential excitement factor.

And then there is the occasional strategy behind tossing the ball for an intentional pass. One need only recall Rollie Fingers’ free pass to Johnny Bench during game 3 of the 1973 World Series:

While the change seems harmless, I suspect it will have unexpected side-effects. Since pitchers don’t have to make the four pitches for the intentional pass, their pitch counts are four pitches lower in a game than they might otherwise be. For pitchers on a count limit, that means pulling them four pitches later than they might have been pulled before. This might seem like a small thing, but those late game pitches can be the difference between a W or an L.

All of that is beside the point. There are other ways that Major League Baseball can speed up a baseball game, just as there are ways that the NFL can speed up a football game. How about cutting the number of commercials between half-innings. Cutting one 30-second spot between half-innings would save about 8 minutes, or forty times the savings the new intentional pass rule introduces into the game. If the argument is a speedier game will bring more eyes to advertising, then sacrificing 8 minutes per game for larger audience for advertisers to sell to seems to make sense.

How much you wanna bet Major League Baseball will take an intentional pass on this suggestion?

The Strongman and the Dancer

After months of practice, the Little Miss appeared in a big dance recital held on Saturday at a local high school. In the days leading up to the event, the Little Miss was calm, collected, and completely unconcerned about performing in front of an audience of a few hundred people, and television cameras for the local cable access channel. If she was nervous, she didn’t show it. Kelly helped her get into her costume, a bright yellow dress. The Little Miss’s hair was pulled back in a pony tail. That, combined with some light makeup make her look absolutely adorable.

The Little Miss might not have been anxious about the upcoming performance, but I was. We arrived at the theater nearly an hour before the performance and staked out seats at the front of the theater, center-right. There were a total of 18 performances, and the Little Miss’s came third after the intermission, well over an hour into the proceedings.

I watched the performances with slight detachment. I kept thinking about how my little girl was brave enough to get up in front of this audience and dance. In kindergarten, I played the role of the strongman in the class circus. I had to stand in front of the audience and lift a pair of yellow balloons separated by a cardboard tube over my head and pretend it was so heavy. I remember arriving home afterward and bursting into tears. At the time, I had no idea why, but looking back on it, I think it was the stress of performing, and doing it in front of an audience.

There was a solo performance that preceded the Little Miss’s class. And then, the curtains were opening and the Little Miss was the first of her group out onto the stage. She smiled and showed no fear. They danced to “Put On A Happy Face.” The Little Miss was absolutely wonderful. Her expressions were perfect, a mixture of joy and careful concentration.

Partway through the performance, the dancers end up in a line running along the center of the stage, back-to-front. The Little Miss was second from the front. Each dancer makes some funny move with their arms, and then runs to one side of the stage or the other. The Little Miss was first to dash to the left side. Once there, she watched her fellow dancers do their move, and as each did, she vibrated with joy and urged them to their spot on the stage beside her.

As the audience applauded, I was once again that young kid, just finished lifting two balloonfuls of helium. Tears were running down my cheeks. This time, however, I knew why. My little girl was happy, and I was so proud of her. That’s what it is all about.

At the Scene of the Crime

WASHINGTON, D.C.–There was probably a time when the lines that formed outside Ford’s Theater were filled with eager show-goers waiting to catch the latest stage fashions. The line that we stood in just before 10 am on Sunday morning was filled with eager tourists, looking to sample one of the cities more infamous attractions. It was a surprisingly long line, considering that it was Mother’s Day. Kelly had purchased our tickets months earlier, and by the time we made our way into the theater both the 10am and 10:30am blocks had been sold out.

We didn’t go into the theater, not right away. We followed the line the edge of the theater, and its prophetically¬†blood-red carpet, and then turned left down a winding flight of stairs that took us into a museum–a shrine, really–to President Lincoln’s life. The kids wanted to watch the videos that played in various parts of the museum: over here were former presidents reading portions of the Gettysburg Address; over there, a video on Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. But the museum wasn’t why people came. They came to see a show.

Half an hour after entering the museum, we were invited into the theater proper. A nice docent told Kelly we should take the elevator to the balcony level; it would provide the kids with a better view. Up to the balcony we went. We moved across the theater to seats right beside the Presidential box, with the bunting and the picture of George Washington. Kelly posed with the Little Man and Little Miss and I snapped photos. Then we walked back across the balcony and took seats in the front row, and listened to Lincoln’s story, and the story of the night of April 14, 1865, Sic semper tyrannis.

There wasn’t much at Ford’s Theater that I didn’t already know from reading David Herbert Donald, and–more recently–Carl Sandberg. But as I sat in the balcony, watching visitors below stand and take photos of the box seats that the Lincoln party sat in on that fateful night, a strange feeling crept over me.There are solemn places in the world. I’ve been to a few of them: the Nave in Westminster Abbey, the crumbling remains of an ancient theater in Miletus, Turkey, the long rows of gravestones at Gettysburg. Ford’s Theater was not among them. Sitting there, I couldn’t help but wonder what the theater-goers of 1865 might think of us if they knew we were snapping selfies in front of the place where Abraham Lincoln was murdered.

So I squirmed in my seat as I listened to Booth’s plotting, and of Lincoln’s late arrival at the play, and of the last words he probably ever heard. And when the audience was finally released and rushed across 10th Street to line up outside the Petersen house and see the place where Lincoln breathed his last breath, I hung back. I’d seen the stovepipe hat Lincoln had been wearing that night at the Museum of American History years before. That was as close as I needed to be to Lincoln’s death. I didn’t need to see the room in which he perished.

It was the first time I can recall reacting in such a way to a museum. I’ve been to Mount Vernon, where Washington died, and to Monticello, where Jefferson died. But that was different. Washington and Jefferson were not murdered in cold blood. It felt odd to me that the scene of a violent crime was such a draw.


FALLS CHRUCH–We have a centralized family calendar (via iCloud) in which we keep all of the events we have to know about. In addition to the things we add ourselves, we have links to the kids’ school calendar feed, the Little Man’s baseball calendar feed, and the Cub Scout troop calendar feed. It makes for a busy-looking calendar, but we are used to that.

What we are not used to is the dynamic changes that ripple have been rippling through our calendar, making it virtually impossible to keep track of what is happening when–and where; changes that are in large part wrought by the weather.

Take this weekend as an example. The calendar tells me that the weekend begins with the Little Man’s baseball team photos at 9:30 am. Okay, fine. At 11 am, we have a baseball game. The game was originally scheduled for a field that takes about 20 minutes to get to from our house. This was important to know because the Little Miss has her dance recital–which she has been working hard for–at 1 pm, and it’s a bit of a hike from the baseball game to the recital.

Yesterday, however, the location of the game was changed to a field much closer to our house. That does make things a little easier getting from game to recital, but it is confusing as hell to remember. Even though our calendar is up-to-date (I am looking at it as I write this), I still think in my head that I am supposed to go to the farther baseball field.

After the Little Miss’s recital, we have a few hours before we have to suit up for the Little Man’s soccer game. This is the first spring where we decided to try baseball and soccer at the same time. (Usually, we reserve the spring for baseball and the fall for soccer.) Our soccer games are all at the same place, also close by, which is good. But there is also a reminder on the calendar that it is our turn to supply the snacks for the soccer game, yet another thing we have to remember to do.

Sunday, of course, is Mother’s Day. Kelly reserved tickets for a tour of the Ford Theater in downtown D.C. That’s at ten o’clock Sunday morning. Early Sunday afternoon we are attending a Mother’s Day brunch with several friends. The place where we are having this brunch is the same place we had a “burger” night a few months back. They were woefully unprepared for the crowds. From the time I ordered our food until the time it arrived, nearly an hour and half passed. I can only imagine what it will be like on Sunday.

We have had a lot of rain this spring. So much so that we’ve had at least four rain-outs of baseball and soccer games. That means that things that were originally on our calendar for one day, and around which we planned other things, get moved to another day. As we tend to plan things well in advance, that means there are conflicts, or at least, plenty of tight spots. One rain-out was rescheduled for this Sunday afternoon during our regular baseball practice time. But it was on the calendar fleetingly. It turned out the time didn’t work for the other team. So now, we’re back to just a baseball practice on Sunday afternoon.

Both soccer games that have been rained out have been rescheduled for June. The rained out baseball games are being rescheduled for later in May. They are even asking folks availability on Memorial Day weekend. We’ll be out-of-town. And guess what? It is supposed to rain all day Saturday so both our early baseball game and late soccer game will likely be rained out, leaving the calendar in tatters. It also means trying to squeeze in yet two more games somewhere in our already crowded schedule.

Granted, this is unusual. But the combination of soccer, baseball, dance, and weather make waking up and looking at the day’s calendar a bit stressful–to say nothing of uncertain. I just peeked ahead and the next weekend day where there is absolutely nothing on the calendar is June 24. Anyone want to take bets on how long it is before that day fills up, too?

The Evolution of Nicknames

We named our youngest daughter Elizabeth. She will turn 9 months old later this month. She is absolutely adorable, and I say that with complete objectivity. Also, she makes me feel younger than I am. One of the reasons I like the name Elizabeth is because it has so many options: Liz, Lizzy, and Beth to name a few. We have a neighbor named Elizabeth and her friends call her “Eli.” We call our Elizabeth “Ellie.”

Nicknames are a funny thing, and their evolution fascinates me so I’ve been particularly observant of how they evolve with Ellie. My baby sister (seven years my junior) got her nickname because a neighborhood kid could not properly pronounce “Jennifer.” Our son got his nickname, “Zipper” because a friend noted that if you pronounced his initials, ZPR, that’s kind of what it sounded like.

While in Florida last month, we were among friends and family, and I happened to call Ellie by her most common nickname, “Pelicans”. There were some curious looks and it occurred to me that it probably wasn’t obvious how one gets from Elizabeth to Ellie to Pelicans.

It started in the hospital when she was just a few hours old. We referred to her as Ellie even before she was born. Once I had her in my arms, and was waiting for the nurses to bring Kelly into the recovery area, I started calling her “Ellie Belly.” That was step one.

All three of our kids were delivered by Caesarean section. One result of this is that I was on diaper duty while we were in the hospital because it wasn’t easy for Kelly to get out of bed. Anyone who has gone through this process knows that a day or so after the baby arrives, she has her first poop, a tarry, gooey substance that is difficult to clean up. With Ellie, it was my third time at the dance, and I was prepared. When the tarry mess came, I cleaned her up, and congratulated her on her efforts.

There is a wonderfully odd, and unique place in Deer Isle, Maine called Nervous Nellie’s Jams & Jellies. We’ve taken the kids there a few times. It is difficult to describe all of the eclectic sculpture art they have strewn across the property. But their jams are outstanding. Well, Nellie and Ellie rhyme, and I had this in my head while cleaning Ellie up from her first project, and I referred to the whole affair, on a whim, as “Nervous Ellie’s Poops and Jellies.” That was step two.

Somewhere along the way–alas, I don’t remember exactly when or how–I morphed Ellie into Elikins. “How’s my Elikins this morning?” I’d say when she’d wake up. That was step three. Step four, and the penultimate step in the evolution of her nickname resulting from my penchant for rhyming things, was to begin calling her “Elikins Pelicans.” Step five shortened that nickname, dropping the Elikins and at that point she became just “Pelicans.”

I don’t know how long the “Pelicans” nickname will last, but I kind of hope it lasts a long time, at least for me. Some of these things melt away, but others stick. My wife has a nickname used by her father to this day, which I am forbidden to repeat here. But I am heartened to know that endearing nicknames can stick for a long time, even if they are just between father and daughter.

Politics and Steroids

My dad sent along a link to an article on the letter that New England Patriot’s quarterback Jacoby Brissett sent to President Barack Obama. In the letter, Brissett writes, “Honestly, I don’t know enough about politics to judge what was good or bad…” Breaking my own rule, I skimmed the comments on the article, and one commenter quoted this line, and wrote something like, “That was all I had to read.” Another suggested Jacoby go back to school, the implication being he could learn more about politics there.

I have a degree in political science and I don’t understand politics, or perhaps more precisely, politicians. I know how a bill becomes a law, and I have the gist of a legal case like Terry v. Ohio, but when it comes to politicians, and whether or not what they do is good or bad, I’m in the same spot as Jacoby Brissett.

It is easy to be cynical and lump all politicians into the same box–a bunch of self-serving phonies garbed in public service clothing. But of course politicians run the spectrum. I have to remind myself about this every now and then. Not every politician is tainted. It just seems that way because they are surrounded by so many that are.

I was thinking about this and realized that it is a remarkably similar situation to baseball’s steroid problem. Players began juicing because they needed a competitive edge. A lot of money was at stake, competition is fierce, and any little edge is the difference between a career season and retirement. In some players, the change was obvious: dense muscle, and remarkable speed and power. In others, the changes were less obvious. As big names were associated with steroid use, fans became disheartened. If Mark McGuire could be involved, couldn’t anyway?

Many fans began looking at anyone who played well and wondered whether or not they were using some sort of performance-enhancing drug. How could you tell? The easy assumption was that if one of them was doing it, most of them were probably doing it, and the ones that weren’t were caught up in the mix, guilty by association.

Politics is no different. A lot of money is at stake. Competition is fierce. Any little edge is the difference between winning an election, and losing one. The drug in question is not steroids, but a lack of integrity, a win-at-all-costs mentality that undermines the values that people traditionally look for in a politician: honesty, trustworthiness, honor, sacrifice, hard work, respect. I become so frustrated with the politicians I see behaving this way, that it soon seems like they are all behaving this way, even though that might not be the case.

Ultimately, fans rejected performance-enhancing drugs in baseball. Major League Baseball began enforcing rules to prevent its use. Players generally got the message. It’s obvious in home run statistics alone. Home runs are fun to watch, but not when sacrificing the integrity of the game. That is the message that fans sent.

Jacoby Brissett is not alone in not knowing enough about politics to know what (or who) is good or bad. I don’t know either. In baseball, I knew that steroid were bad for the players and for the game, and I was glad to see MLB take steps to cut their use. In politics the solution isn’t so cut and dry. The MLB of politics is the voters. We draft the players and we make the lineups. We manage the team. But when I look at the roster, I can no longer tell the difference between the good players and the bad ones.

Baseball: A Story-Lover’s Sport

Recently, Kelly observed that come April, I burn hot for baseball. As the spring wanes and summer begins, I cool, and stay cool through the summer. Then, as fall begins, the fire returns and I burn hot again. I suspect she is onto something. I’ve written four or fives posts on baseball since the season began. I suspect, if I were to go back to previous years, I’d see much the same. What can I say, I love baseball.

“Baseball,” Babe Ruth said, “is the greatest game.” I agree with him. But I’ve often wondered why it is the greatest game. What is it about the game that has woven it into the fabric of American history for more than 150 years? I’ve been giving this question a lot of thought lately. I think it is because baseball is a story-lovers’ sport.

Stephen Jay Gould, in a piece in the New York Times in 1988, once mused,

Baseball has long enjoyed a distinguished literature, from Ring Lardner to the incomparable Roger Angell–and I have seen no satisfactory resolution for the old puzzle of why baseball, but no other sport, has attracted some of America’s finest writers.

I have an answer to his question that satisfies me, and relates directly to why I love baseball so much. Baseball is a situation-factory. And the germ of a good story, in my view, is a situation.

Stephen King has said that his stories often begin with a situation, a what-if scenario: what if a bullied high school girl had telekinetic powers? What if vampires came to a small New England town? What if a girl lost in the woods had Tom Gordon to help her find her way out? Situations are the heart of storytelling. Situations are also the heart of baseball: “Bottom of the ninth, two outs, bases loaded, visiting team is down 4-1 with three balls and two strikes on the batter…” I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve imagined this situation as a kid. Baseball is built on situations.

This manifests itself in several ways across the game.

  1. Baseball is an ideal sport for storytelling.

No other sport comes close to the quality of writing that captures baseball. Boxing writing is next up on the list, but it is a distant second to baseball writing. The situations in baseball are endless, and endlessly varied. Even when they are the same they are different. The “bottom of the ninth, two outs, bases loaded” scenario tells one kind of story in April, and a very different story in October. It tells another story if you are the home team or the visiting team. Is the pitcher throwing the last pitch of his career? Is he throwing the first? That one situation leads to countless stories.

  1. Baseball is deeply embedded in American culture.

Not everyone likes baseball but most people are aware of it, and have some sense of the rules of the game. Phrases from the game pervade our lives. “Knock this presentation out of the park,” we say. “I’m batting a thousand,” we say when we continue to succeed; or, “I’m 0-for-4” when we continue to fail. “Three strikes and you’re out!” “I’m in the zone!” All of it comes from baseball. The intersection of storytelling and culture make baseball the perfect conduit for popular storytelling.

Countless stories involve baseball. Some, like W. P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe, feature baseball at its heart. Others, like Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea make references to baseball. Film has taken it a step further. Baseball is great for television and the big screen and that hasn’t been lost on Hollywood. Just in recent decades, we’ve seen films like Field of Dreams, The Natural, and Bill Durham. These are some of the classics. There are plenty of others from comedies like The Bad News Bears, Major League, and Fever Pitch, to more serious nods to baseball, like For Love of the Game and Trouble with the Curve.

In a recent discussion about the unwritten rules of baseball, a friend said that those unwritten rules were silly. Baseball is a business these days. There is no denying that baseball is a business. Sabermetrics has introduced mathematical models into just about every aspect of baseball. I’m a fan of the stats, but I also know that the game is more than just the stats alone. Indeed, the stats provide more situations for the story factory. Stephen Jay Gould has written eloquently about why he believes, for statistical reasons, that it is unlikely anyone will hit .400 again for a season. But what if they did? What a great story!

Statistics, virtually anywhere else, put people to sleep. The numbers in baseball do the opposite because of the unique situations they present, and the context they carry over the history of the sport. Anyone who has ever watched a no-hitter in action, and understands the magnitude of what is happening, cringes whenever the announcer reminds us of the situation. It’s a fragile thing–an utterly ridiculous, but incredibly fragile thing. The numbers make it incredibly unlikely; a perfect game even more unlikely. And yet, occasionally, the unlikely happens. We are both witnesses to the event, and participants in its unfolding. It is drama and we are part of it. It is the story of the thing that we love so much.

And it’s not just the fiction. Baseball is full stories because baseball is a progressing series of situations. There’s the story of the M&M boys in 1961 chasing Babe Ruth’s home run record. There’s the story of Derek Jeter hitting a home run in the 2001 World Series just after midnight on November 1, and therefore becoming “Mr. November,” a story that requires the understanding of another story, when a generation earlier on October 18, 1977, Reggie Jackson hit three home runs against the Dodgers in the World Series and earned the appellation “Mr. October.”

There are the well-known stories: Don Larsen’s perfect game in Game 5 of the 1956 World Series. And there are the lesser-known, but equally compelling stories, stories like that of William Ellsworth Hoy, a deaf player who made his major league debut in 1888 with the Washington Nationals, and finished his career 14 years later in 1902 with the Cincinnati Reds. Hoy died in 1961 at the age of 99.

The stories in baseball spawned an entire field of writing. Baseball has had some of the finest writers in sports, and indeed, some of the finest writers, period. From Roger Angell and Red Smith to Roger Kahn and Bill James to outsiders like Stephen Jay Gould, baseball is rich in prospectors who dig up the stories and relay them to us like balls coming in from the outfield. The game is a factory for storytelling.

A good story is never entirely about the situation. The situation is the seed from which the story grows. A good story is about the people who populate it. Baseball is blessed to be rich in situations and people, the combination of which makes for an endless parade of fascinating stories, stories of heroics, stories of shame, funny stories, and sad ones. It is a cultural mirror, but it is also a cultural constant. Theodore Roosevelt would have no more trouble following a baseball game today than he would have had in 1908.

Coming back to my original of why I think baseball is the greatest game, and why I love it so much: it’s the situations and the stories that grow out of them. I love baseball because I love stories.

Four Fantastic Columnists

Long before there were bloggers, there were columnists and essayists. Four of these writers had a particular influence on me and my writing: Isaac Asimov, Al Martinez, Andy Rooney, and Stephen Jay Gould.

As a youngster learning composition in school, the essay never much stirred me. It was taught rigidly, as if the rules of composing an essay were handed down along with the Commandment: five paragraphs, thesis statement, supporting paragraphs, and conclusion. It was less a way of writing and more a way of thinking. Outside of the classroom, I don’t think I’ve written a five paragraph essay in my life.

The first writer to teach me what an essay could be was Isaac Asimov. He wrote thousands of essays over the course of his life, but it was his science essays in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction that had the most influence upon me. Over portions of five decades, Asimov had a monthly science essay in every issue of F&SF from the late 1950s through his death in 1992. These essays taught me more about science than I ever learned in school. They also taught me the power of the essay.

Asimov’s writing was clear and unadorned. But his essays carried his personality. Rather than reading an essay about, say, transfinite numbers, I felt like I was sitting in a room with Asimov, listening to him tell stories about his life, while somehow weaving in interesting facts and history about transfinite numbers along the way. His colloquial style had a big influence on me.

In high school I discovered Al Martinez, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times whose writing I enjoyed. His columns covered all kinds of subjects, many serious, but leavened with humor. His style was very different than Asimov’s. His prose was more lyrical, but Martinez was also a reporter and the way he weaved his interviews with people into the essays always impressed me. It gave his subjects life beyond just the quotes that often appear in headline articles.

I can’t recall the first time I saw Andy Rooney on television, but I loved his TV spots. It wasn’t until much later that I discovered he wrote a syndicated column. His column read like his 60 Minutes spots, but was longer, and I enjoyed them more. Rooney’s style was much more like Asimov’s (the two were friends), with Rooney’s wit a little more biting and cynical. Andy Rooney taught me that it was possible to write about anything at all and make it interesting.

Most people know Stephen Jay Gould for his essays on paleontology and natural history. I came to Gould through a different path. Gould was an ardent baseball fan, and occasionally wrote articles, essays, and commentary on baseball for places like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. I adore baseball writing, and I’m particularly fond of writers like Tom Verducci, Roger Angell, Roger Kahn, and Red Smith. But it was through Gould that I learned that one could actually write about baseball. Gould was, like me, a lifelong Yankees fan, but you can tell in his writing that he was first and foremost, a baseball fan. What I loved most about Gould’s baseball writing was its complete lack of cynicism of the sport. When he wrote about baseball, he was an unabashed nine year old kid.

For me, Asimov and Martinez and Rooney and Gould are the all-stars of the essay form.

Social Media, Full Circle

I‘m tired of social media. Nine years of it have taken a toll. I joined Facebook and Twitter in 2008, and for a long time, social media was a big part of my day. It was new, I could stay connected with friends and family. That was great. Over the years, however, social media became a kind of localized reality show. If I went to a science fiction convention, I’d bring my audience along with me via Twitter. It didn’t matter that most of that audience was attending the same convention I was. If I went on vacation: come on along for the ride!

Popularity had an influence, too. During my social media peak– 2013-2014–my Going Paperless posts were popular. I was selling stories and articles at a pretty high (for me) rate. I had a big writing streak going that garnered attention, and I’d written some tools like the Google Docs Writing Tracker that proved popular. Being popular feels good, and that fueled some of the social media frenzy for me. I knew it couldn’t last, it was just a question of when.

I think I started tiring of social media long before I started backing away from it. It is hard to let go of popularity. But it wasn’t all that hard to break free of the grip that social media had on me. All I had to do was ask the question: What is the point?

Writers these days are often told that writing chops aren’t enough. You need a platform, a brand, and as part of that, a social media presence. I don’t buy it, but I somehow ended up with all three, at least if we define “platform” and “brand” loosely. It seems to me that a writer who has to develop a platform, a brand, and maintain a social media presence is one busy writer who never has time to write. Social media is the new writers block.

I spent far too much time on social media when I could have been writing. I would tell my audience how many words I’d written, where my latest story was appearing, how frustrated I was that I couldn’t get this scene right. At the time it felt like I was peeling back the curtain to give a peek behind the scenes. Now, looking back on it, I’m reminding of that embarrassing freshman year in college, when I spent long nights in deep philosophical conversations with friends, taking a hard position and giving no ground. I’m shuddering just thinking about it.

Who cares how many words I manage to write? So what if I am stuck on a scene? Why does the world need to know about it? I’d get virtual high-fives from friends and followers, but really, who cares?

I’ve almost completely stopped posting on Twitter. About all that makes it to my Twitter feed is the automated notifications of new blog posts. On Facebook, I’ve cut way back, too. There, I’ve taken to mostly posting to a select group of people, friends and family. I post pictures of my kids. Even on Facebook, I’ve stopped talking about my writing. I no longer post how many words I’ve written, or if I’ve finished a story. Maybe all writers do a need a social media platform, but there’s better, older advice to writers that I’ve taken to heart: show, don’t tell.

I have a hard time looking at social media these days. My feeds become one big gripe session about one thing or another. There are always interesting things my friends and family are doing, but they are the rare flowers among weeds. It used to be fun to engage in the discussion threads in Facebook, but even there, I’m cautious. It seems like everyone is trying to out-clever everyone else with their comments and memes. I’m no longer clever enough to participate.

I haven’t quit social media. A knee-jerk reaction like that is something I might have done in my freshman year in college (had social media existed then), but I like to think I’m a little wiser. Quitting would mean giving up the friends that I enjoy keeping up with, and I’m not willing to do that. But I have cut way back, and my focus is far less topical and far more on what my friends and family are up to.

I removed the social media apps from my mobile phone. When we went to Florida for Spring Break, I put Facebook back on, and then forgot to take it off. I have just done that. That is my call-to-action (social media campaigns are supposed to have a call-to-action). I feel better already.