Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The inner game of fiction

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The Inner Game of Tennis

Over the last week or so, I’ve been reading The Inner Game of Tennis by W. Timothy Gallwey, which might seem a little strange for someone who hasn’t even held a tennis racket since his sophomore year of high school. I stumbled across it courtesy of another unlikely source: the online memoir Fade In by Michael Piller, which describes the late author’s experiences while writing the screenplay for Star Trek: Insurrection. (As an aside, I’ve always been struck by the fact that it’s often seemingly mediocre works of art, not acknowledged masterpieces, that provide us with the most detailed accounts of the creative process. The most insightful case study I’ve seen on the writing and publication of a specific book is Irving Wallace’s The Writing of One Novel, about his potboiler The Prize, which, like Star Trek: Insurrection, doesn’t rank very highly on anyone’s all-time best list. In Piller’s case, the fact that the final product was ultimately forgettable reflects less on his script than on other, less controllable factors, and I suspect that his work might actually hold up better than more recent incarnations of the franchise.)

In any event, Piller’s book, which you can download here, is loaded with equal amounts of artistic insight and industry gossip, and I’d recommend it highly to anyone with even the slightest interest in how a script is written. I first read it several years ago, and on revisiting it recently, I came across Piller’s recommendation of The Inner Game of Tennis as a book that aspiring writers should read. He says: 

In trying to counsel young writers, I actually tell them to read The Inner Game of Tennis to become familiar with the two selves. In the book, Gallwey suggests that within every player, there’s a Self 1 that seems to give instructions and make judgments (“Dammit, you idiot, keep your eye on the ball”) and another Self 2 that seems to perform the action. The book shows you ways to get Self 1 to give up control and trust Self 2 to perform successfully. It’s the difference between making it happen and letting it happen.

Piller goes on to suggest that writers might benefit from a similar approach while working on a novel or script, especially a first draft: instead of forcing the action into a particular direction, just let it happen as if you were watching the movie yourself.

W. Timothy Gallwey

I was intrigued enough by the description to pick up a copy of Gallwey’s book, and after reading it, I agree that it’s worth checking out. Tennis as a metaphor for creative activity isn’t that much more farfetched than any of the others I use on a regular basis—writing as design, as architecture, as a game—and it’s true that a large part of finishing a draft lies in silencing the critical Self 1. I was also struck by something that Gallwey says in the chapter titled “Master Tips.” He writes:

Master tips refers to certain key elements of a stroke which, if done properly, tend to cause many other elements to be done properly. By discovering the groove of these key elements of behavior there is little need to concern yourself with scores of secondary details…

Before beginning, let me simplify the external problem facing the tennis player. He faces only two requirements for winning any given point: each ball must be hit over the net and into his opponent’s court. The sole aim of stroke technique is to fulfill these two requirements with consistency and with enough pace and accuracy to keep pressure on one’s opponent.

Writing, I’ve found, works much the same way. If the external problem in tennis is to hit the ball over the net into the opponent’s court, the problem in writing lies in sustaining the reader’s interest, in what John Gardner calls “the vivid and continuous fictional dream.” Any writing tip or rule I’ve shared here is useful only to the extent that it furthers that goal, and, as in tennis, a few master tips often get you most of the way there. In both cases, however, it can be a mistake to consciously focus on the rules. Gallwey points out that once players start worrying about form, they tend to stiffen up, and the best way to avoid this is to observe your actions without judgment, focusing on keeping the result natural and relaxed. Similarly, I follow a lot of personal rules for writing fiction, but in practice, I try not to think about them when I’m working on a rough draft or finding a shape for a story. It’s part intuition, part experience, and when I do consciously invoke the rules, it’s only if I notice that the result is diverging from the intention. When it works, as in Gallwey’s ideal tennis game, it doesn’t feel as if I deserve any credit. The serve seems to serve itself, just as the story tells itself. And the best thing a player can do is keep from getting in the way.

Written by nevalalee

June 24, 2013 at 9:50 am

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