Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Heresy on the High Beam

As a lot of you know (since many of my readers are also friends), I've self-published a short book of personal essays called Heresy on the High Beam: Confessions of an Unbalanced Jewess on Amazon for Kindle. (But you don't have to own a Kindle to read it. I don't have one yet. Simple download the free Kindle Cloud Reader App).

Anyway, shilling aside, I wanted to briefly explain some of my reasons and motivations for writing this small essay collection. I started the project, which has gone through many iterations, in 2007 while a grad student pursuing my MFA in Creative Nonfiction. My basic thought was--Hey, I am still obsessed with gymnastics after all these years even though I was totally sure I would outgrow the sport. What's that about? Maybe I should explore that for my masters thesis. Up until that point, I had written very little on the subject of gymnastics though I spent hour upon hour watching it and discussing it on the message boards.

So I spent three semesters starting to figure out my literary relationship to the sport and ended up with a few essays that I decided to call "Unorthodox Gymnastics." (I started this blog by the same name about a year before my thesis was due.) One of the things I discovered along the way was not only how deeply intertwined my obsession with the sport was with some of the family "problems" I experienced as a youngster just starting out, but how important gymnastics had been to my religious evolution, from strictly Orthodox girl to egalitarian minded Jewish adult.

While this is all well and good, I was still very ambivalent about putting this work out into the world for others to read and (possibly) ridicule. The reason--I had never been very good at the sport. The majority of the books I've read about gymnastics were penned by famous gymnasts (obviously with the aid of ghost writers) either about A. their triumphs within the sport and how hard work and perseverance made their dreams come true or B. how they were abused and exploited during their years as an adolescent gymnast.

Though I read all of those (because like any true gymnastics addict, you consume everything--good and bad--that has to do with the sport), I was always disappointed in them. The writing was never that great, and worse, the insights, if you can even call them that, were never that interesting. They were often as boring as the interviews the athletes give post-meet: "I'm glad I did my job for the team. Everyone came together and we did really well." Perhaps true but not exactly riveting stuff.

I know I'm being harsh on gymnasts who are still in their teens and don't know how to give a good sound bite. But I do think that the problems run deeper than that. Bios by the former gymnasts, now retired and adults, tend to also be less than compelling. Though they offer tidbits we hadn't known (and therein lies their value), they still only provide the shallowest of insights.

David Foster Wallace, a former amateur tennis player, understood how I felt. In "How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart," he ponders this very idea--why do athletes' autobiographies kind of suck? Tracy Austin had been a tennis prodigy at 14 and Wallace was writing about his disappointment with her book and ended up speaking about his disappointment with all athlete memoirs. He comes up with a few very solid reasons as to why athletes, who are so brilliant on the court or beam, cannot seem to write a good book.

"Real indisputable genius is so impossible to define, and true techne so rarely visible (much less televisable), that maybe we automatically expect people who are geniuses as athletes to be geniuses also as speakers and writers, to be articulate, perceptive, truthful, profound. If it's just that we naively expect geniuses-in-motion to be also geniuses-in-reflection, then their failure to be that shouldn't really seem any crueler or more disillusioning than Kant's glass jaw or Eliot's inability to hit the curve."

As Wallace notes, part of the problem is expecting that someone who is an athletic genius (which all elite gymnasts are) to also possess narrative genius. That's as unfair as expecting the average writer to do a double back flip. And so even though every time I pick up a new gymnastics autobiography, I'm' hoping to read something great, I will inevitably be disappointed.

Not that I'm claiming to be any sort of narrative genius but writing is something that I'm certainly better at than gymnastics. And one of the things that gymnastics book subgenre lacks are stories from people other than the greats. Other, more popular sports such as baseball, basketball and soccer (you must read Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch, which was my inspiration for this essay collection) have made room for the Average Joe to write about his relationship as a fan or amateur to the sport. And I do believe the fact that the masses can relate to these sports and have experiences with them even though they are not elites is part of the reason for their popularity. It is harder for mere spectators of the sport or low level participants to project their own experience onto what's happening on screen. Their doesn't seem to be any space for them there as any sort of agent--just watchers.

Whether or not you enjoy the essays, I hope that other fans of the sport will start writing about more than just what the greats are up to (not that I don't follow that religiously). Most of us can't do a Yurchenko vault but we can certainly write.

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