Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Wayne Gretzky on Writing

Filmmaker Kevin Smith (Clerks, Dogma, Chasing Amy) doesn’t get a lot of run in the crime fiction community. This makes sense, since Smith doesn’t do crime fiction. His book, Tough Shit: Life Advice from a Fat, Lazy Slob Who Did Good, in addition to being hilarious and wildly inappropriate, shows a level of introspection and self-awareness not expected someone whose most famous written line (after “I’m not even supposed to be here”) may be, “Hey, try not to suck any dick on the way through the parking lot!”

The reason Smith’s book receives mention here is for the advice he gives writers. Well, everybody. It’s highly relevant for writers, and this is a writing blog. (When it’s a blog at all; I really have to get better about this.) So, now it’s writing advice.

First, the seminal bit: The way to happiness is to figure out what you most love to do and find a way to make money at it. By this measurement, Smith is a very happy man. I took his advice before I ever heard of Kevin Smith, but wasn’t able to pull it off, in large part because, when figuring out what it is you most love to do, it really really really helps if you have a talent for it. The principle is sound. It’s what everyone who dreams of making a living as a writer wants to do, or else they wouldn’t be writers. There are easier, and less tenuous, ways to make a living.

How Smith made it work for him is where Tip Number Two comes in. It’s from hockey great Wayne Gretzky. His father taught him from an early age the secret to playing hockey: Don’t go where the puck is. Go where it’s going to be.

This does not require psychic powers. It does require paying attention. (In Gretzy’s case it also involves indescribable amounts of talent.) Writers know this intuitively. You can’t wade through the discussion forum in Crimespace and not trip over people trying to figure out what will be The Next Big Thing™, and how they can get there first.

Here’s the problem: no one knows. Don’t expand the analogy too far. Gretzky’s not talking about where the puck is going to be in half an hour. He’s concerned about when the puck will next be in a place where he can get to it, and goes there. It’s good to be the first one there—especially if you’re not any bigger than Gretzky—and it’s an even bigger help to have freakish peripheral vision, and know what to do with it.

My point is, too many writers try to create success by outguessing public taste and coming up with The Next Big Thing™. It doesn’t work that way. J.K. Rowling didn’t figure to do something no one had done before—essentially create her own niche—and have it lead to unimaginable wealth. She had a series of stories about a fairly dorky kid who’s also a wizard, and this whole shadow world of wizards that intersects with ours without becoming encumbered by it. In retrospect, it was brilliant. At the time, she just hoped to get off the dole.

The trick is to know how quickly you can move, and to know which places you can’t get to in time. Gretzky wasn’t looking to invent a whole new game; he wanted to do the same things everyone else in hockey wanted to do—get the puck in the net—and he had his own unique way of doing it. You don’t have to create a whole new genre like Rowling did; doing what you do well, in your own unique way, through incremental movements, is the way almost all successes are made. (Think of how many times you’ve heard people who seem to burst upon the scene say, “It took me twenty years to become an overnight success.”)

What really set Gretzky apart, and will work in any field, was his willingness to make others better. He scored 894 regular-season goals in his career; Number Two is Gordie Howe, with 801. Think about that: Gretzky scored 10% more goals than the second greatest goal scorer in the history of the game. It’s as if Barry Bonds had hit 831 home runs. (One look at Gretzky should put to rest any thoughts of chemical enhancement.)

With all those goals, it’s in assists where Gretzky made his greatest mark, with 1,963; second is Ron Francis, with 1,249, That’s a 36% difference between Gretzky and the second greatest assist man in history. (Bonds would have had to hit 1,027 homers to surpass Aaron by a similar percentage. His head would have exploded by 900.)

Help other writers. That doesn’t mean to become a selfless mensch who places the promotion of others above his own aspirations. The two are not mutually exclusive; it’s not a zero-sum game. Small kindnesses you do your peers—a favorable write-up in your blog, posting a (sincerely) good review in Amazon or Goodreads, linking to their stuff in Facebook, whatever—builds up goodwill not just with the direct beneficiary, but with those you helped enlighten. You’ll have more fun, learn a lot, and may well be in a position to receive some of the same when your book comes out. Pay it forward. It’s good for the career and it’s good for the soul. Nourish and enjoy others whenever you can, and in so doing you’ll nourish and enjoy yourself more than you expected.

It’s the right, and smart, thing to do. It’s not like you’re going to get rich.

1 comment:

John McFetridge said...

Good post. It may also be important to keep in mind that Gretzky was critisized and underestimated a lot - too small, couldn't skate well enough, couldn't take the hits, didn't backcheck, etc., etc.. One of my favourite lines was from Emile Francis, then the GM of St. Louis who said, "It's hard to tell how well he skates because every time I see him he's skating away from the net with his arms in the air."