When I retired from the corporate/technical world I was done. I’d had it with palace intrigue, shrinking budgets, and scientific experiments that didn’t always proceed according to plan. Mother Nature, I learned along the way, could be a shifty bitch.
Shortly after I retired, I spotted an ad in the local paper from a school that needed a 7th grade boy’s basketball coach. I jumped on it. Having played basketball in high school and college, and as a fan of the game when it’s truly played as a team sport, I couldn’t think of a better job. I believe I was the only Ph.D. chemist who interviewed for the position, and the somewhat shocked principal hired me on the spot, probably out of curiosity more than anything. I went on to coach at that small school in the Willamette Valley farm country for four years and loved every moment of it. Well, maybe not some of the bus rides to the games. I mean, 7th grade potty humor hasn’t changed a bit since I was that age!
I’m reminded of that coaching interlude as I sit here contemplating the writer’s conference that just wrapped up here. I should mention here that writing was another passion I decided to pursue after I retired. The Willamette Writer’s Conference is Portland’s biggest literary event, a program that puts writers in front of agents, publishers, and film makers in a three day whirlwind of pitching ideas, concepts, and manuscripts. There are workshops, too, aimed at honing the writing craft. As a volunteer at the conference, I got to schmooze with the writers and sit in on the workshops of my choice.
So, coaching, writing—what could possibly be the connection? I think the reason I thought of the coaching job was how surprised I was at the depth of knowledge it took to coach well. Sure, it wasn’t quantum mechanics or molecular orbital theory, but I quickly found myself reading books by the masters of the sport, like John Wooden and Pete Newell. It amazed me that there was simply no limit to the theory and nuances of the game. For every play or defensive scheme I came up with, there were always better, more sophisticated approaches.
The Writer’s Conference left me, as it always does, with the same kind of feeling. The new information I came away with is great, but what really stuck is the realization that there is always room to hone the craft, that there is always much, much more to learn.
Creating good setting, I learned, amps up suspense, but also slows down action. So, it’s a good idea to have the setting sketched in before you write the action. I also learned that a guy named Christopher Booker claims there are only seven basic plots in all of Western literature. These plots have literally evolved with our species, his theory goes, so that if you want to connect with your reader at the deepest level, you had better utilize these plot elements. Villains are complex, too. They don’t know they’re villains and do bad things for what they consider very good reasons. If you want to create three-dimensional villains, keep this in mind, I was reminded.
And so it goes. Whether it’s coaching basketball or writing fiction, there is always more to be learned about the craft. And the more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know. The truth is, I can always go deeper.