David Biddle: Winding Down with Spring Training: Last Thoughts for Writers
I wrote about baseball’s spring training season in The Story Plant blog a few weeks ago. In that piece, I pointed out that writers don’t get a spring training. I also noted that one of the parallels between baseball and writing is how hard both endeavors are and how they are fraught with struggle. So, with the regular baseball season now upon us, and spring training coming to a close, I’d like to delve a bit more into those parallels.
Success May Not Actually Come from Mastering the Basics
Baseball players develop their fundamental skills over about ten years as they move from the sandlot through high school. It takes another ten years or so to get to the top of one’s game as a pro. That ten years is about moving from being a talented athlete to a highly skilled professional.
During spring training, the pros are up early and often at the field before breakfast. Many get in a hard workout before the sun comes up. During morning hours, they run through all sorts of drills together, then play games in the afternoon. Late in the day is the opportunity for a bit of recreation and family time. Players know they have roughly six weeks to prepare for the season. If they’re not ready, then they’re going to have a tough year…or worse.
But go to the backfields during spring training to watch players practicing, and you’ll find many of them with a smile on their face or at least a bounce to their step. It’s practice. Some guys never truly get it, but that six or more hours of hard work at the beginning of the day is time for free play and preparation. Yes, games are the real deal. But they’re also the cherry on top and an opportunity to compete in order to see that hard work have value. One reason I love spring training so much is because watching players who are both major and minor leaguers getting set for the season is a chance to watch once ten- and eleven-year-old kids still finding joy in the process of getting better through practice, hard work, and play. That joy thing is the secret to their success.
Recall the point from my blog a few weeks ago: no spring training for writers; no butt pats and no nicknames from teammates. I didn’t say this in that blog, but also no coaches yelling at you; no one playing practical jokes on you either. Writers need to practice and train regularly, too. Perhaps some of us were lucky enough to have a teacher pushing us in a workshop or MFA program when we were still wet behind the ears. Too often, though, the routine is to sit down with the idea of writing something that will get published, maybe make a little money. More focus on understanding the idea of practice, learning, and development for, say, a month every year, might well make sense for all of us.
Practice as a writer can be any number of obvious activities: reading intensively; keeping journals or notebooks; writing opening paragraphs to pretend novels again and again; sending nutty or thoughtful emails to friends; even offering up extended, unasked for comments at online magazines and Facebook. It can also be more directed and basic, the way it is for baseball players every spring: start with the fundamentals and work your way up the ladder of difficulty. Maybe the easiest thing is to find story prompts online to get your imagination rolling. Maybe you go back to hand-writing little character sketches of people you interact with regularly but hardly know—neighbors, food servers, local politicians, your favorite actor on TV.
Flashing the Goods
The best practice regimen I’ve discovered is writing flash fiction. I learned the value of that activity way back during that first spring of our wondrous time all living alone and together with Covid-19 just outside our front doors. Funnily enough, that learning process occurred because baseball’s spring training was on one of the funkiest holds in baseball history. This is my favorite time of the season because I love watching games that are for fun and just to get ready for when they will matter. But in 2020, with no spring training games on TV or the internet in the afternoon, I realized that at least I could practice my own set of drills alone in my room.
Here’s what I do using flash fiction to train: Limit first drafts to 1200 words and don’t worry about whether they make sense or work; then try to cut them under 800 words. After that, hopefully, edit things down below 600. Sometimes I take a half-finished story sitting, say, at 5000 words, that I know pretty much sucks, and see if I can cut it down below 800. And so on. The same can be done for non-fiction. Check out as an example Eliot Weinberger’s brilliant flash essays in that realm.
Working out with flash writing is not so much about first draft creativity, as it is developing self- editing skills and sharpening the critical eye. Murdering one’s darlings is an art form that requires experience and ego taming, kind of like letting a pitch go by even though it’s probably a strike. In a lot of ways, I see revising any story and editing it down as actually stepping up to the plate. That first draft is just swinging the bat around in the on-deck circle.
Out of all that training, too, I am happy to report that I’ve come to see that everything on the quality side of writing depends on the editing process—at least for me. A few of those practice flashers, in fact, wound up getting published during the past few years or so.
In the end, what’s kept me going as a writer for roughly 50 years is the same thing baseball players understand: loving practice, struggle, and development. In fact, every new story or essay is a learning process and a chance to begin on-deck again. I’ve tried each spring since 2020 to take time for training. It would be more fun, I’m sure with teammates slapping my butt every now and then, but at least I don’t have the specter of not making the cut for Opening Day.
David Biddle is the author of the novel Old Music for New People. His new novel, Sound Effect Infinity, will be published by The Story Plant in November 2023.
A version of this essay was published in February at the Writer’s Blokke publication on Medium.com
About the Author...
A part-time professional freelance writer since he published his first article on appropriate technology education with RAIN: Journal in 1985, David Biddle has published work with the likes of Harvard Business Review, BioCycle, Huffington Post, The Philadelphia Inquirer, GetUnderground, Resource Recycling, BuzzWorm, Talking Writing, etc. He was also a contributing editor to InBusiness (the 2nd best sustainability publication of all-time) for over a decade. His coming-of-age summer vacation novel, Old Music for New People, was published by The Story Plant in December of 2021.