What Makes a Good Sports Story?

I’ve been hopping around in The Only Game in Town: The New Yorker Book of Sports Writing, edited by David Remnick.

It’s the second sports book I’ve picked up, after an unskillfully written but completely engrossing book on ultra-long-distance cycling.

To my knowledge, before two months ago I have never so much as cracked open a book-length work about sports or games.

But now I’m thinking about doing a little sports writing of my own. So I am reading this compendium in hopes of trying to figure out what makes sports writing interesting, if and when it is interesting. Why is sports a compelling topic? How do writers approach it?

So far, I have read six pieces. Some guy on open-water surfing off San Fransicso’s Ocean Beach. A profile of marathon swimmer Lynn Cox. A piece by Malcolm Gladwell about why athletes fail. A layered piece by Adam Gopnik about an influential art-history teacher of his, who later coached his eight-year-old son’s football team while dying of cancer. A piece by Nancy Franklin about ping-pong. Haruki Murakami’s personal essay about writing and running.

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Swimmer’s Shoulder

I made a list of any number of ways I could start this blog off, from thematic (deep thoughts on the nature of physical activity), to chronological (first moments I became aware of my body, or thought about exercise), to stylistic (a smattering of disconnected yet crystalline vignettes, adding up over time to an organic whole). Then I sat there, produced a lot of sentence fragments, wrote the word “fuck” a number of times, and watched the cursor blink.

So much for the lofty notions. I will have to start with what’s easy and let this thing find itself if it can.

What’s easy? After 21 years, writing diary-style comes pretty naturally.

Yesterday, we swam. Someday later I will describe the pool. It’s a wonderful, peaceful place, the kind of semi-secret spot I’m almost reluctant to tell people about, lest it become better attended than it is. It is outdoors, six lanes, standard size. 1960s architecture, a wall of round quartz pebbles on one side, simple with an old clock, tall adn leading straight to the sky; on the other side, the same wall but lower, and behind that a row of pines that catch and spread the late afternoon sun.

It belongs to a local high school, and is open for public lap swim between five and six p.m. each weekday. I like this limited window of opportunity. You have to commit to going, and then you go, and then it’s all over before you’ve even thought it through.

I never swam before this summer. I knew how, from childhood, kind of, but I’d never liked it. I associated swimming with lack of agency (being dragged to the pool), with vulnerability and with social awkwardness (having to take my glasses off, not being able to see anything). The pool was shrieking kids. It was a reminder that I didn’t feel at home among my own kind—and having no clothes to cover that sense of alienation. It was loud whistles, and a dressing room full of larger, naked female bodies, with painfully nubby rubber mats underfoot and a faint whiff of something like cheese.

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