Soccer Mirrors Society…and the ole Art-Society/Society-Art thing

I wrote a post about my day job (soccer referee) and how The Game mirrors society, mainly in society’s problems. At the end I asked what does any of that have to do with writing/Art. I replied “a lot actually” so here is some of that expansion.

I tend to content-conceptualize (create stuff) about 5 years ahead of what actually ends up happening. I was interested in apocalyptic speculative fiction exactly five years before it started showing up in literature (genre or otherwise) to a large degree. I don’t say that as part of ruthless self-promotion—my friends and elders complain I don’t do that nearly enough let alone do so ruthlessly—I say it more as an admission of guilt, a failing of mine I really do need to fix. At this stage of the marketing game, apocalyptic lit is going to be passé before I finish and pitch any of the large numbers of work I’m still wrestling with—or as one colleague put it “foolin’ around with.” Here, this is pretty reflexive for me, maybe I oughtta learn from it, right?

It’s a well-worn topic that art reflects society and vice versa. It’s even been hashed over in a notorious (false) binary that it’s either one or the other—everyone knows it’s both/and not either/or. I’m not going there.

Soccer, “The Game” is not merely sport or athletic contest, it really is an art-form. I’d argue as a reformed super-fan of The Game, soccer is the most artful of all team sports (lacrosse a decent second to it). At the highest levels of soccer, kinetic skill produces a 3D expression via a round ball in space and time. Like any artistic endeavor, soccer is essentially an expression of the body with a focus: scoring goals—in art textual or visual expression with a focus on producing an artifact that interacts with the human community (world). Goals are seen as the possession or artifact of everyone, not merely the player achieving one. Fans and players alike treat goals scored with as much emotional attachment as readers (and writers to varying degree) do to artifacts.

Players like writers perform according to their level of skill. We can see this when a player at the youth level is working on skills that manifest their latent talent, and when a seasoned professional player employs well developed skill as an expression of their passion, desire, and developed talent. Creativity and the process of developing individual expression of it comes with time, how many of those 10000 hours have been committed to playing The Game both formally and informally. Writers have the same challenges and process.

I remember watching “Zizhou” Zidane in the 1990s when he was at the peak of his career. He was magical, every touch of the ball an expression of his creativity and well honed skill to make art in space with his body and with the ball. He had a knack for creating special “moments,” demonstrations of style and flash with the ball at key moments of a match. His goals were often exquisite and emotional experiences of genius, the impossible accomplished and done. Even if one hated the guy, they had to hold their breath as he manipulated other players and opponents merely with his touch on the ball and ultimately cheer with pure unbridled blissful joy when he finally struck and scored. I often found myself feeling pity for the antagonist, the Goalkeeper, who had to muster strength and courage in the face of such kinesthetic artistry and athletic cunning to even try to stop a Zizhou goal only to suffer defeat with the ball rolling beautifully around the back of the net behind him.

Writers like TC Boyle George Saunders are similarly skilled and expressive. When you read one of their sentences you find yourself holding your breath, confident you are witness to brilliance and cannot help but replay it, reread it over and over in bliss from the feel and rhythm of the words in your mind and mouth. Skill and craft combined with talent and creativity to accomplish a result exploding with paroxysmic bliss and triumphant relief.

In the same way as a fan, coach or official can see latent talent, witness the hunter’s instinct for the ball and the comprehension of space and how to use it in a young player who still makes as many mistakes as they perform well in competition, many journeyman writers show through their flaws; you know this is someone special to follow. One possible difference in writing, you almost never see the developing writer in published work, more likely only in workshops, classes and self-published on Amazon. One usually sees only the polished or developed writer’s product. There are exceptions of course if a still-developing talent has the needed connections and networking all capitalistic working writers ultimately require to forge careers. Although, I suppose young players in their journeyman stage don’t garner an audience much either as they develop skill and talent on city parks and back lots out of public view.

As a soccer referee, the art is in management and facilitation. Like writing, officiating a match can resemble an editorial endeavor. A foul is often a mistake (seven of them have to be committed in manner that’s careless) by a player either in judgment or skill. A good editor tries to facilitate rather than dictate how a work is written and flows. Similarly a good referee facilitates and tries to balance the flow or control the players’ behavior and performance demand.

The art in an official’s own performance comes from understanding the match around them, reading the players’ game at hand and responding accordingly to provide the very best platform to empower a player’s best performance. The creativity and talent is expressed in that highly subjective and highly right brained understanding and perception, the skill expressed in the very left brained process of applying Laws to behavior in the course of a defined time and space. Writers have to balance self-editing (left brain work) and creating content that is appealing and infectious (right brain work). The art is the balance of the two.

An editor I know used the metaphor of the Bentley-writing. To paraphrase a scathing critique of my own work a few years ago, ‘You have to strive for the Bentley work, crafted, perfection, performance, delivery, quality and everyone starts from the Buick or less in every piece of work.’ In soccer, Howard Webb, Pierluigi Collina—Bentley referees. Zidane, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Robbie Keane—Bentley players. They all started in the Buick realm, quality enough, latent talent, modest creativity and developed through work and focused effort to Bentley level performances, every game a new model or individual car. Tom Boyle, George Saunders… we all have a sense of which writers are Bentleys. Each book or story a model or individual car.

As a referee, I never really know exactly when I come close to a Bentley performance; I doubt I have yet. I know I’ve had some VW, possible Audi games. They’re different. They stand out. Players notice, even those on the losing side. I need those games, they motivate me to pull the whistle out of my bag the next time. The badge is the evidence that somebody believed based on my performance and knowledge that I was competent enough to be there in the first place.

Writing-wise, I’ll admit I’m still looking for a badge though I’ve had a few VW artifacts published. Maybe in writing the best game performance is that badge as well, a combination of an editor’s approval or belief. However, the few pieces I’ve scored publication, I’m not sure I call them VWs even. I still fume and spit over them. I can find sentences that are truly fucked up, at least in my own estimation even where others shrug and don’t notice (or care).

It’s hard to come away from a game where I performed competently but not brilliantly, and even in brilliant games with respectable feedback because the nature of officiating soccer in the US is such that the fan base is populated with a lot of bullies and thugs and it’s a rare game indeed to not be abused during the experience. Likewise a rejection from a publisher or a scathing critique session in a group workshop may or may not actually be an accurate indicator of the quality of my performance in the text. There are other variables involved that are often not at all about the work or even the writer at issue. All of that makes it hard for a journeyman to know where they are in the process. I only know when it works; when something gets through and ends up in print or on a URL.

As for art and soccer mirroring society: some of that’s the marketing part: does the artifact resonate with readers, with enough of them to part with money to cover the cost of doing it in the first place? Does the writer form and tell a story well enough that another editor sees the value that work exhibits and is persuaded to publish another work? Did the game thrill and delight the fans? Did the players’ performance sell out the stadium? Did the officials manage the game well enough to merit the next match assignment?

I talked in the other post about fans and ignorance, misunderstandings and how it doesn’t have to be that way, about fans and it being up to them to educate themselves. In the same way readers of Suzanne Collins’ highly filmic work are not likely to give a rat’s ass to educate themselves enough to appreciate David Foster Wallace’s less filmic work (they both have value and function, both are quality; though I’m biased toward the latter in saying it’s a Bentley vs. the former which is at least an Audi or Mercedes(?)). It takes a little work intellectually to process and conceive written works that are purely and essentially textual, not filmic. They have a niche audience.

I expressed frustration with the lack of education from established institutions of The Game and with universities and literary circles, there is at least some form of formal education accessible to readers when it comes to writing. However, even there, cultural boundaries and elements conspire to support or denigrate an educated reader who can appreciate more than the merely filmic genre slum bestseller. FWIW, I’m no snob. I loved it when Michael Chabon coined the term “genre-slumming” because I get that deeply, I dig “The Hunger Games” as much as I dig “Drop City.”

I am caught in the challenge of knowing where I am in the process, the arc of success as a writer as much as I’m caught in the challenge of knowing where I am in the success-arc as a soccer referee. Knowing that seems to be a key component that is vital to forging success. More than a million times I want to just bail out and quit. But like my day job, I have to feed a family and both jobs pay peanuts (because frankly society doesn’t give a rat’s ass about us, until we don’t show up) so I just keep doing it even if I don’t exactly know where I am and how I fit or don’t fit.

Perhaps my brother’s push to get me to risk venturing onto Amazon will help me more accurately place my work in the process.

At this point, I’m focused on the quality of the work; striving, or more accurately “straining,” to bang out a Bentley rather than a Buick or even a VW/Audi. That’s the day-to-day effort, the hours toward those golden 10,000 committed and accomplished.