The Art of Living with Death

During a radio interview, New York Met’s pitcher and 2012 Cy Young Award* winner R.A. Dickey told about results of a near fatal attempt to swim across the Missouri River.

Before the experience he had logged an Earned Run Average of over 6 and his win vs. loss record was 1 and 4.  Afterward, through the remainder of the season, he won 11 games, lost only 2, and achieved an ERA of about 2.5.

The change of pitching performance, he attributed to a recognition that followed his brush with death. Now he believes every pitch should be approached with all he has to give. Each pitch has become an experience of its own, deserving his fullest concentration and care.

Once a writer, an academic fellow, asked my opinion of the differences between commercial and literary novels. I can’t recall my answer but I believe I now have a better one.

First, the term literary annoys me. Too many snooty connotations. So I’ll substitute art for literary and venture that art is what comes from approaching our work like R.A. Dickey now approaches his pitches. And commercial writing is the product of approaching our work like Dickey used to, before the Missouri River swim, when his goal was to thrive as a pro ball player. Now, his goal has little or nothing to do with becoming something or somebody, as it is grounded in the present, with the attempt to throw the best pitch, one at a time.

Raymond Carver, a master of the short story, noted that his work improved dramatically after he gave up ambition and began simply sitting down to write without desire for success or fear of failure.

Self-help gurus and therapists advise that we can achieve peace by consistently living in the present. That’s a mighty abstract goal for a simple fellow like me to pursue. I would rather try to throw the best pitch every time, whether I’m writing a sentence, cooking a turkey, or responding to some challenge from my ten-year-old Zoe.

After all, I think us novelists are supposed to make abstractions concrete.

* The Cy Young Award is given to the best pitcher in each of the major leagues.

** Earned Run Average (ERA) is the average number of earned runs (runs allowed minus runs allowed because of fielding errors) in nine innings (pro baseball), six innings (Little League) seven innings (softball).


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