My old man was a pretty serious high school football player in south Georgia. Ohio, Texas, and Florida are now hotbeds of high school football player. But back in those days, small rural Georgia towns were as serious about ball as anyone. Naturally, I figured I would follow in my father’s footsteps.
But I was fucking awful.
A kid named Robert and I were charter members of our junior high school football team’s 40-40 Club. We stood on the sidelines in pristine uniforms, never to touch the field unless our team was winning by forty points or getting demolished by forty. So I can’t say I recall my brief football career with much fondness.
However, when I saw this Under Armour commercial in 2006, I was immediately transported back to the football locker room. That’s because “click clack” is such an authentic experience for anyone who has played football, even at my shitty skill level.
What does this otherwise over-the-top commercial for football cleats have to do with writing? It’s that “click clack” idea. I still think they could have come up with a better way of summing up the experience, but “click clack” will suffice.
Any fool could base a commercial on the idea that “When I strap on that helmet, I’m ready to hit someone.” Or, “When I hear the crowd screaming and the announcer calling my name, I know it’s game time.” But the experience of hearing football cleats on concrete is a distinct experience only football players (or someone paying very close attention) would notice.
As writers, we should strive for similarly authentic, non-obvious experiences. If you’re writing about a rockstar, don’t refer to the roar of the crowd or the hum of the amplifiers or the ringing in his ears. Instead, refer to the fact that Gibson Firebird guitars are top heavy instruments. The neck drops the minute your hero releases his hands. So when your musician gets ready to play a Firebird, he has to lift up the neck. And then he’s ready to rock.
Or, if you’re writing about an office worker, don’t fall back on the easy descriptions of elevator music and flourescent lighting. Instead, write about the smell of that fire-retardant padding on cubicle walls or the way an office phone’s earpiece gets greasy after repeated use. Or the smell of a burnt coffee pot after someone tries to clean it with Clorox.
Championship basketball coach Pat Riley has taken a few extended vacations from coaching. During such a hiatus, Riley gave an interview and responded to what he missed most about coaching. He didn’t say anything about the money, the adulation, the championship banners, or the celebratory parades. Instead, he said he missed the ritual of “bring it in.” Riley told the reporter that, “Through the good times, bad times, easy practices, hard practices, great wins, tough losses — the best thing was, at the very end, there was a common thread that regardless of what happened there were three words: Bring it in.” The second I read those words I knew exactly what Riley meant. Every coach I ever had, from Little League to college sports all said that phrase. It sums up so much of the sports experience, but it’s a concept that someone who had never stepped foot in a gym would never think about.
In short, what is the thing –feeling, experience, sound, smell, emotion — that only someone who has spent a lot of time in that particular position going to know?