Writing in the zone

Two weeks after he upset the heavily favored Jimmy Connors to win the Wimbledon men’s singles championship, tennis great Arthur Ashe published an article in Sports Illustrated (“Catching Connors in the Stretch,” July 21, 1975). In the third paragraph, he introduced the general public to a term that has become part of sports vernacular: the “zone.” Tennis players, for instance, speak of “zoning” or being “in the zone.”

Ashe, in his article, wrote of “going through the zone.” He explained it this way: “It comes from the old Twilight Zone TV show and, roughly translated, it means playing out of sight, out of this world.”

Ashe’s definition has evolved. When you are in the zone, your shots flow, your tactics and strategy are unerring, your concentration never wavers and your attitude is sublime. Most important, your entire focus is zeroed in on the point you are playing.

If there is an equivalent of “going through the zone” in writing, what’s it like?

A recent profile of literary heavyweight Ian McEwan in The New Yorker (“The Background Hum,” by David Zalewski, February 23, 2009) offered this take, drawn from McEwan’s own fiction:

“When McEwan does begin writing, he tries to nudge himself into a state of ecstatic concentration. A passage in Saturday [his novel about a transforming day in the life of a London surgeon] describing Perowne in the operating theater could also serve as McEwan’s testament to his love of sculpting prose:

“ ‘For the past two hours he’s been in a dream of absorption that has dissolved all sense of time, and all awareness of other parts of his life. Even his awareness of his own existence has vanished. He’s been delivered into a pure present, free of the weight of the past or any anxieties about the future. In retrospect, though never at the time, it feels like profound happiness.’ ”

Beautifully written books validate McEwan’s journey through the zone.

For us writers who are mere mortals, the $64,000 question is, how do we get into the zone and stay there? Other than “applying the seat of one’s trousers to the seat of one’s chair,” as the writer Kingsley Amis once said when asked to define the art of writing, there may be no easy answer. If you do find one, my fellow workshoppers and I would love for you to let us in on it. —Alex McNab

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Published in: on April 17, 2009 at 11:41 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Alex-thanks for tackling this intriguing topic. As writers or (athletes, artists, dancers . . .) we know we are in the zone when we are in it, or have just exited it. How can we consciously get into the zone is a provocative question. As a fellow workshopper I’ve learned two things–one is when I am passionate about my topic I find myself in the zone more often. Secondly, as a practitioner of meditation, my writing is always more in the authentic zone of me when I write immediately after meditating. Anyone else have ideas?-Adair Heitmann

  2. Hi, nice post. I have been thinking about this topic,so thanks for writing. I’ll definitely be coming back to your site.


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