D is for Degree

https://i0.wp.com/golftoysforboys.com/wp-content/uploads/560d7_golf_books_2348409571_e598314b4d.jpg There is an elephant sitting on this golf course called the Kingdom, one that I should address here as this skeleton from my golfing closet was forced into the light this morning on SiriusXM PGA Tour Radio.

On his “Fairways of Life” show, Matt Adams (who was wonderful enough to have me on and promote my books) asked a benign enough question, inquiring as to whether I had read Michael Murphy’s seminal golf and Scotland book, Golf in the Kingdom.  It was a softball of a question; surely, as a golf writer and as a links-lover and as an author about to write a book that seems to borrow from Murphy’s title, I would reply with a quick, “Yes.  Love it.  Book changed my life,” as most readers of this book tend to respond.  But I stumbled and paused and mumbled, and then finally admitted that I’ve never read Golf in the Kingdom.  Shocked, Matt Adams promptly gave me a hard-earned D in his golf literature course.

My first D.  My first Dog.  Hey, you know what they call the guy who got all D’s in medical school, right?  It wasn’t so bad, and it was worth it for getting this gap in my reading off my chest.  And while I’m emptying out my closet, allow me to leave it bare: I don’t really read golf books.

https://i2.wp.com/thegolfauction.com/ItemImages/000006/6004a_lg.jpeg How will you possibly go on with your day, burdened with my secret?  It is a lot to dump on a reader.  But allow me to explain. I have been given Golf in the Kingdom on several occasions.  I’ve had it described to me so many times that I feel like I was in the book.  I’ve watched the movie trailer, because the film stars Mason Gamble, who starred in the movie version of my first book, A Gentleman’s Game.  I’ve been linked to Murphy’s book by Sports Illustrated, who in their golf’s most underrated/overrated list, named A Course Called Ireland as golf’s most underrated book, while Golf in the Kingdom won the more enviable title (overrated really just means you sold circles around the underrated choice).  As a writer of golf narrative, it would make sense that I know this book cover to cover, that I quote from it in my daily exchanges.  But I don’t, because I don’t read many golf books.  And the reasons are pretty plain.

I have used golf books for my research, picking pieces that I need in planning a trip or making a point (Daley’s Links Golf, Campbell and Peper’s True Links, Sutherland’s Golf on the Rocks are a few recent titles), but there is not a great deal of upside for me when it comes to reading golf books.  The possible outcomes: 1) I love the book, so I hate my own.  I question every one of my sentences along with all of my life choices, and soon I return to caddying full-time.  The writing ego is a fragile one that bounces between bold genius and curled-up-in-the-bathroom self-doubt.  (And there is no such thing as thick-skinned author; we play at it, but it’s like calling oneself a thick-skinned parent–your kid gets hurt, your guts twist in bunches.) 2) I love the book, so I try to rewrite it under my own name.  This is frowned upon in publishing circles. 3) I don’t love the book, so my time was wasted.  And reading time is too precious to spend on books that don’t make you dance a little.

I hope that my writing about golf doesn’t feel derivative, and that it feels like a new take on the old subject of golf balls bouncing down a fairway.  I guard against golf literature so that this might remain the case.  I’m easily influenced by the style of the things I read or watch; if I go to a British movie, I come out talking like a chap from the East End.  I don’t read much in golf because I’m always in golf, and the only way to keep that interesting for me, and thus for my readers, is to read outside of it.  (Truth be told, I don’t think of my books as golf books, or of myself as a golf writer, though I am fortunate that my books have purchase with a particular readership–if that’s golfers, that’s great.) It’s advice I give to my writing students; if you want to get better at writing prose, read poetry.  Read outside your genre and outside of your subject; research is one thing, but if you want to write a fresh young adult novel, reading a dozen YA titles isn’t the answer.  Read stuff that will open your mind and allow you to see your subject in a different light.  Read writers that set your ass on fire.

If you have any golf books that do that for you, let me know.  Maybe I’m going about this the wrong way.  On my reading table right now you’ll find The Canterbury Tales, Gulliver’s Travels, and 51 college freshman essays on the portrayal of love in OthelloTales and GT are great British and Irish travel books, stories that will no doubt have an influence on A Course Called the Kingdom.  As for the 51 essays awaiting their grades, they will have an influence as well.  54 holes a day in Scotland will seem an easy climb in comparison.  Here’s to no Dogs in this pile.

9 thoughts on “D is for Degree

  1. Honesty is more endearing than bluster. Yes, read outside your genre. I write quite a bit about running and endurance sports and have found very few that inspire me, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami and Running and Being by guru George Sheehan the exceptions. Beyond those two the rest all sound alike to me, nothing new, nothing fresh, just the same old stuff rearranged. And perfect depiction of the writer’s ego.

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  2. Perfectly imperfect ..isn’t that perfect! Outside my genre but how refreshing. My newest discovery is absolutely an inspiration. Captain Eric Winkle Brown, a 96 year young Scotsman. Reading about him set my “my ass on fire”. He flew 487 different types of aircraft , had the most landings, 2407, on aircraft carriers and in 1945 was the first pilot to do a takeoff and landing on a carrier in a jet aircraft to just name a few of his accomplishments. AND he still drives and just bought another sportscar. If you see him on YouTube you will be thrilled with his recall, details..lust for life. He says become part of the airplane. I wonder if I became part of the golf club if I could improve! Made me wonder how many successful landings of a golf ball that you have had with your first shot on a green!

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    1. Golf needs more snobbery, Tom. Read the links canon already, and when you’re done make it a point to make others feel insecure around you. I thought you were a professor for God’s sake. Get with the program. Tom = Up Here. Unenlightened duffer = Down Here.

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      1. Hello Reed. Thanks for your reply. Wow! It was a bit of a surprise — I didn’t expect this post to come off as snobbish, so allow me to clarify (I may inadvertently come off as more snobbish here in my response, but oh well).

        I consider myself something of an anti-golf snob; I think my writing has always kind of made light of golf’s snobbery and tried to show it as something less than useful. I’m not a golf snob, and I’m not a book snob; in fact, I was trying to make the point that I don’t read golf books not because they aren’t great or worthwhile. On the contrary, I fear that they might be exactly that and thus try to avoid work that makes me question my own, makes me want imitate the work of others, or work that might push me off my path or away from my voice, and send me chasing someone else’s.

        That might sound like chicken-shit, but I’m okay with admitting that there’s a little chicken-shit within this writer who often doubts himself, who sometimes questions and fears and wonders what the hell he’s doing, even after a healthy and (may I say this without sounding snobbish) bestselling body of work. I don’t know too many writers/artists who don’t wrestle with these little chicken-shit gremlins of self-doubt. So I’m fiercely protective of that thing that makes me feel confident enough to write for public consumption; it’s fleeting and fragile, so I don’t mess with it. And therefore I avoid reading books that are compared to my own. I take it you don’t agree with this strategy, and that’s cool. I just have to do what works for me.

        If what I wrote came off as suggesting that a writer doesn’t need to be reading, allow me to correct that and clarify: I think that the only thing a writer absolutely must be, above all other things, is a reader. As for what they’re reading — I guess that’s the point at issue here.

        Your message did make me reflect on my golf reading a bit more, and I was wrong in my original post — I actually have read a lot of golf books: game improvement books. When I was doing Paper Tiger, I consumed them, books by Dr. Bob Rotella, Dr. Bob Winters, Dr. Jim Suttie, plus Zen Golf and the like; anything to save a stroke, and they were all helpful and good reads, books I would recommend to anyone. I should have been more clear and said that I don’t read golf narratives, books like Golf in the Kingdom, and books like my own. I’ve already stated some of the reasons as to why I haven’t read these titles of “the golf canon” — not wanting to imitate them, wanting my work to sound fresh vs. derivative, wanting to guard against comparisons (no one can claim I’m copying Murphy’s book if I haven’t read it), but the biggest reason, without a doubt, is that I give so much of my time and thought to golf and imagining golf stories that I just can’t envision myself picking up a golf narrative for fun.

        If I’m not working on a golf story, I’m thinking of a new one, as a book or as a magazine pitch, or I’m polishing up an old one, or I’m working on my game because I’m working on a story where I’m playing in it, which requires work with coaches, which takes a lot of organizing and emails and resource gathering, and a lot of travel — working on my golf and travel schedule alone for this next book is an all-hours proposition — so my life, when it isn’t family or teaching, is golf golf golf, and a constant golf story — where’s the next one, what can I do to improve the current one, am I working hard enough to sell the last one? I just can’t imagine relaxing at night with a golf novel. The best analogy I can think of is my friend who owns a pizza shop–he makes hundreds of pizzas a day. Hundreds and hundreds of pies. All the pizza he can eat. And he hasn’t had a slice in years. Can’t stomach the thought of it. Sounds crazy to me, because his pizza is really good, but I also kind of get it.

        I should make the point that I am intensely grateful that people do turn to golf stories, such as the kind I write, as a source of fun and interest and escape — god, I don’t want to come off as bashing golf books, which I fear I may have based on your response to my post. I owe everything to the stories of golf — I’ve been raised on them, in the caddy yard and in the grill room, and my career is based on pushing golf stories as far as I can, and hopefully make them bigger than the events of eighteen holes. I love the stories of this game, so much that I have arranged my life around them. So no disrespect to golf titles or their authors intended in my post; I was just trying to explain why I got a D on drive-time radio.

        I stand by my point that one needs to read outside of their genre and their field. I don’t think one should aspire to be the best golf writer, or tennis writer, or beekeeping writer, or bicycling writer–I think that just means you are trying to master the conventions of a niche and writing to the expectations of a particular audience. Good writing is good writing, so I don’t really think it matters what you’re reading, as long as it excites you. And after spending all day trying to find a new way to describe the sensation of a flushed five-iron, the proposition of reading more golf at the end of that day doesn’t excite me all that much. And yes, I am a professor in an English department, and I encourage my students to read widely and boldly, but I have yet to figure out a syllabus that features golf books. But maybe I should. Then I would be guaranteed to read some of this canon, and I could require some of my own books, saving me time on class prep and giving me more time to do what I need to right now — get busy on the next one.

        Thank you for your thoughts and for checking out the blog.

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  3. First, giving writing and reading advise to a professor may be the most presumptuous stunt I’ve pulled in quite a while. Here goes. As to “Golf in the Kingdom”, slipping zen onto a golf book is a bit like slipping excrement into chocolate pie. It’s just a mean trick. If you want to know about Zen read “the Tibetan Book of the Dead”. If you want to be bored, irritated and disappointed, read “Golf in the Kingdom”. I have read them both and at least the Tibetans did not disguise theirs with chocolate. Michael Murphy sold a lot of books and Bernie Madoff sold a lot of stocks, in the end a lot of people were swindled.
    It must be hard to write about sport as it is a visceral pursuit not an intellectual one. Events and people surrounding sport is where the fascinating stuff is; but you know that. Reading golf reference material can be very helpful, but for a writer reading others golf books is like studying the golf swing of others, it is confusing and you can forget how ‘you’ swing. Close your eyes, hold your nose, pray to Jesus, and swing as hard as you can.
    Gene

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  4. Tom,
    Reading your response made my entire body flush as it was the exact opposite of what I intended to communicate. It appears that my attempt at sarcasm landed with the effectiveness of a Sarah Silverman Easter homily. I truly love your writing, and I can honestly say that I have recommended “A Course Called Ireland” to everyone I know (even those who don’t play) which I think is the brilliance of your literary style.

    You are without question, the anti-snob. You open up the game I love to others in an unpretentious way, and golf desperately needs more of that. In a world where subject matter experts constantly try to separate themselves from the masses, you do not, and my guess is that this has brought you success as a professor.

    Sorry about the miscommunication. I cannot wait to read A Course Call the Kingdom, and the next time I try to compliment my favorite writer I will choose a more direct route or start my response with “sarcasm intended” or “Matt Adams, this means you.”

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  5. Reed! No worries at all — and my apologies for not reading the sarcasm; I know you have been a supporter of the books, so should have assumed as much, but in any event, it’s all good here. And it gave me the chance to clarify some of what I said in my blog, which I think was worth doing. Thanks for the kind words about my work and for sharing ACCI with others — that means a great deal to me. Be well and keep following — this story is just a few weeks from wheels up!

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  6. Mr. Morton…..ditto about your feelings and thoughts about Sir Tom…I regularly purchase copies to have available to pass along even to those that have not been infected with this magical crazy maker thing called a four letter word. In the past I have been hesitant to use this method of communication because people cannot see my tongue stuck hard and sideways in my cheek..or my eyes rolling towards heaven..tic..lol..nudge, nudge and wink wink sometimes don’t do it..Also they can’t see that I nodded off before I made my point! However miscommunications do bring about the possibility of a larger picture..it ends up being all good. Besides I’m getting too old to hunt you down and beat you with my cane. You are truly a good bloke…..makes me happy.

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  7. I do believe all that read this blog will be the same age…somewhere between puberty and death….and I just wanted to share that I have not found many birdies..unless they chirped…but I have found so much beauty in all the sensations of golf and yes absolutely in life. From rainbow to moonlights end (I just love the picture those words create in my minds eye)I witness it often and daily. I feel so certain it will find you at every turn, every green, fairway and friend you meet along the way. The difficult part is going to be waiting for your book to be in print. Read some special words “Cast your bread upon the water and it will come back with a weenie and mustard.” So my question each time I take a swing at it is……when I cast my ball upon the fairway..will it come back on a card as a birdie, a gobble, a ÜBE…an eagle…something that needs an eraser! Golf, fun!

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About Tom Coyne