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Writers on Writers: Jennifer Kahn asks Michael Lewis, "What the hell?"
Jennifer Kahn | Photo: John S. Dykes | June 3, 2013
Jennifer Kahn watches Michael Lewis lead softball practice.
Lewis takes off his coat and sets up a portable seat behind the plate. At 13, Quinn has a frighteningly powerful arm, and for the next 30 minutes her pitches hit Lewis’s glove with the smack of a boxer hitting the heavy bag. “At this level, it’s such a pitching-centric game,” Lewis says as Quinn drives home a change-up. “You can almost watch the pitchers warming up and see who’s going to win.” Lewis is not uncompetitive. Just after Quinn and Dixie joined the Berkeley team, he recruited Val Arioto, a 24-year-old national softball champion and the 2012 Pac-12 player of the year, to serve as his daughters’ coach. Calling pitches from the side-lines, Arioto corrects Quinn’s form with mild authority: “Arm came up on that one”; “Use your hip as a whip.” Despite this advantage, the team’s performance has been uneven. “When they were 10, they got killed by everybody,” Lewis recalls. “Then, for a while, they got better. And then they started playing older teams, and they got killed again.” Characteristically, Lewis sees this problem as at least partly a matter of confidence. “You watch these little girls, and it’s so exaggerated. The minute they get a little down—or a little up—the game is over. They’re either going to crush the other team, or they’re going to fold.” Like sports, writing is a mental game: If you don’t think you can do it, you probably won’t be able to. Sometimes these doubts constitute a mild disability—temporary personal torment. Sometimes they’re more severe. One writer I know of spent over nine years working on a single 5,000-word magazine story. Lewis doesn't have that problem. When I observe that he seems remarkably free of writerly neuroses, he replies, "That's true." He doesn't worry about antagonizing his sources, hurting the feelings of people he writes about, or being scorned by experts. he also claims not to worry about the success of his books. "If I'm interested in it, I just assume other people will be, too," he says.
Lewis is so confident, in fact, that at times he can sound like a bit of a dick. He describes writer's block as "a myth" (take that, Nine Years) and thinks that writers who doubt their ability should just basically get over it ("You have to condition yourself not to have those thoughts"). When I point out that some people might have more difficulty shedding their anxieties, Lewis seems simultaneously puzzled and annoyed—like a rock climber confronted with someone terrified of heights. "To worry about what people will think, whether you're good enough—what value is there in any of those thoughts?" he asks, snagging a low fastball. "All those thoughts are just excuses to freeze."
It’s Dixie’s turn on the mound.
Lewis: “So, Val, what should Dixie have in her head when she’s pitching?”
Val: “That she’s going to strike out anyone who gets in the box.”
Lewis: “That’s exactly right.”
Lewis’s agenda for his daughters is complex. On the one hand, the author of several books about professional sports and Wall Street is, not surprisingly, genuinely interested in winning. On the other hand, he sees sports as a pathway to understanding resilience, which means that the losses are as important as the wins. “Val’s putting them in positions where they fail, and then teaching them how to come out of it again. And they remember it. You fail, and then you get over it. You fail, and you fight through it. You write crappy things, and you say, ‘I’ll come back and redo it.’ You develop that skill here, and you can take it anywhere.”
As a boy, Lewis got a similar message from his mother. Growing up, he was sass-mouthed and vaguely delinquent: When he was 12, he would sneak out at night and hacksaw the hood ornaments off of cars. Despite that, he says, his mother created “a narrative” for him. “She would say, ‘What I love about you, Michael...’—and she’d sound a little angry, because I was always pissing her off—but she’d say, ‘What I love about you is that when life hands you lemons, you always find a way to make lemonade.’”
It’s a cliché, sure, but for Lewis, it was also formative. “It was a story I started to believe about myself: I’m the guy who, in a bad situation, finds a way to turn it around. Once you start thinking that way, a setback almost becomes fun.”