Motherhood & Words

when soccer and writing meet

Friday night, D. and I and a bunch of friends went to see the Zinedine Zidane movie at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. It’s a documentary in which 17 cameras follow Zidane for 92 minutes, a full soccer game. The audience was mostly soccer fans with colorful team scarves wrapped around their necks. (Even if you’re not a fan, certainly you heard of Zidane’s infamous head butt in the final game of the 2006 World Cup. France ended up losing in a shoot-out.)

I’m sort-of a soccer fan, but mostly I was there to hang out with my friends and to support D., who definitely is a soccer fan (and a former player). I’ll admit that I was more interested in the drinks we were going to get after the film rather than in the film itself. I certainly wasn’t expecting it to make me think about writing. Surprise, surprise.

The whole 92 minutes is a character sketch of a soccer player doing what soccer players do: run, shove, stop the ball, etc. In Zidane’s case, there is also a great deal of spitting and sweating (from his earlobes and the tip of his nose), and shouting (hey! hey! allí! allí!). But by the end of 92 minutes, I actually felt as though I knew the guy. His concentration was palpable. I admired his skill (even I could tell how good he was), but I also had a sense of him as a person. And this is exactly what good writing does: lets us get to know and understand people.

Serendipitously, we were talking about character development in class this week. We read Jane Shapiro’s “Poltergeists,” and Sharon Olds‘ poem “Five-Year-Old-Boy.” I love Sharon Olds, and I will dedicate a whole post to her at a later date, but today I want to focus on “Poltergeists,” which was originally published in the New Yorker in 1993. It also appeared in Best American Short Stories of 1993, but I found it in the wonderful anthology Mothers: Twenty Stories of Contemporary Motherhood, edited by Katrina Kenison and Kathleen Hirsch. (This book deserves it’s own post, as well.)

Though “Poltergeists” is fiction, I decided to use it in my nonfiction class because the story has a very nonfiction-esque first-person narrator, and Shapiro is a master of character. And one of the ways she creates the believable teenagers, Zack and Nora, is through body language. They are “glossily beautiful, standing in the kitchen in pure ringing silence.” Zack’s girlfriend, Bibi, “slip(s) off (her) boots and lie(s) down with her feet in Zack’s lap. Then she fondle(s) the cat in several remarkably inventive ways, and Zack watch(es) her.” The story is chocked full of body language, and it works. I know these kids and I know their narrator mother.

Body language is hard for me. Sometimes when I write about D., my descriptions are a little flat, and I think this is because I’m around him so much that I can’t fully see him anymore. (I don’t mean this in a bad way–he’s not invisible or anything.) But his movements and habits have become so familiar to me that it’s hard to separate them out in the way that I need to in order to write them well.

So thanks to Zidane and “Poltergeists” I’ve been thinking about this all week. I wish I had 17 cameras at my disposal.

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I have been teaching creative writing for almost twenty years. Reading about other women’s lives and experiences has expanded my world. To be able to walk in someone else’s shoes, whether it’s for a moment or an hour or a few days, is an incredible gift, providing me with insight into the human experience. It takes courage to write your truths, especially if it doesn’t seem as though anyone cares, as though anyone is listening. Let me tell you: your stories matter, I’m listening, and I’m here to help you find the heart of those truths, to get them down on the page, to craft them, and to send them out into the world. Together, we will change the world, one story at a time.


  1. Mandy on February 17, 2007 at 9:20 am

    I know what you mean about describing those you know well – I think it’s hard also because we are least likely to want to make caricatures out of the people we are closest to – for me, that’s an issue in nonfiction that blocks me, makes me stumble. But of course then when I start to feel close to my fiction characters the same thing happens. Anyway, glad to hear you’re crossing genres in the class – it seems essential.

  2. kate on February 18, 2007 at 12:33 pm

    I think so, too. Some people seem to think if you’re teacing a nonfiction class you should use only nonfiction. But I learn so much from poetry and fiction, and I read so much fiction that I feel I must use these genres in my nonfiction classes.

  3. Anonymous on June 4, 2007 at 12:42 am

    So what happened in the Zidane’s movie?

    I am expecting the movie just like a regular soccer game, a very simple game, to most of the non-soccer-fans, boring scoreless event, just like our life routine from every morning to evening. And players or teammates like our family members are just riding along.

    Lions and tigers prey their food in minutes, but sleep and rest in hours day and night. They are beautiful whether in hunting and sleeping.

    Soccer is about chasing a few glorious flash and goals under lifelong hardworking sacrifices in strength and spirit, after matches often judged under a moral value. Not as other sports that everything is made easy to draw weekend sport “lovers” to sit there for hours eat, drink, consume while organizations leavening their profits by making peoples grow unhealthily.

    In soccer, a player does not wait to bat a good ball, he does not rely on physical prowess to play, he does not need a tall body to participate, he needs to sweat, spit, run, tackle, fall hard in every sec of game, and all his efforts may not give him a good result. That’s just life. Everyone knows, especially writers understand it.

    I am not a writer. I do not know the difference btwn fiction or non-fiction. But life and love can be put in any genre. Same as any story a writer tells, from a reader’s mind, it’s truth or lie.
    But who cares, as long as it speaks.

    From A Soccer Fan