Thursday afternoons when I was a kid, my dad would come home from his church office to write his Sunday sermon. He wrote on an Osborne computer, a heavy beige thing the size of a breadbox, its entire screen not much bigger than the track pad of the laptop I use today. Dad worked in our narrow kitchen pantry, his books stacked on the table and my mom’s enormous cookbook collection threatening to tumble from the shelves over his head.
I don’t remember ever witnessing any anxiety about his writing, any worry that maybe this week he wouldn’t be able to think of some new way to interpret an old and familiar Gospel. All I saw was that he would sit and type on Thursday afternoons, and at some point print the sermon out on half sheets of paper, the left margins progressively indented (a format that helped him keep his place while speaking). Sunday morning, he would preach for seven to ten minutes. Week after week after week.
I learned something about writing from my dad, and I learned because much of his writing happened right in the midst of our family life. Even after he bought that computer, he continued, as all the parent-writer books advise, to carry his writing with him; Dad’s ubiquitous clipboard, its stack of unlined paper holding drafts of both sonnets and sermons, came along to doctor’s appointments, driving lessons, and to baseball games where, several times each summer, we’d drive to Shea Stadium to root for the Mets.
The leisurely pace of a baseball game allows plenty of time for reflection and writing; no wonder writers from Marianne Moore to Doris Kearns Goodwin have written on the game. Baseball movies, in turn, often include a character who’s a writer, whether it’s a sports writer commenting on the action, or a figure like Bull Durham‘s Annie (Susan Sarandon), a composition teacher who can hardly utter a sentence without quoting from one of her favorite authors. Until recently, I hadn’t thought much about the writer in Field of Dreams (Phil Alden Robinson, 1989), distracted instead by the movie’s sentiment, its typically romantic view of the game and the relationship between baseball and family. But the writer in the film plays a key role in helping this film’s baseball-loving husband reconcile with the idea of being a father.
We meet Terence Mann (James Earl Jones) midway through Field of Dreams, after learning about him at the community PTA meeting: some parents want to ban his novel, The Boat Rocker. Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) sits in the audience listening while also pondering a voice he heard earlier, urging that he “Ease his pain.” Already having plowed his corn field into a baseball diamond at this voice’s urging (and becoming the community laughing stock in the process), he’s ready to take action, if he could only figure out what. As his wife Annie (Amy Madigan) argues passionately against the book banning, Ray decides that Terence Mann–Pulitzer Prize winner, 60s-era political activist, and baseball fan–must be the one whose pain he’s meant to ease.
Terence turns out to be an isolated, crotchety man so worn by his past political involvement (“I was the east coast distributor of involved,” he tells Ray wearily) that he hides out in a messy Boston flat stacked with piles of papers and books. He no longer gives interviews or advice; he no longer writes. But he comes along with Ray to a Red Sox game, and comes along even further, first to Minnesota (to find the ghost of a once-promising young player) and then to Iowa, Ray’s home, to watch two whole teams of baseball ghosts relive their glory days by playing in this diamond carved from the corn.
Along the way, he develops a friendly, fatherly relationship with Ray, and helps him take a step toward reconciling with Ray’s own ghost, his late father, who urged him to play ball for so long and so hard that it was no longer any fun. When he was 14, Ray tells Terence, he stopped playing catch with his dad because he read–and was politicized by–Mann’s novel, The Boat Rocker.
“Now that’s the kind of crap people are always trying to lay on me!” Terence protests. “It’s not my fault you stopped playing catch with your father!”
He won’t let his writing be the cause of their split; he can let his writing prompt their reunion.
Everything Ray does in the film, from building the field to embarking on the road trip with Terence, is done in the name of spontaneity, of refusing his dad’s legacy of being tied down by commitments. It’s Terence, the writer, who points out that Ray is like his dad–he works hard, he loves his family–in good and compelling ways. Ultimately it’s Terence who’s invited by the baseball ghosts to disappear into the corn patch; because he’s a writer, he gets the chance to tempt death and write about the after-life. Ray stays behind with his family. As Terence and the ghosts recede, a new one appears–Ray’s dad– who plays a long-deferred game of catch with his grown son.
I’ve heard this scene makes grown men cry. Even I, who never played much catch with my dad (nor have a fraught relationship to repair) find myself moved by the sight of father and son, reconnecting wordlessly as they toss the ball back and forth. Dad and I still connect over baseball (though now we root for different teams) but mostly we connect with words. I no longer just watch him write but, having learned both by his example and by his craft, now read and comment on his work. We email drafts back and forth, playing catch with writing.