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August 22, 2019

The Inner Game of Writing

“The question ‘What do you want to wear?’translates to ‘Who do you want to be?’ My grandmother’s gold and white gown is only a metaphor for imagining myself where I want to be, manifesting my dreams.”
– Rose Miller, Wellesley College

“Suddenly, I saw an image of myself taking action. I pictured myself diving into the pool for an unconscious child. Grabbing his bloated body. His parents watching. Beginning compressions on his cold chest. Yes, I thought. I’m ready to accept the duty of saving lives.”
– Niko Darci-Maher, The University of California, Los Angeles

“I can think of at least one moment from any given day that I wish I could fit into this essay. There’s a baby on the corner, and the bus driver smiled today, and we are alive. It is always worth the extra moment it takes to remember that you’re surrounded by beauty. I am infinitely lucky to have a life that has given me the time and space to embark on this journey of self-discovery.”
– Miranda Dickerman, Colorado College


I often feel more like a shaman than a college counselor. To write an amazing college essay – one that will get you into the school of your dreams – you have to take an amazing journey. Stewarding this journey has been the task of my lifetime.  I just wrote my second book about it called UNSTUCK. In it I address the “inner game of writing,” and that’s what makes the book unique, and my way of working with students so successful and deep.

Sometimes I have to pinch myself to believe that the vision I had for my life has come true.  I live and breathe my work.  I am very happy and very successful.  How did I get here?

The answer has partly to do with my failed tennis career.

I started playing tennis when I was eleven.  By the time I was thirteen, I was teaching tennis to adults.

By all accounts, I should have become a world-class tennis player.  That’s what my coaches told me.  That’s what they hoped for! Partly, I didn’t have a “killer instinct.”

But it was more than that.

Tennis is a mental game.  What it takes to hit that little fuzzy neon-yellow ball with a racket no bigger than your head, across the court, over a net exactly three feet high, into a box the size of your kitchen – it’s almost unfathomable.

You need ridiculous amounts of concentration, a lot of skill – and unflagging confidence.

One moment of self-doubt, one negative thought, one tiny fleck of fear – the ball is over the fence.

I hit a lot of balls over the fence!

Every thirty or forty shots, I became possessed by an alien.  My wrist would quiver, I’d have a “jolt,” and all bets were off. The ball would tip the end of my racket and head for the stars.

It was unpredictable, always a shock – and downright humiliating.

If I knew then what I know now, I wouldn’t have worried about it at all.

I would have trusted it was going to happen. I would have prepared for it in my psyche. I would have taken “the jolt” in stride and pressed forward for the win.  I might even have used it to my advantage.

In time, way after my problematic tennis career was over, I came to recognize “the jolt” as part of my everyday life.  I still cannot be trusted with a hot cup of tea.

I was young when I played competitive tennis.  I didn’t know or trust myself like I do now.

Back then, I spent many sleepless nights before important matches fearing the inevitable. I could feel the potential for “the jolt” like a coiled spring in my right wrist about to snap.  I was almost twitching with the possibility.

One day, my practice partner gave me a book.  “Read it,” he said. “I think it’s gonna help you a lot.”

That book was The Inner Game of Tennis, by W. Timothy Gallwey.  I not only read the book, I slept with it under my pillow.

There is a far more natural and effective process for learning and doing almost anything than most of us realize. It is similar to the process we all used, but soon forget, as we learned to walk and talk.  It uses the intuitive capabilities of the mind and both the right and left hemispheres of the brain.  This process doesn’t have to learned; we already know it.  All that is needed is to unlearn those habits which interfere with it and then to just let it happen.

In The Inner Game of Tennis, he speaks about ideas that would later come into fashion in books on peak performance, books about getting into “the zone.”

I could well have called UNSTUCK, “The Inner Game of Writing.”

There are a lot of books out there on how to execute “the strokes” to write a winning college essay. They tell you how to structure your essay, how to spice it up, how to refine and revise it.

But all these books leave out one essential element:  the mental challenge of writing – not just a college essay – but anything!

“This process doesn’t have to be learned; we already know it.  All that is needed it to unlearn those habits which interfere with it and then to just let it happen,” writes Timothy Gallwey in The Inner Game of Tennis.

What I do every day is help students break through their own impasses, put their thinking minds to sleep and find a way to articulate what they don’t even know they think and feel – the “inner way.”

The creative spirit cannot be tamed.  It cannot even be approached directly.  It is more fractal than linear.  So how do you tap into it?

If I had a writing mantra, a kind of overarching statement or underlying philosophy that articulates the method to my madness while working with students, it might be something like:  One must get lost in order to get found.

In the words of Donald Barthelme: “The not-knowing is crucial to art, is what permits art to be made, [W]ithout the possibility of having the mind move in unanticipated directions, there would be no invention.”

Perhaps like Dr. Seuss’s Thing Two and Thing One, I am a believer in, even a producer of, chaos!

It’s OK if there’s a mess.

When I write, I hear the ball, as it were, even though I am lightyears from the tennis court sitting in my well-worn ergonomic chair.  It is like the whirr of shooting stars as I follow on my path through the Milky Way, the flow of the river that carries me.

I am a great believer in the power of association, the deep intuitive stream (of consciousness) under it all.  I often speak to students about “the trance-like state” and find means and ways to get them into it, to write “behind their own backs,” as Clifford Chase would say.

I teach students, as Gallwey describes, to “listen to the ball.”



The winner of this game takes away an invaluable prize –  a combination of faith in one’s vision, and self-discovery.  Most all my students do end up also getting into the school of their dreams.  But that’s (almost) a bonus since they have learned a more important lesson – to listen to the ball.

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Gabrielle Glancy  |  Contribution: 545