What writers can learn from Kobe Bryant

During the first game of the 2010 NBA Finals, ABC showed a halftime feature on Kobe Bryant and how he spends hours studying game film of other players; not only contemporary rivals, but legends of the game: Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Magic Johnson, Hakeem Olajuwon, Michael Jordan. He studies the nuances of their skills: their footwork, the timing their shots, how they moved to create open space to shoot.

Check out the ESPN.com story on Kobe’s film study, or watch clip below:

Here’s a 12-time NBA All-Star, a league MVP, and a five-time champion, with as much skill and talent as any player in his sport, and yet he still spends hours at home, studying game film from decades ago, watching, learning, borrowing techniques from other great players. His drive to improve pushes him to continually hunt down techniques and approaches that will make him better. And he’s not afraid to admit that he’s borrowing and stealing moves from other great players, dead and alive.

“There isn’t a move that’s a new move; there’s nothing that hasn’t been done before,” he said. “I’ve stolen all these moves from these great players.”

Watching this got me thinking about the craft of writing. The romantic notion of a “writer” suggests the image of some inspired, brilliant scribe, composing prose from some deep well of brilliance in his heart.

The reality, for most of us, is less magical: it’s about drafting sentences and paragraphs, organizing and structuring paragraphs, and tying together themes and ideas. It’s creative, but it’s also about craft and technique. Which is why Kobe Bryant has something to teach us.

One of the ideas my instructors at Johns Hopkins hammer home is the value of “reading like a writer” — looking at good writing not just for information or enjoyment, but with an eye for how and why it works. It’s pretty much the same thing the Kobe does when he studies game film: he’s looking for moves and techniques he can borrow. Writers can benefit from the same approach.

When I read Joseph Mitchell, I marvel at how he describes small little scenes throughout his stories; vivid little moments that bring characters to life. Rereading Bill Bryson, I note how his stories are peppered with small, concrete details that ground his narrative. Looking at Adrian Nicole Blank’s masterful Random Family, you can see how she uses powerful or dramatic quotes to close out a scene or a chapter. Malcolm Gladwell’s writing is often about big ideas and complex concepts, but what often gives his articles vitality is the way he slows down to describe the people he meets and interviews; they aren’t just quotes from faceless experts, they become characters that help tell his stories. Gay Talese’s profiles often find their insights not in big dramatic conflicts, but in small, telling moments he observes that reveal character, like how Frank Sinatra gets out of his car, or how an aging Joe DiMaggio’s hand shakes when he lights a woman’s cigarette.

Borrowing another writer’s words is plagiarism, but using their techniques is often a key to better writing. Like Kobe, we can learn a lot by looking closely at the work of great writers, studying their moves, and trying to steal as much as we can.

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