When I was sixteen, I skipped my senior year of high school and went to Duke on a soccer scholarship. I was the youngest Division I athlete in the history of the NCAA. I wanted to be the best player in the world. I scored two goals my first game and thought nothing would stop me. Four years later, my senior season ended—the same year the women’s professional league folded. I wasn’t the best player in the world; I wasn’t even the best player on my team. I wasn’t good enough for the national team. So, at twenty, my career was over. My whole life I’d been a soccer player; now, suddenly, I wasn’t.
You hear a lot about all sports instilling confidence, but when my career ended, all I felt was insecurity. It took me fifteen years to get good at soccer. I was a freak who practiced with two teams a day and dribbled around trashcans for twenty minutes after I got home. Now, all that time kicking soccer balls just made me feel woefully underprepared to do anything else.
Yet the truisms about sports making you tough aren’t wrong. They do teach you to work hard; they do teach you to want. Maybe most important for me, sports taught me what to do with fear. All my life I’d been scared of mundane life activities like talking to the bank teller or finding a place to sit at the lunch table. But when I stepped on the field, heart in my throat, the fear turned into adrenaline. The more nervous I was, the better I played.
So, sure, I was scared to go throw myself into a new dream, but soccer had taught me that that doesn’t mat- ter. You just do it anyway. Cracked out on Mountain Dew, I spent two weeks in the athletes’ computer cluster, coming up with a writing sample for graduate school in creative writing. And then one day in the spring I came home from a run and my Icelandic roommate mentioned casually that some man named “Villiam” had called—that I’d been accepted into the University of Notre Dame’s M.F.A. program. I clapped my hands on Thora’s cheeks and screamed, “Thora! Thora! Thora!” Suddenly, I had a future.
Whatever terror I felt for my new life now took on a giddy undertone: I was ready to see everything I had missed while I was out kicking balls. For the summer, I got a job working as a deckhand on a $15 million yacht. I scrubbed toilets, kayaked through mangroves, ate freshly caught sashimi, and drank tequila in straw-thatched bars across the Mexican coast. My crewmates had lived lives drastically different from my own. While I’d devoted myself to one thing, they’d dabbled in everything. During night shifts, as we sat in the swiveled captain’s chairs, scanning the water for the lights of other boats, I listened to their stories—of spear-fishing in Alaska, of brief stints as astronomers or pastry chefs, of expeditions across the great wide world. I couldn’t wait to leave soccer behind.
At least that’s what I told myself initially. Then we anchored o an island that served as an outpost for the Mexican Army—an island that happened to have a makeshift soccer field with driftwood goalposts. I stood there, staring first at the field, then at the soldiers on the dock, machine guns strapped to their backs, machetes in hand. Within an hour, I got the dinghy, motored over there, made kicking gestures until my intentions were clear. As the sky opened up and monsoon-like rain poured down, we played, we laughed wildly, we shared goal celebrations. Afterward, we drank beer and took pictures where I am holding onto their guns. What else in the world can do this? I thought. What else can create intimacy between total strangers?
During my next two years living the grad-student life in the cold of South Bend, I couldn’t get the game out of my head. When I graduated, I won the program’s postgraduate writing grant to finish my book. Only I couldn’t finish it—eight months into the grant, I knew it wasn’t working and I didn’t know how to fix it. But I had a lot of time to think—to wonder what I would do if I could do anything—and my thoughts kept coming back to that pickup game on the beach.
I went back to Duke for a weekend and spent a night with a former teammate in Bostock, our heads bent over a yellow legal pad. What if, we thought, we went all around the world, looking for spontaneous pick- up games? Not the games played in stadiums, but the games that happen on back alleys and beaches, between anyone. at night in the library led to Pelada, a documentary about pickup soccer in twenty-five countries around the world. We played with moonshine brewers in Kenya, prisoners in Bolivia, women in hijab in Iran, seventy-year-olds in Brazil. The old men taught us that the game can have as much meaning in the end of your life as it does at the beginning—so long as someone is counting on you to play the ball well.
While we were traveling around the world, we played with an Italian writer who told us, “Soccer will give you much more than you can ever give it.” This struck me as the truest thing I’d ever heard. It’s a lesson that has also brought me a lot of peace with writing. In anything, it’s easy to get caught up in chasing recognition, or the next rung of some intangible stepladder, and to forget that ultimately, it’s about the satisfaction you feel when you try hard and do something well.
When I sit down to write, I know I’m doing it for myself, because I love it, because I can get lost in a story in the same way I could a game. I’m working on a new book, about New Orleans and brothers and sisters. It’s fiction, which I’ve never written before—and that’s unnerving—but by now I know that I like being scared. And always, I know that writing will give me much more than I could ever give it.