"I was invited to 'fight World War Three with tennis balls.'"
In this business of journalism it is convenient, although not always necessary, to see things. For instance, if one were to write about Buzkashi—essentially a form of polo played with decapitated goats—it is immensely helpful to see the game firsthand.
What do the goats smell like? Where do the heads go? Are multiple carcasses on hand? What part of the animal must go through the goal to score?
Unfortunately, it’s not always possible to witness things firsthand. The villagers may be savage. The sport may have fallen out of play. Or the event may have occurred many, many years ago. In all of these cases (and when money is tight) one must make do with research, imagination and embellishment.
Thus, the typical opening sentence, evocative of no place or time, always sunny with a great many adjectives and half-truths. As I saw a player hold the decapitated and sun-warmed goat in his hands, the smell of rotting entrails overcame me. I could feel sweat beading down my forehead, and imagine projecting vomit across my uncovered feet in the harsh heat.
Never mind that my fantasy makes some crucial errors (the goat is often a calf, for example, and is generally disemboweled and soaked in cold water)—it has the ring of truth. No matter how stilted the text, it works: The act of experiencing becomes part of the story, and the story is thereby made far more tell-able.
Regrettably, I have not been to a remote Afghan village to play Buzkashi. But I can imagine a universe—that of Infinite Jest, a novel by the late and great David Foster Wallace—filled with games that could rival it. His book is a wealth of stories.
I could write about his legless wheelchair assassins, or the game (it involves jumping in front of trains) that so gruesomely severs their legs. There are even giant gerbils to imagine. Following in the footsteps of Quidditch, we could propose last-minute freight-train jumping become an Olympic sport.
But editors here have higher standards. I cannot create events to write about them “as though they were, in fact, actual unchoreographed happenstance,” as the great Bill Zehme wrote. And so I am forced to write about another of Wallace’s games: Eschaton.