3 writing lessons I learned from WWE star Mick Foley
Doesn’t exactly look like the sort of guy you should be taking writing advice (or a ride or candy) from, does he?
This guy is Hardcore Legend Mick Foley, arguably one of the greatest professional wrestlers ever. He started as a teenager jumping off the roof of his house and ended up in the hall of fame. Mick’s matches were epic, known for bone-crushing falls and blood-spilling punches. He set the bar for today’s superstars and served as a reality check to those who believe wrestling is fake.
Just after he retired in 2000, Mick published an autobiography covering his 15-year career. He wrote it himself. Rather than give his life story to a passionless ghostwriter, he scribbled over 200,000 words on notebook paper, resulting in a 750-page tome. And that was just the first book; the second volume is 500 pages.
I’ll admit to picking up Have a Nice Day! A Tale of Blood and Sweatsocks with some skepticism. Pro wrestling is one of my secret loves, and I’m always excited to learn the backstories, but Mick’s had eight concussions and wrestlers aren’t exactly known for their literary prowess. How well could he write?
Turns out, I have to eat my words like a finisher from Mr. Socko.
It took me three short days to read the entire book, including the paperback bonus chapter. I devoured it – couldn’t put it down. About halfway through, I started wondering how Mick had succeeded in capturing my admittedly critical mind when I’d started out wanting him to fail. I boiled it down to three ideas that not only work for action-centered sports autobiographies but are excellent tactics for writers of any genre.
You won’t find long, winding sentences or complex metaphors in these pages. Even when talking about depression or rage, the style is uncomplicated and direct – the language of a guy telling a story to his friends, not of a writer trying to impress other writers with his vocabulary. Mick handles ideas from depression to hardcore action with the same straightforwardness. This makes the reading quick, easy, and fluid. Without fancy imagery to get tangled in, the reader processes the narrative without having to stop to work out where they are. It’s easy to get caught up in pretty words when you’re writing, especially when the subject is emotional. Unfortunately, that makes it easy to lose your reader. There’s something to be said for individual writing voice, but stating ideas simply is almost always better than a web of adjectives. Shorten your sentences. Clean up your descriptions. Say what you mean, how you mean it.
Part of what got me about Mick’s story is that he’s not hiding anything. He freely admits to both the good and the bad of his career, love life, and inner turmoil. Some of it’s uncomfortable, too, like his relationship with pain and blood. But his openness is touching, particularly for someone who’s often hailed as the baddest son of a bitch in wrestling. He means what he says, and it adds to the reading experience. The mate to “say what you mean” is “mean what you say.” Readers have an awesome bullshit detector, and when your heart isn’t in what you’re writing, your audience can tell. Being both present and honest counts.
“But how can you have showmanship and simplicity?!” I hear you cry. (Actually, that’s what Lino said when I told him the outline of this post.) Let me tell you.
Mick’s book is about his struggles and successes in an over-the-top entertainment industry. The WWF/WWE treatment is right there as he juggles action sequences of his bouts with more subdued personal anecdotes. Established glamour isn’t demolished; it’s accented with grit. He also takes occasional tangents to deepen the reader’s understanding of a particular relationship or motivation. By choosing to interweave the professional and personal storylines, what Mick’s done is created engagement. Writing showmanship comes down to formatting. Instead of hammering on one topic until it’s boring and switching to a new one, blend the structure to motivate your audience to turn the page. And nothing is all glamour or all grit – find a balance and mix it up. You’re creating a written show for people, and they shouldn’t leave feeling overwhelmed or bored.
Surprised? I know I was.
The merit of Mick’s book as a literary guidepost is straightforward, just like his style: write simply, be sincere, and put on a good show. If a guy who’s happy to be thrown off a 30-foot steel cage into a table and get up to be slammed through the cage again can write a good book using those tactics, you can, too.