My Rugby Life. My Writing Life.

By Chris McGinley

I should’ve started earlier.

I didn’t begin writing fiction until I was fifty.  Yes, I’m pleased with what I’ve achieved so far.  I’m thrilled to be included in writerly events, to exchange rejoinders with people way more talented than me–Bonnie Jo Campbell, Chris Offutt, Julia Franks, Silas House.  And I’m over the moon about publishing my first novel, just out this month. 

But I should’ve started earlier. 

I feel like there are a good twenty years back there where I could have “got mine,” as the Black Keys sing.  I could have done something a long time ago, in other words.  Friends were creative and productive way back in college.  Back then, I told myself, “I’ll do it . . . I’ll write something . . . soon enough, which became Later, and then Eventually.”  I sat and watched my college friends live out their creative dreams.  The band Buffalo Tom toured the world just out of college.  J. Mascis and Dinosaur (before they were Dinosaur Jr.) did the same.   My friend, Will Eno, made it big as a playwright.  All of this youthful creativity percolated around me in the late ‘80s, at the University of Massachusetts, a site of incredible artistic production.  And I was right there, too.  I almost did it, too.  I should’ve decided, “I’m going for broke here . . . I’m going to be a writer.” 

But I didn’t.

There’s a great Tim O’Brien story, I forget the title, where the main character discusses a moral crisis: whether or not to fight in Vietnam or to skip to Canada.  It ends with a fantastic twist where the narrator admits, “I did the cowardly thing.  I went to Vietnam.”  I’m paraphrasing, but you get the sense.  In so many ways, that closing sentiment has haunted me over the years.  It’s how I define my decision to go to graduate school.  I could’ve pursued a life as a writer right then and there, at UMASS, amidst all of that creative activity in the ‘80s.  But I didn’t.  I did the cowardly thing and went to graduate school, in English.  Of course, the stakes were wildly different.  The O’Brien narrator is dealing with a true life-and-death decision, whereas my decision was governed by my situation as a kid from the upper middle class: grad school vs. the writer life. 

Either way.  I wasn’t going to die.

Even so, I’ve often thought of that story.  It’s true, I absolutely loved graduate school and what I learned there.  I cherish the friends I made and maintain still . . . but I often wonder what might have happened if I had decided to be a writer back then.  Of course, I’m no heavy hitter, even now, far from it.  In fact, I try not to use the word “writer” to refer to myself.  The truth is, I’m a writer of one collection of stories and a novel on an independent press.  I write a ton of book reviews, some articles for CrimeReads, and a bit of semi-scholarly stuff for this or that forum or conference. 

I’m small time.

Like my writing career, I started playing rugby way late in life.  I was thirty.  Again, in grad school.  The guys I started with were mostly younger, just-graduated college kids, or guys who had already played in college, and guys who had grown up in England, South Africa, Ireland, wherever.  Guys who had been doing it for way longer.

The truth is, though, I would have never have been “big time” as a rugger, either, even by American standards.  Still, I still feel as if I missed the boat.  What if I had started that life earlier?  Like, in my early twenties, when I watched those guys rumble into the English Department bar after training and said to myself, “I oughta try that.”

The author in action, years ago.

I played into my late 40s . . . and then I took up writing.  In thinking about it, I believe my writing life began because I retired from rugby.  The loss of one creative outlet gave rise to another, one I had long neglected.  And yes, rugby is a creative game.  Unlike American football, so structured with its specific roles ascribed to specific positions, rugby is a game where players can do what they want.  All players are allowed to kick, run, pass, and score.  It’s about flow, about gameplay, not so much x’s and o’s.  And then, as artful as it is, rugby is about forcing yourself to do something you know will hurt you, especially the day after . . . two days after.  (It’s hard to walk after a rugby tournament weekend.)  But the punishment is what strengthens, what hardens, and what generates the activity, the creativity, on the pitch: those moments of sheer joy, when a teammate scores a try you helped create, or those rare moments when someone like me actually scores a try. 

Like writing, it ain’t all fun.  Most of it is not fun, in fact.  I can still recall the day-to-day dread of going to long training sessions during which our English coach would scold all of us for our shortcomings as American players, would archly lament our struggles.  He was correct, always.  Today it’s my writing regimen that I dread.  Was it Dorothy Parker who said, “I hate writing, but I love having written?”  That’s how it is, I guess.  And how it was then, playing rugby almost all year long, for almost twenty years.  It’s the discipline that matters.  No matter how great the impulse was to fabricate an excuse to miss training, I never did it.  Ever.  Likewise, I make myself write daily.  I hate it, but I love having done it. 

It’s the same thing, just different.

There’s a camaraderie in rugby unlike any other sport I know.  It goes beyond teammates.  Ask anyone who has played.  In a game, you will get punched, raked with metal studs, kicked and stomped by the very same guy who drinks with you after the whistle.  There’s a global community amongst ruggers.  It’s what I feel from my writer friends, too, the love and support.  We’re all involved in the same difficult enterprise, one in which we mostly fail–think rejections vs. acceptances—and yet we continue on, writing, submitting, failing.  You go to training to get abused by your English coach, kicked, raked, and punched, and then you go do it again.  But you go out to the pub after training.  You go to the team bar after an away game and hoist beers, laugh, nurse your wounds. 

Team photo, author third from left, kneeling.

Writers do something like this, too. 

We punish ourselves and then commiserate, detail our struggles, our shortcomings. We get rejected and beat down, but it’s all part of the game.  We’re there for one another, offering encouragement, hoisting an imaginary beer . . . or maybe an actual one when we get together in real life.  In rugby and writing, there’s creativity in the final execution, but it only comes with a commensurate beating beforehand, with self-induced trauma.  It’s how we get good at things.  As I said, I only regret not starting earlier.  I should’ve become a rugger-writer in my twenties.  Twenty more years of abuse, I could’ve earned.  But I’m happy the way it all turned out.  Yes, I miss playing rugby, but I have another outlet now, one so similar, though in ways not immediately apparent.  The kindest remarks other authors have made about my writing is that it’s “brutal, yet beautiful.”  This is rugby, absolutely.  When it’s played well, when teams are firing on all pistons, when all players are in support of the ball or readying for a phase of play, and when it all results in a try, the game is so incredibly beautiful.  Likewise, to write a passage about something dark, a violent act or a brutal character, and to yield something beautiful in the effort, is also beautiful.  It’s the essence of writing, and of rugby. 

I waited too long to begin my rugby career, and too long to begin my writing career, but I’m full-speed ahead now, trying to make up for lost time.  I watch as much rugby as I can nowadays.  Every day, in fact, I’ll watch highlights or catch an entire game on YouTube.

I begin every writing session with a rugby screening, or maybe a skills tutorial on Instagram.  It fuels me.  It inspires me.  That’s why I say that my rugby life is my writing life.  For me, the two are inseparable. 

Brutal, yet beautiful.

Editors note: You can find Chris’ collection, Coal Black here, and his new novel Once These Hills, here. We are proud to have published his story “The Screech Owl” from which Once These Hills sprung. He’s also written many gorgeous book reviews for Reckon, which you can find here.

Chris McGinley

Chris McGinley is the author of the story collection Coal Black (2019, Shotgun Honey) and the novel Once These Hills (2023, Shotgun Honey).  He writes for CrimeReads, Mystery Tribune and other outlets, and lives with his wife in Lexington, Kentucky where he teaches middle school.

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