This Is Fine. is a weekly newsletter from VICE about the personal tactics people use to make the world feel less harrowing. In this edition, Mitchell Kuga talks about watching Serena Williams videos to combat procrastination. Sign up here to receive an essay about a dealing-with-life strategy via This Is Fine. every other Sunday evening.
Before I start writing, which is my full-time freelance job, I have a little ritual to get my brain working: light palo santo; meditate; scroll Instagram; scroll Twitter; check email; call a friend; clean the toilet; check my bank account; organize my closet; stare at the ceiling; scroll Instagram; slip into a Wikipedia hole; talk to my husband about what I think I might write; read my horoscope; try on seven “writing outfits”; whine; scroll Instagram; child’s pose; scroll Instagram; scroll Instagram; scroll Instagram.
This ritual feels sacred. Without it, I absolutely, 100 percent cannot sit down to write—or, at least that's what I tell myself in moments when I'm doing everything in my power to avoid writing, even though I'm on deadline. I’ve tried embracing my procrastination as integral to my process and as vital to the act of writing as actual words and punctuation. But the truth is that wasting time mostly feels like a waste of time. In the gig economy, which is predicated on the idea that every second can and should be monetized, not actively working fills me with dread.
In those moments of dread, I turn to a means of procrastination that doesn't feel completely like slacking: watching YouTube highlight reels of Serena Williams. Serena Williams Top 50 Amazing Points. Serena Williams - Mindblowing Forehands. Serena Williams - top 10 GRUNTS and CELEBRATIONS after big points.
Besides providing me the simple joy of witnessing the greatest athlete of all time, highlight reels of Serena smashing tennis balls are particularly helpful during acute writer’s block. The affliction can make writing feel impossible, like I'm trapped in place between indecision and vacancy. I’ve always envisioned that immobility as the result of a physical block that must be penetrated or demolished, typically through force.
The crack of Serena’s forehand is all force. Force is in the sizzle of her serve and the bite of her backhand. I love watching that force dominate her challengers, particularly when you least expect it. My favorite clips are when you’d bet against her—when Azarenka or Radwanska or someone else with an impossibly European name hits a ball that is sorely out of reach and Serena suddenly appears, racquet outstretched, and returns a winner. Serena, fist pumping in a tutu designed by Off-White and Nike, isn’t stuck, even when she's up against what feels like insurmountable odds. Watching her, I believe I could be unstuck, too.
For a few glorious minutes, Serena draws my mind away from long, sedentary hours behind my computer and brings me into my body, even though I've barely moved. My core tightens and my heart rate quickens. I sit taller. As a former athlete, I suspect this is partly from imagining myself in her body, feeling the rush of competition again—this time, it's me versus a blank page. I can feel my limbs making those same lunges and overhead kills, my body twisting as I leap sideline to sideline. Through her movements, I can hear my thoughts, can feel them percolate and unfurl. When she screams, either from joy or frustration or grit, something in me releases. It feels like writing.
Writing, when it’s good, mirrors the elements of Serena’s tennis: prose as startlingly rhythmic as her groundstrokes; an aerobic leap to an unexpected thought; snappy cadences like her net game; authoritative concision like her first serve. Like a well-written sentence, Serena makes excellence look easy—until she screams after an important point. Even when it’s celebratory, that wail is barbed, erupting from a place rapt and courageous and subterranean. She pumps her fists and shakes her arms, her face an expanse of devotion and pain. I love Serena’s scream because it flies in the face of a sport obsessed with decorum. It shows you how bad she wants it, how much she’s had to defy. Like a successful piece of writing, it’s both effortless and emphatic.
These YouTube videos are life rafts in the raging sea of virtual trash, anchoring me to higher meaning, a sense of purpose, and the length of history. One video splices together Serena’s championship points from 22 of her 23 Grand Slam Titles. (Her victory over her sister Venus Williams at the 2017 Australian Open happened a year after the video was created.) The footage starts grainy, in 1999, then gets increasingly sharper with each tournament, illuminating the sport-defining trajectory of her career. Her first title finds a 17-year-old Serena stumbling back in shock, her mouth agape. Despite the pixelated footage, her joy is palpable. “From the public courts of Compton, California,” the announcer intones, with an emphasis on public, “to U.S. Open champion.”
Watching that eight-minute video makes writing feel easy. If a girl from the very public courts of Compton—adjusts monocle—can win 23 Grand Slam titles to dominate a sport that was once set up to deny Black people, perhaps I can sit down to write, say, 1,000 words. Serena’s dominance belies a history of discrimination: Well into the second half of the 20th century, the private clubs that housed a majority of America’s tennis courts banned people of color. To become the greatest of all time, she’s had to work twice as hard. Serena makes wasting time feel pointless. She unblocks me and spurs me into motion—even if I'm sitting at my desk.
For more stories like this, subscribe to This Is Fine.
Follow Mitchell Kuga on Twitter.