Permission to Meander: A Conversation with Drew Millard
By Paul ThompsonJune 5, 2023
How Golf Can Save Your Life by Drew Millard
To that last point, our conversation takes place shortly after it was reported that Vice would be filing for bankruptcy. Drew is promoting his first book, How Golf Can Save Your Life (2023)—a shadow memoir not unlike Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life (1997) that chronicles his immersion in the sport following what he terms a “nervous breakdown”—and is of two minds about the news. “I still have friends who work there, and I really hope that they are not affected by this,” he says, before noting how funny it is that George Soros, the boogeyman for a certain type of reactionary and antisemitic internet user, was mounting a bid for the property.
How Golf Can Save Your Life is approachable but, like Drew’s online writing, sneakily erudite. Where it diverges from virtually everything he—or anyone—publishes on the web is in its willingness to weave the sincere (“By embracing agency over the present, we allow ourselves to place the things we can’t control in perspective”) with the comically self-effacing (“There’s a saying that good entrepreneurs shouldn’t be afraid to fail in public, but as someone who failed at not getting punched in the head in public …”) in a way that presents as sincerely complex, rather than as a parlor trick. We spoke about the practical and psychological toll of writing for the internet, the roots of golf as a populist sport, and oases in the desert.
PAUL THOMPSON: You write in the book that anyone who thinks the internet’s “not real” doesn’t understand the internet. With the Buzzfeed News and Vice Media shutdowns, I was really struck by how much an online identity can permeate the culture; there’s that Jeremy Gordon tweet about how both outlets found it hard to outrun their early reputations.
DREW MILLARD: I actually remember, back in the day, there was this great tension on the Vice Facebook page because you had people who were really only there for the videos where they sent a nerdy hipster guy into a jungle and had him inject frog semen into his veins or whatever. Those people would get mad at Vice’s actual articles, which were talking about the hypocrisy of Ben Carson or something. The frog semen guys would get so mad. They would leave comments like, “When did Vice get so political? This is bullshit.” And it was always very amusing. I feel like that’s also a contradiction that Vice was never quite able to resolve.
A little of that happens to writers too. I of course found it impossible to read this book without seeing it as part of this long arc in your life and career—were you thinking about it reading that way, or imagining it would be introducing you to a new audience entirely?
I was definitely imagining it for an audience that had never read me before. I was trying to sort of do two things, and I either succeeded or completely failed. One: I was trying to write something that would resonate with non-golf people, I wanted to make sort of a breezy version of a book that might appeal to someone who is pretty serious about reading and lives in, shall we say, Echo Park or Bushwick. And then I also wanted to use it as a way to have people who are mainly into golf pick it up and maybe expose them to some of this other stuff—talking about the history of golf as a folk sport or shoehorning in Robert Hunter, who was an elite amateur golfer that also happened to be an American delegate at the International Socialist Congress. Sneaking some media criticism in there. We’ll see how it goes. I recently found out my book is in the LAX bookstore and I also just had a launch event at a mini-golf-themed dive bar in Bushwick, so I’m really shooting for both at once.
I saw the LAX thing, and it made me think: you write about digital media as a psychological gauntlet of attention-seeking and people-pleasing, but does the press cycle to promote a book not simply dredge up those old feelings?
Not really—this just feels like a thing that is happening to me. Most of the time it’s been 10-minute interviews on AM radio stations. It’s been a really fascinating experience to do those: they call you like a minute before you’re supposed to go on, and it’s like, “Hey, are you ready?” It’s a perfunctory thing—you have to be ready. They put you on hold, then you’re suddenly listening to this radio station. And once they say your name, your phone is on the radio, you are the radio. You have become the Kanye Westian form of media. You just have to, like, talk. I have a friend who’s a professor of political science and is asked to do a good number of interviews like this and he told me you’ve just gotta not think and start talking. For the most part, it’s like trying to have a conversation with a very animated self-help book.
The history of golf as something more broadly accessible is this really interesting counterpoint to the position it seems to fill now; it’s often this punching bag, maybe deservedly so, among people who share our politics, especially in a land use sense.
Well, first of all, I will immediately concede the land use point—especially in terms of older golf courses, which were designed with this philosophy of, “We will bend the land to our will: we will bring in nonnative plants, we will build hills and ponds where there were not hills and ponds, and it will take so much water to just keep these things playable that it’s going to be horrible.” There’s a course called Shadow Creek in Las Vegas that is literally an oasis in the desert. It has at least one man-made waterfall. It uses so much water that it should be shut down. So I’m all for the rewilding of old golf courses. In Philadelphia, where I live, there’s this place called the Meadows in FDR Park that used to be a golf course, and was known as the worst golf course in America. It was built on a marsh; every year, the course would flood because the land wanted to be a marsh again. Eventually they just said, “Okay, screw it, we’re going to let this be taken back in by the earth.” It ended up becoming this haven for people during the pandemic because it was this genuinely wild space that people could hang out in. Obviously, because the logic of capital has been adopted by municipal governments, they’ve shut it down and are building soccer fields on it. So I concede the land use point. More courses should be built with the philosophy of looking at the land, doing minimal work, and finding the golf course that’s already there. That’s the only sustainable way to do it.
But you also write about the sport giving you “a feeling of spiritual wholeness.” I think you’ve always been pretty good at accessing that sort of earnestness, but did you find yourself having to fight off those reflexes toward irony that you describe?
Oh, yeah. Absolutely. I had to beat back my sense of irony with a stick. And it actually took multiple revisions to get there. My editor on the project was very adamant about that. I come from that world where you want to lead with the irony. Writing honestly and emotionally is really hard because you’re worried about it coming across as either corny or disingenuous. I was having to work against my instincts in a way that I think worked out pretty nicely. I’m sure there are certain parts of the book that some people might find corny, but you know what? Those people can fucking kick rocks. Don’t put that in. [Laughs.]
Can you tell me a little more about the actual process of writing and revising?
One thing that really helped me with this is—I have a friend who will remain unnamed but whom you will immediately know, who wrote a book in prison. I talked to him every week on the phone while I was writing mine, and at one point he was like, “Yeah, what I did—because I only had access to a computer for an hour a week—was write everything by hand, stream of consciousness, let it flow through me, and then I would type it up and edit it and that that was my revision.” I started doing that; I wrote a lot of the book by hand. A lot of the book is grounded in based-freestyle-type processes—
How is that going over on AM radio?
If I’m on a Zoom, they’ll usually hit the cooking dance. I now prefer writing by hand, because I type faster than I think. I’m just typing and end up putting shit down and then being like, “Oh, while I’m waiting for my thoughts to catch up, I’ll start editing”—taking out something that might be embarrassing, or come across weird, rather than just letting it come out and dealing with it at a later time when I can come to it with the thought of improving it. When you write by hand you can’t backspace; you can scratch stuff out, but that’s more effort. And that can take you interesting places.
At what point in the process did you come up with the book’s structure? When you announced you’d sold it, I imagined it as more of a straight memoir.
Well, the initial idea—before I knew about how money in publishing worked—was I wanted each chapter not to be a lesson, but instead to be based around a different golf course that I would go play at. Basically, each chapter would be a profile of a course that got into all of these different themes. I very quickly realized that would be not feasible in the least. My agent was like, “That sounds really cool, but you’ll be paying for that out of your advance, and you’re a first-time author; you’ll need to get a really big advance in order to not go into comical accounts of credit card debt writing this book.” So I dropped that. Then, it was just sort of a collection of essays but it didn’t have that container for it. I feel like Ursula Le Guin gets used too much, but sometimes a container is good. That was suggested to me by the editor who acquired it, who kind of saw that that was almost what the book wanted to be. Once you have that container, you can get weird with it, since the reader knows you’re always going to come back to that place, to a centering thing. You get permission to meander.
Other than the mechanical level, I assume this is the longest project you’ve written on a single topic. Do you think it changed you as a writer, coming from such a burn-and-churn background?
I think this is a challenge that a lot of people who come up writing for the web experience: if you’re writing for the web—or even for a magazine, to a certain extent—you’re thinking more about relevance and timeliness, and it informs how you work. You are thinking, “Okay, this is a reaction to a thing that just happened.” You have the ability to add in hyperlinks. You are really contributing a small piece to the larger impossible text that is the internet. Getting out of that mode is really hard. There were a couple times I unconsciously added hyperlinks to the draft as I was typing it up, and I was like, “Wait—I can’t do that. I actually have to provide more context because they’re not going to understand this.” That definitely changes how you write, because you have to get very good at catching the reader up to speed in an economical way. I think also that, before this book, I was not very good at describing things, because why would you describe something if you could just link to a picture?
You write on a couple of different levels arguments for not taking mulligans, for not cheating, all stemming from the idea that the reaction to negative events can not only shape you for the better, but also make the process of improving more enjoyable and more rewarding. Consequently, though, you concede that playing honestly can cause your handicap to shoot up. How are you playing now?
Oh, I’m kicking ass. I am playing to—let me check my app—an 11.5. Hell yeah! I have been playing the same course: I’m a member of a country club, because in Philadelphia there’s this history of private clubs being something that everyone is in, so all of the golf courses, even the cheap ones, are private; I had to join a private golf club, which is very cheap but also an incredibly funny thing to reveal at parties. But because I’ve been playing the same course, which they make really, really hard so you keep coming back, that’s made me a lot better. I was really bad at sand shots for the longest time, and now they’re one of the strongest parts of my game, which is really gratifying to see.
Drew Millard is a writer from North Carolina. His work has appeared in Vice, GQ, The Nation, The Believer, and The New York Times Magazine. He lives in Philadelphia and has a handicap that hovers between 10 and 14.
Paul Thompson is a senior editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books. He has written for Rolling Stone, GQ, New York, Pitchfork, and The Washington Post, among other publications.
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