How writers win

Oliver Sacks
Oliver Sacks by Erika Hall
Writers, says writer and iron-pumper Ross Mcindoe, often express their craft through the sports they play. Think: Hemingway and boxing, Mishima and karate, John Irving and wrestling. Oliver Sacks, says Mcindoe, found challenge, fulfillment, and self-expression in weightlifting. Like boxing, weightlifting reflects many characteristics of the craft and discipline of writing. Says Mcindoe:

Lifting is at once highly solitary—a solo sport in which most of your time is spent in competition with yourself—and highly communal. Even as each person pursues their own interior quest, the weight room makes everything public.

Sound familiar? We can attend writing workshops, go to critique groups for advice, meet with beta readers and benefit from other people’s expertise, but the act of getting the words right and putting them down is a solitary act. And yet, it’s communal, too, because our ultimate goal is to communicate something meaningful and personal to others.

More important, the lifter or boxer or runner cannot help but compare themselves to others. This can be instructive, but it can be a trap, too, not just for the athlete but for the writer:

When we look at the person lifting next to us, all we see is the weight on the bar and how easily they can move it. We get a rough, visual sense of how their size compares to ours but we don’t see how long they have been training in the sport or how intensely. We don’t see the other factors in their lives—work, health, money—which can contribute or detract from their success.

It’s the same in writing. We see only the results, not the work: snapshots of success with all the necessary failures left out beyond the frame.

Admit it (I will!) — we see other writers and wonder why we can’t get published. Why did such-and-such get a lucrative publishing contract while I can’t even get a poem published in a non-paying literary magazine?

That’s when the sports connection comes in. When you feel that you’re not succeeding, you need to remember that the real contest is the old you versus the you you’re becoming. Like Oliver Sacks realizing he had only fooled himself about what he thought was his best effort in weightlifting, the writer should strive for nothing more than to make himself better than he used to be. Failure is NOT having your manuscript rejected; failure is when you stop trying.

As Sacks realized, there’s always something new we can explore. Try a new genre, read a book on improving your writing style, sharpen your grammatical skills. That’s winning, and there’s nothing quite like discovering how many ways there are to win.

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Quote of the day

Barbara Tuchman“It has been said that if the protagonists of Hamlet and Othello were reversed, there would have been no tragedy: Hamlet would have seen through Iago in no time and Othello would not have hesitated to kill King Claudius.” – Barbara Tuchman, from The March of Folly, p. 231

Two Tolkiens, One Better World

JRR Tolkien Bradley Birzer reminds us that J.R.R. Tolkien’s son Christopher contributed much to his father’s legacy. It took him four years to compile and edit The Silmarillion before it was ready for publication, and other works, from the elder Tolkien’s modernization of Beowulf to the latest work, The Fall of Gondolin, demanded years of patient scholarship.

But in the same article, Birzer also points out how J.R.R. Tolkien gifted the world with his astonishing and profound creations, works that grew out of Tolkien’s personal losses and the soul-numbing trauma of war. Tolkien’s world-building not only helped him overcome the spiritual and emotional pain caused by his excruciating experience at the Somme, but has inspired countless readers as well.

What makes Tolkien so timeless is that his tales are much, much more than feel-good fables that end with the happy moral “You can do it!” And there’s more going on in Tolkien than the observation that “Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.”

Tolkien’s insight into human nature is that there is such a thing as human nature, and that it springs from roots deeper and mightier than we can understand. While murder and greed and depravity certainly exist, we possess within us timeless ties to countless generations before us, generations whose courage and tenacity are part of us even when we forget them. As Birzer notes:

“Those familiar with The Lord of the Rings know how often the stories of the Elder Days appear at critical moments in the trilogy. When the Ringwraiths are about to attack the hobbits and Aragorn on Weather Top, the ranger tells the ancient and timeless story of Beren and Lúthien, almost as a preparatory prayer in anticipation of battle. Galadriel, in a moment of confession, admits she has lived in Middle-earth since before the fall of Gondolin. When Sam and Frodo wonder what their fate is as they approach Mount Doom, they compare their own experiences with those of a previous age, recognizing that they exist in the same story, just at a later time.”

This, I think, is another aspect of Tolkien’s enduring appeal. In an age that threatens to overwhelm us with mindless distractions, we need to remember our connections to those we love in the present and to those of the past who sacrificed so much so that we could live to carry the flame into the future.

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* Yes, it’s been some time since I posted. I’ve been up to my eyeballs in last-minute edits of my latest book, and am now in the process of polishing it for publication.

* The quote about fairy tales and dragons was first coined by G. K. Chesterton and re-worded by science fiction writer Neil Gaiman.