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.

28 thoughts on “How writers win”

  1. This is a great analogy, and so very true. And, I admit that I also have wondered how certain authors are published. But, instead of feeling down, I suppose we should take heart and realize that ANY of us could get published. We just need to keep our writing in shape with constant practice and keep trying.

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  2. A very intriguing and interesting post about competing with yourself.
    Physical improvement on results as compared to mental / emotional
    training and improvement.
    I read this yesterday and have to agree, both are solitary, as is a hike up the moors for lunch time break.

    I used to lift weights and found the rapid measure of improvement quite exciting. Now, can we really measure writing in similar way?
    As many respected writers say so I have to believe it, would have thought outdoor activity more stimulating for creativity.
    I am a mere newcomer to this theory though.


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    1. miriam,

      As you suggest, it’s difficult to measure one’s progress as a writer. You have to settle for the big-picture, rule-of-thumb indicators to determine if you’re getting closer to your writing goals. That said, I think one’s output is important. The more you write, the better you get. It’s that old joke about how you get to Carnegie Hall …


  3. I relate to this post. I have a lot of interest outside of writing: motorcycling, fishing, kayaking, bicycling, hunting, and the list goes on. I was once worried that these activities would get in the way of my writing. My dad put it all in perspective once. He said, “Never worry about your hobbies getting in the way of your work; rather, worry about your hobbies getting in the way of each other.” That said, I must admit that I think best on two wheels.

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    1. Many think writers sit in their cells, monk-like, spinning stories out of thin air. In fact, most have a hearty appreciation for life. And as you say, we continue to have other interests in addition to writing.

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  4. I forget who said it, but it’s another connection between weightlifting and writing–or any endeavor: when you hit a plateau, you are not stagnant; rather your body is making imperceptible changes at the cellular level in preparation for the next step forward.

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