Skiathlon for writers


Silk’s Post #73 – In the spirit of Sochi, I bring you the inevitable post comparing writing to Olympic sports. How can you be surprised?

Getting sucked in to this spectacle of triumph and heartbreak every two years is virtually unavoidable – or it is for me, especially with the winter games. If you love drama, if you’re fascinated by amazing characters, if you thrive on story arcs that soar like the trajectories of those insane ski jumpers, then you just have to watch. And, if you have a blog post to write in the middle of it all, your topic is a no-brainer.

The question is: which winter Olympic sport best mirrors the trials and the glories of the writing life? For me, this was also a no-brainer. It’s the newfangled event (2003) called Skiathlon. If you’re a writer, see if any of this rings a bell:

Skiathlon Characteristics:

1. It’s an endurance event.
The men’s event is a gruelling 30 km (ladies’ course is half that, though if I were a competitor I might easily be talked into acceptance of this inequality). For the metrically challenged, 30 km is equivalent to 18.64 miles. Almost marathon distance. Except you’re doing it with boards strapped to your feet. If you imagine that the presence of snow underneath those boards enables a smooth glide to victory, you’d be wrong. It’s a brutal course with lots of uphill ‘skating’ work, and dozens of other competitors dogging your every stroke. Most Skiathletes collapse at the finish line, heaving and flopping like newly-caught salmon as they struggle for every molecule of oxygen they can gulp.

2. It’s complicated, has two stages, and requires multiple skills.
As sports writer Cathal Kelly noted in her humorous definition in, “Increasingly the purpose of the Olympics is to take something simple and make it needlessly complex. Case in point – Skiathlon, a race that is half ‘classic’ (i.e. done along grooves in the snow); half ‘free’ (i.e. that exhausting-looking lunging that weirds you out every Olympics). In between, the competitors will ‘pit’ at the stadium, and switch gear.” The official Olympics description merely calls it “interesting.” Oh, and did I forget to mention competitors get to go around the whole two-stage course twice? Leave your comfort zone at home!

3. It rewards individual technique and stamina in equal measures.
Skiathlon is not for daredevils – their events are on the big, glamorous slopes. It’s not for artistes – their stunning routines on ice are beautiful but fleeting. And it’s not a team sport – you’re on your own out there. Skiathlon is won by incredibly fit, well-prepared athletes who have mastered all types of cross-country skiing, are capable of changing course in the middle of a race, and have the energy and discipline to stick it out to the end, alone in their agony. That’s discipline and determination. Like all Olympic sports, it starts with a dream and requires a stupendous amount of training and practice. But, as Helga so aptly put it in her post “Unsung heroes – here’s to you!”, the key to winning is steely resolve.

Now, let’s compare …

Writing Characteristics:

1. It’s an endurance event.
I scarcely need to explain this to anyone who’s churned their way through the planning, outlining, writing and re-writing of a 100,000 word novel. Or two, or three. Yes, there are glorious days when you’re gliding across the pages, your fingers flying and the wind in your face. Then there are the brutal uphill climbs where you stroke, stroke, stroke, stroke … and get no glide at all. The finish never comes soon enough for your oxygen-starved brain and your cramped shoulders, and every chapter is a fresh marathon.

2. It’s complicated, has two stages, and requires multiple skills. 
You could argue that writing has more than two stages, what with concept development, planning, research, outlining, writing, re-writing, then the whole can of worms which is marketing your work. But the main events are writing and re-writing, and these require completely different skill-sets. One thing is guaranteed: you will travel the course of your novel multiple times before you have a manuscript ready to pitch.

3. It rewards individual technique and stamina in equal measures. 
Many people have great ideas. Many people are highly creative. Many people are good writers. But most of them never start a novel, let alone finish one – and never mind actually getting published. The ante for a writer to get in the game at all is talent, that’s a given. And no writer gets far without having a burning desire to pursue their calling. But after that, it’s all about technique and skills, along with stamina and endurance. And most of the effort writers pour into their novels is done alone, fuelled almost exclusively by their passion for their work and their belief in themselves. Much else must be sacrificed.

Alright, I admit it. Skiathlon is by no means a perfect analogy for writing. I could have picked at least a dozen different Olympic sports and made a similar case. So call this post an exercise – writer’s practice, if you will.

Because this is what writers do: when we look around us, we’re constantly seeing plots, analogies, character studies, ironies, dramatic struggles, epic tales. We can’t help ourselves. Everything in the world is about writing. About the pursuit of story.

But those writers who successfully challenge themselves to leave a legacy of published work are as dedicated as elite athletes – and as rare. Do I have it in me? Do you?

No matter. Even if we don’t medal, the exercise is good for us. Keep writing!

2 thoughts on “Skiathlon for writers

  1. Writing does indeed demand endurance. And a whole lot of patience. We really have to adopt the one-day-at-a-time mindset because the journey can be so slow–from getting the book written to editing to querying to marketing. Definitely a test of will power! Wonderful post. 🙂

  2. Yes, It takes a herculean effort to see it through from the first blank page to ‘the end’. And that’s just the first step in a long process. Writing is not a craft for the faint of heart. It’s as tough a profession as any, if taken seriously. Great post!

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