Paula’s Post #112
A quick check-in from La Quinta California, where I, along with my teammates, are in the last stages of preparation for the USTA Ladies over 55 Southern California Sectional Championships in Santa Barbara California.
So, in the spirit of this week’s competition, I’d like to posit my 5 reasons why I believe, writing is also a sport, and should be approached with a competitive mindset. Caveat, this is just my made up list, but for me, a helpful reminder of the many important ingredients that go into training to be a good writer.
1. Practice – Just like in the world of competitive sports, the world of ‘competitive writing’ requires practice. And don’t think for a minute you aren’t competing (whether against all the other writers out there who want to get published or, more importantly, competing against yourself to constantly improve on your ‘personal best’). On our tennis team, not all of our players are created equal. Some are younger. Some are older. Some are slower. Some are faster. Some have finesse, some have power. Perversely, in tennis, a sport that celebrates agility and quickness and where players are considered ‘over the hill’ when they hit their early 30’s, most of the standout players on my tennis team are older. And baby, don’t forget this is senior tennis, where you can’t even get in the game unless you’re over 55. So I do mean ‘older’ in the nicest possible way. But here’s the thing: my older team mates are generally ‘ better’ because they’ve practiced more. They’ve learned certain ‘skills’. They’ve learned to keep their mind focused and avoid distractions. They’ve learned to pace themselves. They know that ‘the game’ requires both physical and mental agility. They know that by practicing, they can not only stay limber, they can get better. And for me, all these things are true about writing, too. On this note, you may want to check out my 5writer colleague Silk’s post on “Late Bloomers“.
2. The Right Equipment – Okay, even I am laughing a bit at ‘the girls’ making sure their equipment is in tip top shape for Santa Barbara. We’ve broken in new tennis shoes, have had the pro shop staff replace our worn-out grips and we’ve all been warned by our captain and co-captain to make sure that we have a back up racquet ready to go should something unforeseen happen. Just like athletes, we writers must have the right equipment. For most of us, that means a great laptop, access to dictionaries and a good thesaurus and perhaps most importantly of all, WiFi. Sure, there are exceptions, Danielle Steel has apparently written more than 100 books on her Olympia manual typewriter and Joyce Carol Oates prefers to write everything longhand, in 8 hour stretches. But they are the exception, rather than the rule. I don’t know about you, but I’m not going out on the court, carrying an old cat gut strung, wooden racquet in a pair of plimsolls. Not when my opponent is loaded for bear with graphite and ultra-lite carbon fiber. Give yourself an edge, it just makes sense. If you need a new laptop or some other vital piece of equipment for your writers world, get it! Maybe you’ll have to forego a few trips to Starbucks or some other small ‘luxuries’ but good equipment, for a writer, is a necessary as it is for a writer. It gives you that ‘competitive edge’.
3. Teamwork – Writing, as we know, is a solitary undertaking. So is singles tennis, where you alone face an opponent, one-on-one. But I’m a social being, and I play almost exclusively doubles. I like having a ‘team’ to cheer me on and support me. More than that, I like cheering my teammates on and supporting my teammates even more. We’ve said it before and we will say it again: if you do not have a great writing or critique group backing you up, get one. Your writing group helps you keep it in perspective. When you think you’ve written the best thing ever, and they tell you it is, well… ‘shite’, guess what? It’s shite! Your writing group is there to help you. To provide encouragement, cheer you on, help you get up when you’ve fallen down, celebrate your victories and console you in defeat. They are your team.
4. Support Network – This is really a corollary to 3 above, but writers do not exist in a vacuum. We have loved ones who support us. Just as an elite athlete has personal assistants, publicity agents, physiotherapists, personal trainers, nutritionists and sports psychologists, writers need a ‘support group’. If you are unpublished and laboring alone in your ‘writer’s garret’ like us, your support network may consist simply of another family member who volunteers to do the dishes or walk the dog to give you more writing time. It may be a friend who offers to be your ‘beta reader’. It may be fellow writers who provide companionship and collegiality (as we try to do for all our followers, via this blog). Point is, don’t ignore your support group. Don’t take them for granted. Thank them for all they do and for being there for you. And don’t forget to tell them why writing is important to you. If they know they are helping you to do something that is important, if they know they are appreciated, they will help you, gratefully.
5. The Mental Edge – Elite athletes rely on mental sharpness as much as physical sharpness. As an amateur tennis player competing in USTA competitive matches, I know how easy it is to get psyched out. How disastrous it can be to come to the court unprepared. Tennis is a quick game. You can lose a set in about 20 minutes if you are not careful. That’s why it is important to master nerves and keep your confidence up. Now, I admit the dangers of a fragile psyche in writing can be a little bit different, but not that much. We need to get over our stage fright. We need to be ready to share our work with others, and take criticism honestly and with a positive attitude. We writers must, just like elite athletes, become ‘tournament tough’ and ready to roll with the punches life throws our way. When we, as writers, feel we have ‘failed’ because we have didn’t win a contest or have received the latest in a long string of rejection letters, we mustn’t let that setback stop us from writing. We mustn’t stop creating. In writing, just as in tennis or any other competitive sport, we learn as much from our losses as from our wins (maybe more so) and thus must learn to use these setbacks and take all the positives from them that we can. Is your opening weak? What can you do to fix it? Did your muddled middle do you in? Go back to the drawing board and again study the three act structure and review some storytelling basics (like The Hero’s Journey). Your failures will help you get stronger.
Well, that’s my five. I could probably write down a hundred ways wiring is like competing in competitive sports. But five, as we all know, is our favourite number in the 5writers world.
In closing, I just want to share with you my feelings about ‘my other team’. The women with whom I play tennis. These women are remarkable. Most of us started playing tennis again just a few years ago, after a long absence. Most of us were rusty. Some of us were just learning basic strokes of forehand, backhand, volley and over-head. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so hard as watching us in the first group clinic when we practiced running down lobs for the first time. It was comical.
In our first year in the league our record was 1-7: we lost 7 games and won the last one of the season.
But then something remarkable happened. We decided to get serious. We signed up for more clinics and lessons. We studied the fundamentals of the game. We focused on sports psychology and nutrition. Our family and friends supported our commitment every step of the way.
And guess what?
We started winning. Consistently. In this, just our second season, we went 7-1. We are the Coachella Valley Champions in our division (a remarkable feat when you consider that ‘the valley’ includes the famed California tennis meccas of Palm Springs, Rancho Mirage and Indian Wells).
Some of our players are over 70. Some of our players haven’t played a competitive sport since high school. But we are going to the USTA Southern California Sectionals this week because of our team work, because of our support network, because our mental edge and because of our commitment to practice, practice, practice.
If I want to succeed in writing, I know I will need to focus on these very same things.