Potential + Grit = The New Perfect

How writing is like gymnastics

My younger daughter is a gymnast. Like all sports, gymnastics is highly competitive. It’s both a team sport and an individual sport. But unlike other team sports where positions and game strategy rule the day, the team aspect of gymnastics is different. In gymnastics, your individual scores combine to help (or hurt) the team. After an away meet earlier this month, the team went to lunch and I found myself sitting beside the coach, listening to stories of when she was a gymnast and getting her take on what it takes to be a great athlete. Her advice struck me as not only great advice generally, but also advice that could be specifically applied to writers.

“Seriously?” You ask in disbelief. “What on earth does gymnastics have to do with writing?” Well, I’ll tell you.

Writing’s mostly a solo gig, but you’re still part of a team

Gymnasts go out alone, in front of hundreds, maybe even thousands, of people. And they compete. And they are judged. For us writers, it’s even worse. You still go out there alone and these days, with digital books, your audience, and the judges, are potentially limitless.

But you’re still part of a team. Everything we write, the quality of our work, the way we interact with one another… it all reflects back on the writing community as a whole. Once you sign a contract, your commitment becomes even greater. Now there are agents, editors, and various other publishing professionals looking to you to fulfill on the promise of your potential. Like a gymnast, your work will be judged and it will either help (or hurt) the team.

So what are you saying — that failure is not an option? What is this? Apollo 13?

Well, yes… and no…

You can fall, you just can’t fail

The number one trait my daughter’s coach believed made a great gymnast was one who could take a fall and get back up again. She’d known some gymnasts who were amazingly talented, medaling in nearly every meet, breezing through levels and practices… but whose potential was cut short by one fall from the bars or beam. (Not the kind that causes significant physical injury — that’s different). No, she was talking about the kind of fall that injures your pride and self-confidence. The kind of fall that makes you suddenly realize that what you’re trying to do is HARD. The kind of fall that sometimes makes an otherwise incredibly talented athlete turn away from her potential and leave it forever.

My mom passed away last February after a lengthy illness. Before she died, I’d been dividing my time between New Jersey, where she was, and Maryland, where my husband and kids are. When she finally passed, the moment, for me, was like falling off the beam. But when I fell, I hit my head on the way down, and I laid on the floor for a long time. I stopped writing. Like many urban fantasy authors, the world I’d created had a dark side. After my mom died, I couldn’t go there. It wasn’t my pride or self-confidence that had been injured. It was my passion and desire to do the work I’d been doing before. But my quitting was the last thing my mother would have wanted. (She was a creative spirit, if ever there was one!) In time, I healed enough to pick myself up off the floor and climb back on the beam. Falling wasn’t failing. But quitting would have been.

First revision letter — A big fall or a tiny slip?

Last week, I received my first editorial revision letter. I suppose I could have viewed it as another fall (What, my work’s not perfect? You don’t love every word? You mean I have to actually work at this novel writing career?), although obviously not one as personal and debilitating as before. But experiencing a near career ending fall earlier this year gave me the perspective I needed to not even worry about how to characterize it. Does it matter? If all these editorial comments add up to a fall, then I just need to climb back up. If it’s a slip, I just need to regain my balance. If it’s a series of small bobbles, I just need to correct them in the next pass. In other words, I just need to keep practicing.

Hey, everyone’s gonna fall sooner or later. (Otherwise there would be no VH1 Rock Doc black moment for our life’s story, right?) My daughter’s coach’s point during our talk was that the best gymnasts aren’t the ones who ALWAYS nail the routines; it’s the ones who fall off and get back up again. It’s the ones who are willing to practice over and over and over again, suffering the bumps and bruises they accumulate along the way. Those who succeed are those who realize that perfecting any skill is hard, difficult, sometimes even brutal, work.

So, how about you? Have you fallen off the beam yet? Did you pick yourself back up again? Think your story will inspire others to do the same? Have any writing tips that you’ve learned from studying something else? Are you looking forward to the Summer 2012 Olympics?!? ย If so, I’d love to hear from you!