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WGA Blog – Rio 2016: What Does Athleticism Have to do with the Writing Life?

Penny Photo AlternateAt the time of this writing, 16-year old swimmer Penny Oleksiak holds the Canadian flag—representing our country—at the Olympic closing ceremonies in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. She has won four medals over the past several weeks, including gold in the women’s 100-metre freestyle, a race so competitive she actually tied with US sprinter Simone Manuel, the first black woman to ever win an individual medal in swimming. Let’s pause to appreciate the significance of this race: first black woman to ever win an individual medal in the pool. And Penny? Well, the last Canadian to win an Olympic gold medal for a swimming event was Mark Tewksbury in 1992, TWENTY-FOUR years ago.

Indeed: criticisms of the Olympic Games abound, from scandals (Ryan Lochte, anyone? So disappointing), to real and perceived corruption, political, monetary and doping issues. With that out of the way, please know that my intention here is to celebrate ambition, passion, and dedication, and to (with the help of three intrepid local authors) point out some of the innate parallels between athletic and literary pursuits.

US Olympic swimmer Simone Manuel

US Olympic swimmer Simone Manuel

Admittedly, I am biased. I was a competitive swimmer. I coached professionally for over a decade (and continue to coach Masters swimmers to this day). My first novel is narrated by a female athlete in the 1920s. Due to my past experiences and close-up exposure to sport, I am easily thrilled and moved by athletic stories, be they real-life events such as Penny and Simone’s 100-meter race, or Marcello Di Cintio’s article in Swerve about wrestler Erica Wiebe, or from novels and movies that use athletic passion to create fascinating characters and sport as metaphor. The film Bend it Like Beckham, for instance, made me cry. Never mind the 80’s movie about Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci. But in any case… I’ve often caught myself thinking in terms of Olympic cycles. For example: Wow, I can’t believe this second novel is going to take more than two Olympic cycles to complete! I used to swim long distance races and couldn’t help but contemplate the connection between the physical and mental endurance of swimming and manuscript completion, despite the profound distinction that a distance swim requires approximately two or three hours of strength and exertion in the ocean, while a manuscript requires two to three years (or more) of sedentary stamina flexing creative brain muscles.

During the Olympics, I found myself reflecting on athletics and the writing process, in both tangible and metaphorical terms. I decided to reach out to a few sporty Alberta authors I know, including Marcello Di Cintio, Angie Abdou and Ali Bryan, for their thoughts. I asked them various questions about how sport, physicality and athletics have informed the writers they are today. Marcello immediately reminded me of a short (1+ min) video whereby John Irving draws a poignant connection between writing and wrestling. The video is so phenomenally perfect that I suggest we all kick-off this blog post by watching the video first.

From Marcello Di Cintio

I was not a writer while simultaneously training and competing as a wrestler. I don’t think I’d have the focus or attention span to be a writer while also competing in a sport at a high level and with high ambitions, be they realistic or otherwise. I became a writer after I’d been a wrestler. And I am a far better writer than I ever was a wrestler.

Personally, I don’t feel that writing a book is the same, say, as training for a wrestling tournament. I don’t feel that parallel. But wrestling did grant me a kind of mental courage that I draw on as a writer. I have never done anything as frightening as step alone on a mat against an opponent I knew might beat me. As the Olympian Erica Wiebe said in my interview with her: ‘Wrestling is not fun. It is not like playing with a puppy or tickling my boyfriend.’ Wrestling is hard. And scary. I think wrestling gave me the sort of confidence to travel and engage with strangers the way I do. I would be a very different person had I not spent those years on the mat. And, I suspect, a very different writer.

Marcello Di Cintio coaching his young writing students at Wordsworth summer camp.

Marcello Di Cintio coaching his young writing students at WordsWorth summer camp.

I believe in the idea that writers should be physical. I spoke about this with my charges at WordsWorth this year. We don’t have to run marathons or be “serious” athletes, but we should not forget that we are physical bodies. Too often, writers retreat into their mental space—thoughts and imagination—and neglect the flesh and bone. A writer needs to be in touch with everything. To exist in the world around him or her. To be observant. Much of this is physical. We should regularly feel our hearts pounding in our chests. Our breathing getting hard. Our foreheads getting sweaty. We need to remember that we occupy this world, body and mind. We need to engage physically. (As part of this lesson, I got my WordsWorth kids to run with me. I thought they were going to mutiny.)

I used to be a pretty regular runner, but I started swimming this year. I love it, and wonder why I didn’t start swimming years ago. I am not serious, but the former athlete in me insists I count and record my lengths. I suspect the swimming helps me focus on my writing. Maybe. Though sometimes I find myself using exercise as a way to avoid writing. Is fitness just a noble form of procrastination?

As far as sports go, I always find it strange when writers and artists disparage sports as meaningless activity. As storytellers, sports offer so many built-in narratives. Every competition is its own story with a beginning, middle and an end. The characters can be fascinating, with compelling back stories. There are rivalries—personal and sometimes political—and underdog stories. Come-backs. First games. Last games. Overtime. Overachievers and chokers. Whether or not we consider sport important, or worthy of the money and attention it receives, sport is a story machine. Writers should respect this more than anyone else.

From Angie Abdou

One random thought I’ve been having:

Author Angie Abdou

Author Angie Abdou

During the Olympics, people whose idea of athletic activity is taking their dogs for a walk suddenly feel qualified to evaluate and judge world-class athletes. Bill Murray tweeted that a “regular” person should compete in every event as a point of reference—to remind us how impressive these performances are. Yes, Olympians make swimming a 100-meter free in 47 seconds look easy, but it’s not. If I hear TV-watchers criticize a “substandard” 100 fly performance, I want to ask to see their 100 fly. What does this have to do with writing? Consumers criticize writers just as freely. Their dismissal of a novel can be so easy, even glib. I would like anyone planning to say mean things about a work of fiction to be required, first, to write their own short story and then put it out in the world for public commentary. Both in sport and in writing, people should have a sense of the process before they dismiss the work of others.

The sport-cycle/writing-cycle parallel each other very closely: work really hard for many, many years and then (if you’re lucky) come out for a brief burst of public attention. A very few get medals. I only wish the years of writing work had the same results as the years of beach-volleyball work. Instead, we develop our brain muscles: not nearly as impressive in a bikini.

Swimming taught me everything I know about discipline. I don’t wait for the muse to strike. I don’t wait until I feel like writing. Do you know how often I felt like getting out of bed at 4:30am to jump into a freezing cold pool and swim for two hours? Never. But I did it every day. Swimmers are very good at suffering. That has served me well in the writing life. And I have all my ideas while running. I don’t really understand the process, but I think it has to do with getting fully into my body and leaving my mind alone to do its thing without me standing over it, nagging “Have an idea! Have an idea!” My imagination likes a little space to do its work.  If I’m running every day, it means my writing project is going well.

From Ali Bryan

Writing, like sport, is a practice. For every blog that says you have to, “write every day!” there are a hundred more that say, “don’t write every day or you’ll die in a hole!”

Okay, not really, but I tend to agree with the former. Writing is a practice. Sport too. Writers get incredibly irritated when someone declares, “I’d like to write a book someday,” as though it’s a hobby akin to making pickles or carving walking sticks. It’s a practice that, in some cases, takes years to develop and refine. Few write a successful book without years of training (whether formal or otherwise) and by spending hours re-writing, deleting, sobbing, soaring, second-guessing, celebrating, experimenting and wanting to die in a hole in regular intervals.

Ali Bryan: once a gymnast always a gymnast.

Ali Bryan: once a gymnast always a gymnast.

Athletes too: they train, compete, fail, win, get injured, and they do it over and over again for their sport. We do the same for our literary works. Writing begets writing. The more frequent and consistent I write, (daily, or at least multiple times a week), the better the writing is, and the more efficient the writing session goes. Plus you stay in your story. When I am inconsistent and out of practice, I return to my work, read the last sentence I wrote about “Bart,” and wonder: “who the fuck is Bart?” Same goes for an athlete who takes a chunk of time off training.

When the athlete gets back to their sport, there’s a period of adjustment. Muscles are sore, and you can’t quite get the best grip on the pole, or your start sucks, or you forget your floor routine and skip around with your bowl cut, and wonder if anyone will notice if you were to quietly hide under the judge’s table. Athletes and writers tend to get better with consistency. I’m a believer in Malcolm Gladwell’s statement that it takes roughly ten thousand hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field.

I read a statistic that, of every one hundred novels people write, only three are ever finished. Sounds a lot like an article I read called, “Here are your depressing odds of becoming an Olympian.” Your odds only improve if you move to Liechtenstein, and only if you’re interested in curling, race walking or air pistol shooting. Both elite sports and finishing a novel are for a select few who set out with extreme resolve, and are able to stay committed to a long-term goal (except with different body types).

Sport and writing require mental fortitude and strength. Nothing has prepared me more for the writer’s life than the athlete’s life. Surviving a three-minute Brazilian Jiu Jitsu bout is good for 10 rejections. The number of times I fell off a beam and got back up again equals the number of times I sent out work, received rejections, and sent the work right back out again. And when one piece of writing just doesn’t work, there comes a point where you may have to abandon it and start something new. Then, one day: everything clicks. I’m still trying to do that on the athletic side. I’m down to curling and archery.

DancersLook no further than the Olympics for a good theme: loss, failure, grief, redemption, victory, beating the odds, sacrifice, perseverance, serendipity, hope. The real stories of the Olympics and the Olympic movement are timeless, like a good book. Think of Peter Norman. Think of the Jamaican bobsled team. Cathy Freeman. Caster Semenya. There’s a minefield of ideas and characters in sport. If not for the love of sport, engage in the Olympics for the love of story. It does not disappoint.

About criticisms and politics. The same arguments many use against the Olympics (money could be better used, what is the benefit?) are the same arguments people use against the arts and arts funding. Let’s appreciate the similarities of being an artist to being an athlete: the need for grants and financial support—both for no real tangible reason (building community, nationalism, promoting literacy, health and wellness, etc.).

A perfectly executed high jump is comparable to a perfectly written sentence. Both the jump and the phrase have taken years to refine. The placement of a word can be as critical as the placement of an athlete’s foot on a take off. The nuances and oddities that set an athlete apart from their field parallel the ones that set a writer apart from theirs. Watch Italian beach volleyball player Adrian Carambula’s beautiful and ridiculous “sky ball” serve or Simone Biles’ beam dismount. These kind of signature “moves” are what writers also hope to leave behind as a sort of legacy. I experience the same physical reaction reading a mind-blowing paragraph that I do watching a perfectly executed race.

Pacing a scene or an entire novel is similar to pacing a lap or an entire race. Do you go out slow and build your speed as you progress, finishing with a sprint? Or do you break out fast, settle in and go for a manageable pace? Run fast enough to win your heat, or just ensure you’re in the top 4 to qualify for finals? Timing is critical. Do you put the joke at the end of the paragraph, or the beginning? Are there too many jokes? Not enough? But maybe (what if) you’re not funny? That’s it: you’re a loser. This notion is similar to constructing a routine. Will the full-twisting-double back-punch-front be better at the beginning of the routine—or will it be more impactful in the middle? Do I save my best dive for the very end, or perform it in the fifth round? Athletes and writers are always making decisions to get it right. Tinkering, adjusting, refining, omitting, re-working: all in the name of producing their best work.

Olympic ReplaceWriters change agents. Athletes change coaches. Writers change genres. Athletes change sports (some more than others). Writers change practice. Athletes do to. Writers decide what words they are keeping, and what they are deleting. Athletes make the same decision regarding their moves, steps and skills. Athletes fail and lose on a regular basis. Writers do to. Sometimes athletes win. Sometimes writers win. Sometimes writers spend hours on a single sentence. Athletes spend hours on a skill. Sometimes writers want to hide under their bed. Athletes too. And–that feeling you get as a writer when the words come together and the sentence feels absolutely, seamlessly right? Athletes feel that too—when they’ve put everything on the line and executed to perfection.

Hi, it’s me again (Sam). As I was formulating this story, gathering thoughts from various authors and friends, Sharon Butala mentioned one similarity between athletes and writers that stuck with me: the shared willingness to give up a normal life for our practice, and the intensity of the absorption. Will Ferguson jokes that (as an author) the most physically taxing thing he does is hit CTRL-ALT-DEL at the same time when his computer locks-up during an unusually rousing game of minesweeper. “No one applauds when we finish a particularly impressive turn of phrase,” he says. “Crowds don’t cheer our sly use of metaphor…or boo an ill-advised alliterative quip. But if writing were ever an Olympic event—I would immediately sign up—if only to get out of the damn house.”

The evening I watched Penny Oleksiak win gold in the 100-meter freestyle, I posted the story on Facebook. A volley of comments and “likes” streamed and pinged into my feed. Those of you who read my last blog story about mindful meditation may recall that the practice of being still and present has been an increasingly significant part of my daily routine this year. So I appreciated a comment from Jonathan Meakin (our former literary grants consultant at the AFA) when he wrote: “It’s odd how some commentators have said, ‘what a bright future Oleksiak has’—which may be true— but what about the bright and brilliant present!?!”

An excellent point, I thought, and his point reminded me of book launches where an author is in the very precious moment of releasing a brand new work of art (that has taken YEARS to accomplish) and how quickly the question of, what’s next? is asked.

Register HERE for our upcoming Writing, Yoga and Mindfulness Workshop at Yoga Santosha September 18th. WGA members use promo code WG16 to pay only $10 as opposed to $30.

Register HERE for our upcoming Writing, Yoga and Mindfulness Workshop at Yoga Santosha September 18th. WGA members use promo code WG16 to pay only $10 as opposed to $30. Click HERE for more information on this workshop.

It is scientifically proven that writers and athletes thrive and succeed—reaching our highest potential—when we are in the zone, fully 100% in the present moment of our practice. Thank you, Jonathan—for bringing us back to the moment the night of Penny’s win.

As I mentioned at the start: despite any scandals, banter and criticisms that surround the Olympic Games, and sometimes organized sport in general, I believe, in the end, human perseverance and courage outweigh these arguments and debates, and deserve to be celebrated…as Marcello, Angie, and Ali have articulated so superbly in this piece.

Let’s raise our pens and coffees (and whatever we happen to be holding) to the dedication, focus and sacrifice it takes to reach (or surpass) major goals, be they generated from the seat of a chair, a standing desk, running track, wrestling mat, gymnastics beam, or swimming pool. Hurrah!  And Bravo.

On a sidenote, Canadian Olympic kayaker Adam van Koeverden wrote a short and poignant blog post for the CBC this week, evoking what it felt like to be in Rio, at the Tragically Hip concert at Canada House, and more. “Sometimes the best chapter of a book isn’t the last chapter,” he writes, in reference to his kayaking career as a whole.

samanthawarwick-headshot-highres-14-of-30Samantha Warwick is the Program Director and Lead Blogger for the WGA Calgary Office. Her first novel, Sage Island, was released in 2008. Her nonfiction and poetry have been broadcast on CBC Radio and appeared in various literary and commercial publications including Geist, Event, The Globe & Mail, Alberta Views and FASHION. Lulu is a 4-year-old Chihuahua Miniature Pincher cross, supplanted to Alberta from a shelter in California. Lulu is the Chief Executive Officer of the WGA Calgary Office, where she oversees room temperature, treat supply and screens untrustworthy office visitors. samanthawarwick.com.

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