Special Post: What Writers Can Learn from…The Olympics!


Okay, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, I should preface this blog with a couple things…

One: this is the first post on this blog that’s not about a book.

Two: I had fun writing this and am thinking I might write more non-book-centric writing advice posts in the future.

And three: I’m unapologetically obsessed with the Olympics. And despite the Games’ uber-problematic-ness at many levels, I’m pretty much in love with watching athletes gets emotional after a great performance.

This is first Olympics I’m watching as a full-time writer, and I can’t help but relate everything I watch back to my own journey. There are some core truths about the pursuit of excellence that transcend sports and goals and mediums, from the field to the court to the tiny desk in the corner of your living room. So today I’d like to talk about what writers can learn from these incredible athletes currently inspiring us all.

1. Find your teammates.

simone and aly
From the indomitable Simone Biles’s Instagram.

Just like writing, many sports involve long hours sweating it out alone. But even in individual events like swimming, gymnastics, and the marathon––and even in a solitary pursuit like writing––it’s so important to find your people, and keep them close.

The dynamic between the ultimate #squadgoals besties, gymnastics extraordinaires and 2016 all-around gold and silver medalists Simone Biles and Aly Raisman, is a perfect example of why teammates are so important. Teammates push you, frustrate you sometimes, and always remind you that you do this because you love it, and because you want to be your very best. A little healthy competition and friendly rivalry can be a great motivator, too.

Whether it’s on Twitter, in an MFA program, at local meet-ups, or on an online writing forum, finding writer friends who can share in your ups and downs, your stumbles and your glories, is so, so important. (Online can be a great option for introverts or writers with social anxiety or people who, like me, live super far away from most English-language kidlit communities!) It’s up to you how much to engage, but even a little discussion with likeminded folks can make a world of difference. Writer friends will cheer you up when you’re having a bad writing day. They’ll celebrate when you hit a milestone. And, most importantly, they’ll be the only ones who really understand what this work means to you, and all the good and bad and wonderful things that come with it.

To sum it up––find a community that can support you and challenge you and love you for who you are and what you do, just like Simone and Aly:

Screen Shot 2016-08-12 at 3.47.17 PM

2. Remember: “It’s only weird if it doesn’t work.”

(I’m a little embarrassed to quote a Bud Light commercial, but…it just seemed too appropriate to pass up.)

Rituals! Athletes are all about them. Writers should be, too.

I remember back in high school one of my track teammates insisted we all kiss the relay baton––in the order we were going to run in, of course. Another friend wore lucky underwear. Another had to eat a Power Bar at the same time every race day. And as for me, I had a particular number of lunges I had to do, starting with the same foot, as part of every warm-up before a race.

Rituals are on full display at the Olympics. Swimmers seem especially fond of these pre-event oddities. Before each race, Michael Phelps swings his arms three times and slaps himself on the back. Dana Vollmer writes a word on her foot. Tamás Kenderesi spews water. And Canadian freestyler Santo Condorelli flips off his father. (Yes, there’s a story behind that.)

Delivering a great writing performance, like delivering a great athletic performance, requires getting in the zone. Does Michael Phelps actually believe that if he swings his arms four times, he’ll swim more slowly? No idea, but I’m sure he knows that that three-time swing tells his brain and body: it’s time to swim. Fast.

Establishing a pre-writing ritual can have the same effect.

I first discovered this ritual stuff to cope with the slog of essays in college. With tight deadlines and a lot of words to produce, I knew I needed a way to tell my writing muscles when to get to work. For me, it was a certain nook in the back of the library, a sack of chocolate-covered peanuts, a bottle of water, and hiding all evidence of the time passing: no watch, computer clock, or cell phone allowed. I’d break for a quick walk every 500 words. And soon enough, I’d have an essay drafted.

This has changed over the years––as a real-life adult, I don’t usually have the luxury of losing track of time for hours on end. And with longer, more mentally taxing projects like novels, I’ve needed to search for new ways to motivate myself.

One of my latest tricks: I have four different-colored coffee mugs. In the morning, I pick the one that fits with my writing mood for the day: red for intense drafting sessions; green for focused, precise revision; blue for fleshing out reflective or emotional scenes. Strange? Pretty much. But it does the job.

For writers with caregiving responsibilities or day jobs (or, for many, both!), even the smallest ritual can help bring on that author mindset in the little moments you eke out to write. Maybe there’s a pump-up song to that reminds you of your protagonist; or a certain Moleskine that’s your I’m a writer now! notebook; or maybe you take five deep breaths and swing your arms à la Phelps.

Heck, maybe you just pull a Laurie Hernandez and whisper, “I’ve got this.” Because you do.

The great thing about rituals is they tend to work better and better with time. A year from now, it might seem crazy that you ever wrote without putting on your lucky socks.

Remember: just like Bud Light said, it’s only weird if it doesn’t work.

3. Embrace the vocation.

Sometimes, writing can feel a little all-consuming. When you’re up late stressing about a revision, or you can’t get into a movie because you’re comparing some aspect of the plot to your own WIP, or your characters have staked out more headspace in your brain than some of your immediate family members––well, it can get a little overwhelming. And it’s easy to start feeling bad about this, too.

Though it’s nice to get some space at times, and step away from the manuscript both literally and figuratively, there are other days when writers would do well to take a cue from Olympic athletes and just embrace this single-mindedness. When you’re really digging into a revision, or when you’re this close to finishing an exciting first draft, you’ll likely eat, sleep, and dream your story. And maybe that’s okay.

Often, we’re taught that taking this time to ourselves is self-indulgent, that putting our craft first (or even second or third) is silly or selfish in a world of day jobs and family and a million other responsibilities. If you need some encouragement to really dig in––aside from the teary faces of the medalists on the podiums––read the Acknowledgements section in almost any published book. So many authors share tales of time away from their partner or kids, asking friends for last-minute read-throughs, and struggles they had and sacrifices they made over years and years in pursuit of their goals.

When you feel like you’re barely keeping it all together, when you’re frustrated with the things you’ve had to give up (whether it’s other hobbies, or reading for pleasure, or relaxed Saturday mornings, or a reasonable amount of sleep), it’s comforting to know that many others have been there, too. It’s a reminder that it’s okay to make sacrifices as you chase your dreams.

And the Olympics are another great reminder of this. Because if Olympians can sleep in oxygen chambers, take all their high school classes online, eat an inordinate amount of kale smoothies, and do whatever one has to do to run a 29:17 10k on the track––

almaz ayana
Almaz Ayana of Ethiopia, gold medalist in the 10k. Photo from IAAF.

(daaaang Almaz Ayana!)––you can certainly embrace the all-consuming nature of writing for a few weeks too, whatever that means for you at this juncture in your life. Even if it feels a little selfish.

To sum it up: certainly, publishing a book and competing in the Olympics are two very different pursuits. But as we repost #PhelpsFace memes and cheer on our faves, there’s also a lot we can learn from these athletes as they chase greatness and test the limits of human capability.

Want to chat writing, kidlit, Olympics, or more? Find me on twitter @beckererine.


Published by Erin Becker

I'm a copywriter and editor by day and and a kidlit writer by night. In the time left over, I run, explore the mountains, and help other writers. Email me at becker.erin.e@gmail.com.

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