Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Why writing is not an Olympic event

JAN BROGAN -  As I was watching the opening ceremonies of the London Olympics last weekend with my family, taking in the history, tradition, pageantry and creativity of the spectacular event, I looked into the optimistic faces of all the world's top athletes and I had one overriding thought:

Thank God writing isn't an Olympic event.

Can you imagine what goes into being an athlete?  You spend your young life sacrificing the carefree days of youth to devote yourself to training for your sport. You dedicate four years to officially gear up for the Olympics, eat just the right food, do just the right exercises, fight with your coach,  struggle through pre qualifying and qualifying events, agonize over the competition, all for that one day.

And that one day arrives.  And maybe, just maybe you were so nervous you didn't get a good night's sleep.  Or you ate too much pasta or not enough vegetables the night before.  You've got a cramp in your hamstring or you slept wrong on your neck. Maybe you wake up with your seasonal allergies in full bloom.

 All that work, all that dedication, and you have what - a few minutes in swimming, a few more in running or a gymnastics routine? And in those minutes, it all has fall together. It all has to be perfect.

What happens if you are a half a second slower today? Your balance is just a tiny bit off.  The stiff neck affects the flexibility of your spine and you just don't rotate the right way. What if you are the Men's Gymastics team, taking all the first place finishes in the qualifications only to end up FIFTH?


Whereas, if you were just writing a novel about the Olympics, you could wake up completely hungover. You might forget the names of the American archers. You could mistake silver medalist  Elizabeth Beisel's home state, change her name and make her from Massachusetts.  You could easily mispell the name of the Malaysian shooter who competed while pregnant. (Nur Suryani Mohd Taibi). and if you decide to fictionalize and make a better story, she can even win!

You write a really crummy first draft, and then later, you can write a really crummy second draft. You can decide you got an entire subplot wrong and take it out of your book.  Your editor  can tell you that you would write it much better in first person and you can redo the entire thing.  As long as you get it right, the fifth, sixth or maybe seventh time you go through it, you can still take home the gold.

 I should be losing myself in the drama of the competition, but no.  What I'm thinking when I'm watching the Olympics is that I am so GLAD I put my heart and soul into a field where it's all about the do-overs.  I am so glad I am not competing in an event that cannot be rewritten.

When you watch are you wishing you were one of the athletes and this was your moment? Do you take inspiration from their achievements? Or are some really weird thoughts running through your mind?


  1. Hi Jan. I'm at the Olympics and have two days of tennis ahead of me so I know you'll be jealous.
    I feel more for those who trained just as hard and missed the team by 1/100th of a second (this happened to my daughter's assistant coach)

    I must admit I'd love that one moment of glory--stepping out onto Center Court at Wimbledon for the final, but having been on the tennis team at school and college I know that I don't do well under huge pressure.

  2. You're so funny Jan, and here I thought writing was hard! The other day a friend asked me if the book I'm writing will be the last one.

    "Unless they extend the contract--and I hope they do," I said.

    "Even with all the grinding away, you want to write more?" she asked, truly amazed.

    So maybe writing's a bit like sports after all:). It does take a run of sacrifices to compete at the Olympic level, so it's nice to hear about athletes who manage to keep their lives a little normal while they train.

  3. You are so right about the burdens and all the “what-ifs” of a competition. The pressure on the athletes is unbelievable --- much of it coming from the competitors themselves, but still more from parents, coaches, other athletes . . . the world of competitive sports is sometimes like a monster waiting to gobble up its participants.

    Our daughters skated in competition for several years, and although we tried very hard not to add to the pressure of doing well in those moments they were on the ice, it’s always there. And, despite the hours and hours of training and practice, there were simply those days that the ice won.

    I was always amazed at the parents who screamed at their children if they had a bit of a struggle during their routines; those who were so invested in the winning that they couldn’t help their children understand that, in the end, knowing you’d done your best was all that mattered.

    I remember one time when a skater was going to withdraw because her skating dress was torn and she had no other to wear. I took her into the locker room and hand-stitched the dress together sufficiently well enough that she would be able to go out on the ice and skate her program. She thanked me, of course [it was really no big deal: when we took the girls to competitions, we had a rolling suitcase filled with everything they might possibly need, so I had the sewing stuff right there.]

    I’ll never forget, though, how surprised she was that I would fix her dress for her . . . she just couldn’t understand why I would help her because, after all, she skated “against” my daughter and, to her way of thinking, I should have been pleased that her torn dress would keep her off the ice, one less skater to compete against my daughter. I still feel sad whenever I think about that . . . competition is one thing, but to think you’re underserving of help simply because you are part of “the other team” . . . that’s certainly not the lesson I wished for my children to learn from competing.

    Of course, everyone wants to come away in first place . . . or with a medal . . . or . . . that’s human nature. But, at the end of the day, being able to stand tall and say “I did my best” should be the most important thing of all.

  4. JAn, I'm SO with you. I cannot stand it. I really can't. ALL that work up to that ONE moment, and if you have a stomach ache or something goes wrong..doomed. And the parents in the stands, and all the sacrifice for SUCH difficult goal!

    Suspense writer me HATES the suspense.

  5. Joan,
    When my kids were young and especially my son, who was a good athlete, I used to always wonder what aliens would think if they could land on a field (football, soccer, lacrosse, you name it) and see all the parents shouting and their kids in the middle competing, and I thought they'd think to themselves.

    "Ah, this is what these Earthlings do for fun - they compete with their young."

    I have met at LOT of crazy parents, so I am totally with you!!

  6. Rhys,
    you are right. I AM JEALOUS!!


  7. We can write until we're in our nineties, too (look at PD James), whereas many Olympic athletes are washed up and "retired" from their sports by their early twenties (gymnasts come to mind). . . and they have huge physical problems in their futures (if not their presents). Think hip replacements, arthritis, back problems, etc.

  8. I'm not athletic no matter how far you stretch the definition, but I like the mental discipline that comes from working toward an athletic goal. Two years ago The Munchkin decided she wanted to do Run for the Cure--5K of running, NOT walking. That meant I had to run too. Generally, I only run if someone is handing out free chocolate. We trained for months. The day of the run I had a horrible cold. And it was raining--pounding umbrella soaking rain. We ran anyway.

    I've never been so wet in my life, but when we came up the hill and turned for the finish line it was a rush to hear people cheering and clapping and then look around and realize the welcome was for us.

    "A person who ran five kilometers in the rain could _______ "(fill in the blank with just about anything) is still a catchphrase in our house, which is why we're training to do the run again this year.

    And on a completely unrelated note, what do you wear to a series of talks by politicians and business leaders followed by an outdoor barbeque? When you have pasty white legs.

  9. Laura,

    EXACTLY. It is not all over for us when we are thirty! And unlike most other things in life, age is not necessarily a disadvantage.

    Darlene, I am totally with you. I used to be a runner, and I still play tennis (although sidelined right now with a bad elbow) and I love how athletic competition puts you in the moment and gets all that overanalyzing writer thoughts OUT OF THE BRAIN!!


  10. Hank,
    Oddly, I can't take the suspense either. I can't imagine what those parents are going through. THey must age a decade in those bleacher seats!

  11. Jan, I'm with you and, especially, Laura. Olympic athletes are washed up at such an early age and can't really compete after that unless they're one of the lucky few who become coaches and help others compete. We writers can go on writing clear up to the time we kick the bucket, if we're lucky.

    I think of Flannery O'Connor, who had lupus back when it was a death sentence, so she died quite young. And the disease, as it does, took away more and more of her physical abilities until she was in a wheelchair and then bedridden--but she could still write her wonderful stories and novels, even as her body fell apart around her.

    Now, with voice recognition software and various computer applications for the visually impaired, we can pretty much write as long as our brains still function. I'm aiming at writing until I pass the 100-year mark myself. That's something Olympians can't look forward to.

  12. Actually, I was a swimmer, and although competition was important, it was the zen of training that was the way of life. And now I feel as if I've exchanged the pleasure daily writing for the endless--yet pleasurable--laps of training. The release of a book is a big deal (I've got one next week!) but it doesn't change what I do every day. It's the journey, not the destination---or the medals. I think medals have become bizarrely important in the last several years. Olympians used to find full lives that they based on their foundation of hard work and discipline. I look at Michael Phelps and Bruce Jenner, and I think the moral center has shifted.

  13. I've been thinking about the sports like diving, where all that training goes into something that only takes a couple of seconds. Pfftt. It's over.

    And about the fact that no matter how careful you are and how hard you train, you can still wake up on event day with a cold or a tummy bug or just not feeling quite right. And then the pressure...

    But having read so many memoirs and interviews with competitive rowers and Olympic champions and contenders when I was writing No Mark Upon Her, I can understand why they do it. There's no high like it--and it's addictive.

    Lucy, I had to laugh!!! Every so often I run into to someone I know who's not a big reader, and they'll say, politely, "Oh. Are you writing another book?" I always want to scream, "It's my job!!! Of course I'm writing another bloody book!!!" Usually I restrain myself...

  14. Nancy,
    Such an interesting take on the zen of training.

    The Zen of writing.....Sometimes I think preparing for a marathon night be easier.

  15. Linda,
    That might be the best thing about writing, it's one of the few things where age and experience might actually be a bonus!

  16. I'm in agony for every double fault, misstep and unstuck landing....even for the teams I'm not cheering for. my heart broke for Andy Roddick. Not because I thought he'd win (although why not) but because I just wanted him to do better.
    Gymnastics are the hardest to watch - how those little girls fling themselves in the air and land on a four inch piece of wood is terrifying to watch. I can't imagine being one of their parents. I'd be seeing wheelchairs.

    Rhys, totally jealous. I've been watching the tennis every morning (while I'm on the rowing machine so i don't feel so guilty!)

  17. I am bothered by the media focus on medals, especially on the GOLD medal. In my own personal opinion,every athlete who makes it to the Olympics is a winner. ALL the athletes who go through all the trials but do not make the Olympic team are still winners, as far as I am concerned. They have proven themselves to be dedicated, disciplined,focused. That cannot be said of a lot of other people. I admire any athlete who picks himself/herself up after a disastrous performance, does not blame anyone,and goes on.

    Deb...I have a young relative who has been a professional dancer for around nine years,has traveled around the world numerous times with a dance company. She has recently returned to school but still dances professionally part time. Whenever someone asks me if she gets paid for dancing,I want to scream "it's her PROFESSION! Does your dentist get paid for pulling teeth?" Some people ask ridiculous questions!

    Darlene...how about a long sun dress?Perhaps you can wear a light coverup over your shouulders if they,too,are pasty white? (From one pasty white person to another!)

  18. Oh yes...there was a question there..I really can't imagine having that kind of dedication as a young person and I don't visualize myself festooned with gold medals and ribbons but I do take some inspiration. I've stuck to my diet and have been exercising more since the Olympics started! Their bodies are amazing.

    BTW some of the coverage is awful. I realize we're in America but for pete's sake lighten up on the jingoism.

  19. DebR, I'm glad you reminded us of Darlene's question. I would also suggest a nice summery tunic with pants and sandals. Should move well from the political talks to the barbecue.

  20. I'm definitely a weird thought kind of person. For example, every time I see a gymnast I wonder if she has enough body fat to menstruate. And I wonder how gymnasts keep their leotards from riding up on their butt cheeks. Sad to say, but the Olympics are kind of lost on me. :-)

    Also, I'm not particularly patriotic, so the rah-rah go-team stuff is lost on me. I like rooting for the underdog country. And ever since Nadia Comeneci, I've had a fondness for (ex)Eastern block gymnasts...Weird, huh?

  21. Lisa, I used to be the commentator for a charity fashion show and when the models wore swimsuits they used a spray body adhesive to keep the backside of their suits in place. Gymnasts probably do something similar.

    In a pinch I once saw one of the models spray her behind with hairspray to keep the suit from creeping up. Just for the record, I didn't mean to see it but when I did I had to ask her what the heck she was doing.

    Deb, thanks for the suggestion of a long sundress to hide my pale legs. I'm not sure there are any in the stores. I actually saw a rack of parkas (seriously) this weekend. And I'd need some killer shoes. Maybe my "sister" Hank would lend me something from her shoe collection to make me look taller. Or maybe I should go with Linda's tunic and pants.

  22. Oh, that's interesting, Darlene. Thanks for providing insider knowledge. You must have tons of stories from your commentator days!

  23. I love this topic. I'm with you, Jan, I need the do-overs and the reward for sheer determination, not for the 30-seconds of perfect performance.

    On the other hand, I am so moved that ANYONE can pull it together and perform well in their 30 seconds on the Olympic stage that I'm almost in tears at every moment of the Olympic coverage.

    That's part of why I write about an athlete (yes, racecar drivers are!) who goes out and performs when the pressure is on, because I'm fascinated by the ability of someone to treat that performance as commonplace.

  24. God bless the desk chair and the backspace button!

    While I do get emotional watching the athletes bring home the gold, I may get even more teary-eyed during the Academy Awards.

    This weekend, my friend's 6-six-year-old nephew nonchalantly told us, "Eh - I don't think I'm going to do the Olympics."

  25. DebR, I agree about the focus on medals (although I'm certainly rah-rahing Team GB in rowing.) EVERYONE who competes is a hero in my book, and I'm much less interested in the big names (swimmers, anyone?) who have huge endorsements. And the NBC coverage has been embarrassingly jingoistic. Makes me hope it's not being seen outside the US...

    And Ro, as for watching the gymnasts, my daughter tumbled through junior high and high school. She didn't do bars or pommel horse, and never wanted to compete--she just loved the floor routines. But every time I watched her twist her body into those gravity defying flips and twists, my heart was in my mouth. I can't imagine what the parents of the these wonderful young gymnasts, male and female, from ALL the countries, must be going through.

  26. Yes Sister Darlene! Long sundress or mid-calf skirt and tshirt. With a a little cardigan. Maybe tied around your neck. Or a flowy scarf! Wedges for shoes so your heels don't poke into the grass.

    Don't worry about white legs! My legs are totally white. it's a testament to our intelligence that we don't bake in the sun. I don't worry about it at all.

    When we are old, our legs will not be wrinkly! Pants and tunic, also good. Calls for jewelry...


  27. Tammy,
    No question athletic performance tells you a lot about a character under pressure!

    Debs, I once did a story about overuse injuries in kids and all the orthopedic experts used gymnastics as an example, basically saying it is only the freaks-of-nature that can survive doing all that stuff to their bodies on a regular basis.

    Susan Elizabeth, Eh, I've decided not to do the Olympics this year either!

  28. Linda... I like your vision that seems to be on the doing rather than on the competing, although there is a sort of competition between self and resources.

    I've been competing with the lack of resources for my needs for several years now. When I started commenting on writers' blogs a couple of years ago, I was using two chopsticks with paper tack on the ends and, letting my desk support my arms, type with those. That was actually an improvement over the bubblegum and chopsticks that I used writing my doctoral papers.

    A few days ago I upgraded my computer's operating system. The latest version of Mac OS X (10.8) includes a built-in speech to text program called Dictation. It is almost perfect. No training is involved. That's what I'm using right now.

    Flannery O'Connor's fortitude - an Olympian goal.

  29. Darlene, politicians love pasty white legs.

  30. Reine, sweetie, you are my hero!

    So glad you got a good speech-to-text program. My oldest son is an IT wizard (professionally) and found me a good one for PC to use when I'm in a bad flare and my shoulders seize on me.

    We're good to go, sis, until our mouths get broken (never going to happen to this mouthy woman!).

  31. Jan... Linda... What nice things to say to me. I guess I'm speechless.