The Performance of Writing: What Writers Can Learn From Elite Athletes
June 27, 2018 § 14 Comments
By Claudia Hinz
Joyce Carol Oates describes the anticipation as “low dread.” The fact that Oates, one of the most prolific and decorated writers of our times, approaches her writing desk with “low dread” leaves little hope for the rest of us mere mortals. There are long mornings of procrastination when I am assiduously wiping down the kitchen counters, deciding to do a second run through with granite spray before buffing out the cloudy spots, that I am mentally ticking through every thing I would rather do.
There are weeks, months when I would rather be doing anything else besides writing. And yet, if I am not writing, I am not myself. Or rather, I am my grumpy and irritable self. The self that feels she has scooted along the surface, checked off items on the to-do list, but never set foot in a whole other dimension of my world. As writers, we may experience those rare and near perfect moments, maybe even long minutes or hours of these moments, in which we are like athletes, outside ourselves or so deeply within ourselves, that we feel outside of time. The coffee goes cold and hours disappear. After a good day of writing, I leave my desk and get into my car for errands, pick up a child at school, take the dog to the park, and while I know I am engaging with the “real world,” it feels like the truer world is inside me and now, partially on the page, and I’m itching to get back to play. But these moments are fleeting. So how does a writer lay the groundwork for more of these days at the desk and fewer “low dread” days?
Writers have much to learn from sports psychology and the practices of successful athletes. I’ve spent a lot of time over the years at track meets, watching both my own children and Olympic athletes prepare to compete. Often, it is the image of my daughter in the infield before a race, accelerating her steps in strides, driving her knees high in the air, that I think of when I’m sitting down to work. All the pre-race preparations, the development of a routine performed exactly the same way time and time again, are ways to get out of one’s head, to stop the ego from needling with doubt and allow the body to do what it has trained to do.
If I do the same warm up every morning in preparation to write, I am communicating to my body that I am ready. I am prepared to begin the process of descending deep within. But what about that voice in my head that is telling me none of this is good enough, that no one will ever read what I have spent years struggling to voice?
Athletes rely strongly on visualization. Olympic runners may pause in their starting blocks, eyes closed as they sway; they envision the whole race as they have trained to run it. Before beginning her floor routine, World champion and Olympic gymnast Jordyn Wieber paused in the corner of the mat and performed a series of twisting movements, arms wrapped tightly around herself as she visualized her tumbling routine.
What an athlete says to herself before competing is the ultimate preparation. This mantra is seldom about going out to achieve a lifetime personal record. Instead, this self-talk revolves around the confidence an athlete has built in the daily routines of practice, drills, free throws, hours and hours tumbling down a 4-inch wooden beam so the mind doesn’t have to think. The body is on auto-pilot. It has been trained what to do. The self-talk may be as simple as, I am ready.
Now, there is one more important aspect influencing an athlete’s mindset and her performance: the elements beyond her control. As an athlete, there is always illness and injury to contend with. There are also the elements of weather, a headwind in your face or a teacher or boss who is being difficult. Things will not go perfectly. An athlete who strives for perfectionism will find herself on an impossible and destructive course. The only thing within our control is the practice, and the dedication to it day in and day out.
The greatest javelin thrower in the world taught himself everything about the sport by watching YouTube videos. Julius Yego grew up in a small village in Kenya. As a child he sharpened sticks into points that would pierce the earth when launched into the air. There was no one to train him, but he knew instinctively that if he practiced like the professionals on the videos he studied, he, too could be successful. He won the world championships and took silver at the Olympics in Rio.
I’m not suggesting that writers should imitate the practices of the best writers, although one can certainly find models of dogged and indefatigable work practices in Flaubert’s ungodly hours and Joyce Carol Oates’ voluminous production. It is the practice itself we must cultivate. The practice is enough. Enough to set the stage to write from that place of dreams, as Robert Olin Butler urges, from the white hot center we are striving to touch, the mysteries we are so curious to explore and express about ourselves and the world beyond our desks.
“I didn’t give up,” Julius Yego told a reporter. And perhaps herein is the best lesson: if we keep showing up, sitting down or lying down or however you can get comfortable in the most uncomfortable interrogations of the exposed self, we are doing the work. Practicing is the work. We are rehearsing for those out-of-body moments, pen in hand, fingers clamoring on the keys, when we feel our worlds righted and know with certainty we are doing what we are supposed to. We are training to extend ourselves far beyond ourselves, into the deepest depths and then come back to tell.
Claudia Hinz lives in Bend, Oregon. Her essays, fiction, articles and book reviews have appeared in The Boston Globe, International Herald Tribune, 1859 Oregon’s Magazine, Flash Fiction Magazine, Bend Lifestyle Magazine, BLUNTMoms and True North Parenting. Her first novel is out on submission. Follow her on Twitter at @ChinzClaudia