Comparison and Contrast
by Celina Summers
Looked really tight? The man is six foot four inches, one hundred and ninety-four pounds, and has an arm span of over six and a half feet with abs you could slice ham on and legs taller than anyone who competed in gymnastics. I think it's anatomically impossible for a guy who put the lank in lanky to ever look tight.
That being said—
Right now, across the world tens of thousands of people like myself who swam competitively in their youth but gave it up are shaking their heads. Michael Phelps has been to—and won gold at—three Olympics. That's twelve years of international caliber swimming. It doesn't even count the years before that and how hard he worked to even get to that level. Hours upon hours of work seven days a week, fifty-two weeks a year, since the twentieth century. He didn't just wake up one day as the greatest swimmer who's ever lived. Nope, he worked for years to gain that status and earned every ounce of the eighteen gold and four silver Olympic medals that now hang around his neck.
So I always find it baffling that people think writing is easy.
You don't just wake up one day and write a bestseller. Writers spend a lot of long, lonely hours—sitting at their desks getting words down on paper, editing and revising, cutting and rewriting. We have to. I wish that the very first time I sat down and started to lay a story out on paper that it had been a perfect manuscript, that I landed the first agent I sent it to, sold it to the first publisher she sent it to, and sold out of the first printing before the book was released.
But that's not quite the way it worked out—for any writer that I'm aware of.
Just as an Olympic champion swimmer spends years upon years of his life in the water, swimming lap after lap, working on his stroke and kick, stretching his endurance to the longest possible moment, and gaining his top speed one thousandth of a second at a time—the writer must also work out intellectually, spending years upon years within their stories, consigning those stories to paper and reworking them until they are the best possible representation of their writing. You can't expect someone to jump into the pool for the first time at twenty-four and swim a world record time. Why, then, would you expect someone to write the next great American novel right out of the gate? Heck, for that matter, why would you expect your first draft to be the final draft?
Why expect gold right off the bat?
Writers' expectations should be more realistic. And just like a top athlete, achievement comes after you've established the daily repetition of exercise—word counts or scene goals, a set amount of work completed day in and day out with gradually increasing goal expectations. Sometimes, life conspires so you can just jump right in. In my writing life, for example, I started off as a full time writer because of an accident that kept me from working. Those long days after that accident, I sat alone in our apartment for eighteen hours a day while my husband worked two jobs to keep our heads above water—no internet, no cable television, not even a telephone to break up the monotony. Every morning, I woke and climbed into my recliner, powered up the computer, and wrote. I rarely went out, even more rarely found some other way to engage my mind. All I had was my story, and I steeped myself in that world. I cranked out six 150,000 word first drafts in three months.
And I look back at those first drafts and cringe.
Writing is a tough business. Whether you write epic or flash, you must be trained for success by constantly working to refine and improve your craft. And just like Michael Phelps has his coach, Bob Bowman, the author has her coach—her editor. Bob Bowman helped Phelps to trim seconds off his time; an editor helps a writer to trim the unnecessary and tighten up her manuscript. You may hate working with your editor at the time—God knows I've yelled at the computer screen a lot during edits—but the end result of that work makes you glad you did it.
See, the whole purpose of training, whether you're an athlete or a writer, is to make the very difficult look very easy. As writers, we're surrounded by tons of people in real life who confide, "I plan to write a book some day"—like it's an easy thing to do…like just anyone can do it. (Unfortunately, we editors rarely escape that person at the party, who then proceeds to pitch their story to us and talk confidently about how much money they intend to make. It's a conversation that never ends well.) But writing isn't easy. Writing is hard. Writing takes training and patience, meticulous attention to detail and the dedication to sit down at the computer every single day. Athletes like Michael Phelps have a big advantage, too. Phelps started swimming competitively at age seven. Writers, on the other hand, write competitively much later in life. Sure—I have trunk novels from when I was in my late teens, but I'll burn them before I let someone read them now.
So while we all sit back in admiration as the greatest Olympian and swimmer of all time finally hangs up his goggles, stop and think for a minute of writing as a sport. Sit down and set your goals, then determine the training you'll need to meet those goals. Take the guidance of your coach/editor, and use that knowledge to improve your work. And while you'll never get that national anthem moment on the podium, with the dedication and drive every successful writer needs you might get that quiet moment in the middle of the night when a new review comes out of one of your stories and you feel the triumph of a job well done.
And until Bravo comes up with a writing reality show (and I would so audition for it, by the way), that's the medal ceremony for people like us. Unless, of course, you play the Star Spangled banner every time you finish a story.
Kind of cheesy, but hey—if it works, it works. I'm not going to judge you for it.