Writers: The Ultimate Athletes

Posted on Thu, Feb 6 2014 9:00 am by Lära Palmquist


The 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics start tomorrow, and the excitement is as contagious as a head cold during a polar vortex. It’s hard not to catch the Olympic spirit, what with the opening ceremonies looking like something that broke loose from Disney’s Fantasia, the athletes looking impossible in wind suits and rippling spandex, and the crowds waving flags from around the world. The underdog stories capture our hearts, and we can’t seem to get the Olympic theme song out of our heads.

Yet the Olympics can also feel overdone, especially if, like most writers, you’re simply not the sporting type. Of course there are exceptions, but authors tend to focus more on intellectual exercise than qualifying for the Boston Marathon. As Neil Gaiman put it: “I hated sports as a kid, hated running, hated anything that wound up with me covered in mud and shivering with cold while teachers in track suits told me that I was a bit of rubbish and was not being sufficiently enthusiastic and where was my school spirit anyway? In the good and bad at organised games equation, I was firmly in the bad at games camp. I liked reading, and if it was snowing or raining, I liked reading inside in the warm.”

Okay. So we have an idea of why most writers don’t double as track stars—writing involves plenty of blood, sweat, tears, and training, but it also happens to involve a lot of sitting. Thus terms like “writer’s paunch” exist. Yet authors are still mental athletes, hitting that word count hard every day with admirable dedication and endurance. This similarity to Olympians has not gone overlooked. A slew of articles exist online detailing what writers can learn from the Olympics, including things like teamwork, perseverance, and focus.

But what if we have that backward, and Olympians should really be looking to writers for inspiration? A quick analysis proves this to be true. As it turns out, authors master the mental equivalent of nearly every event at the Winter Olympics when publishing a book. Want to see your name in print? You might want to start with some stretches, because there’s a winter sport that corresponds to each stage of the journey.

The Opening Ceremony: The torch, shining from history's horizions, has travelled closer over the years. You’ve studied its blazing trajectory, analyzed how it was carried by greats, and admired its influence. Now it's your turn. Heart thudding, you accept the noble challenge: you will write a book. Almost immediately a sense of responsibility settles heavily upon your shoulders.

The Ski Jump: After accepting your destined calling, you begin to realize the enormity of the task ahead. You see yourself standing, alone, at the rim of a monumental undertaking. You peer over the edge of a blank expanse and find no safe landing in sight. Yet you’ve already embraced this journey, and there’s no turning back. Somehow, you find the courage to take a creative leap. It feels like you’re flying. You’re convinced you’ll never hit the ground.

Alpine Skiing:  You hit the ground. At this stage obstacles loom at all angles, threatening to catch you off-guard. You struggle to avoid their wicked embrace, slaloming through self-doubt, distraction, unattainable ideals of perfection, and a wasteland of writer’s block. The only difference is that, at this point in the writing process, it generally feels more like going uphill.

Writing a book is essentially like winning the Winter Decathlon, right?

Cross-Country Skiing: The trail stretches endlessly before you into a dark wood. Your thoughts are muffled by the thick snow and slick blue ice. The horizon is void of landmarks, and you have a growing suspicion that you’ve been traveling in circles for hours. You’re about to sit down and give up forever when you glimpse a splotch of color ahead: a trail marker. Suddenly, the path and plot spin out before you.  With a burst of confidence you surge forward.

Figure Skating:  You’ve found your flow. The prose drips from your pen, covering large swaths of paper in swooping symbols and punctuation. Put together, these pieces compose something beautiful. You enter a trance-like state, moving to a mysterious, unnamable rhythm. You don’t stop to consider its source. Your focus remains on a difficult technique that will surely set your performance apart and, yes! Yes! You’ve executed the maneuver perfectly, your hard work pulling through in the end. You imagine crowds weeping with joy, but then realize it’s only you.

Speed Skating:  A celebrated coach supports your work but challenges you with a difficult deadline. To succeed you must keep your focus laser sharp, your writing honed and direct. Your fingers sweep laps across the keyboard as ideas race through your mind. You repeatedly think of how badly you want this, how hard you’ve worked. With a burst of mental willpower and a roar of pain you sprint across the finish line, your computer screen fogged with hot breath, your keyboard slick with sweat.

Curling:  There’s no time to rest. You’ve moved to the editing stage of the writing process, and someone has tasked you with vigorously sweeping your work into shape. The effort is exhausting. In a monumental display of strength you reduce your mental resistance and sculpt your manuscript into a streamlined work of art. The crowd sighs with admiration. Your editor faints with happiness.

Hockey: The final stages of finishing your book involve a real team effort. Agents, editors, publicists, distributors, your therapist—everyone is out there fighting against the odds, aiming for the same end goal. At this stage, proper mental padding, protective gear, and pep talks are all essential.

Snowboarding:  With a publication date looming, it’s time to show off your best tricks under the bright lights. You reveal selections of your finest work and are thrilled when the crowds go wild. Yet you also find yourself missing the simple days when you had ample space and silence. You begin to feel claustrophobic, as if trapped between two towering white walls.

Bobsled:  The big day arrives—your book release! This is the terrifying moment when you finally invite readers inside your head (sled) and take them along for a plot-twisting ride. Everyone’s reactions are recorded at the finish line. The first runs are a soaring success! You bask in glowing reviews.

As evidenced above, any book publication deserves a medal, gold silver or otherwise. And as it so happens, authors were once recognized with this very honor.  Between 1912 and 1948, writers and artists held significant influence at the Olympics as participants in the “Pentathlon of the Muses.” Over the course of nearly four decades, painters, writers, musicians, and architects were awarded gold, silver, and bronze medals just like athletes, with 151 medals awarded in total.

While Olympic formatting has unfortunately changed, the heroic effort involved in writing holds firm. Medals or not, finishing a writing project can still feel intimidating, exhausting, and epic. And so we train with spectacular diligence, remain at our desks with astonishing endurance, and tirelessly flex our creative muscles. Olympians, take note: as writers, we are the ultimate athletes.

Lära Palmquist is the Loft's marketing and communications intern.