The Case for Olympic Writing


I ASK MYSELF: if writing were an Olympic sport, who would be its 2014 gold medalist? Alas, we may never know. Of course, we are free to speculate, and that can be good fun. Would it be Mark Helprin? J.K. Rowling? The (help me out here) Fifty Shades of Grey person? Malcolm Gladwell?

In his best-selling book, I Haven’t Actually Read It But My Brother-in-Law Told Me, Gladwell suggests that you have to do something for 10,000 hours to become proficient at it. I don’t know if he uses the word ‘proficient.’ Maybe he calls this person an Outlier. (Or an out-and-out liar, as in, ‘Yeah, I totally practiced 10,000 hours at this.’) Here’s where I’m going with this. The brilliant words you are now reading are the product of many hours’ training in my sport. We writers work pretty hard to get good at what we do, like other athletes. So why not, then, include writing in the Olympics?

Before you intervene to point out that the Olympics involve physical stamina, allow me to make a few additional points. Writing is physically demanding. You try keeping your ass in this chair until you’ve produce 1,000 publishable words by deadline. Remember: no tea for you, not until 1,000 words. Stop looking at the fridge! Yes, it’s sunny out and the park looks inviting; but what’s it going to be – Olympian gold, or whatever it is that Malcolm Gladwell calls the people who don’t turn in their punched time card? Writing is a matter of commitment, concentration and physical discipline. That’s 100% true. It takes years of day-by-day practice to become a medal contender in the sport of writing.

Here’s what’s involved in the daily training regimen:

– Wake up, have a sports drink (I recommend an Ethopia Sidamo, which I make in a Bodum)
– Write 1,000 words
– DON’T check email, read the newspaper, re-organize the closet, or do Internet ‘research’
– Take a short break. Repeat the above. For twenty years.

The likelihood is you either agreed before you began reading this essay, that writing can be credibly viewed as a kind of sport, or you disagreed – and nothing I say will change your opinion. We live in a world governed by binary thinking (maybe that’s how we got the binathlon, or whatever), where everything can be broken down into Good versus Evil, Body versus Mind, and so on. Writers and writing tend to be assigned to the brain half of the body/mind divide, and needless to say the body has much better publicists. Bodies get on the front of the magazine, and you don’t see any of the writers and their fabulous brains until page 31, after the scented advertisements featuring bodies in the many things that you can buy to put on your body, too. This bias is a huge obstacle to the due recognition of writerly sportsmanship.

There’s also the question of how to judge the sport of writing. What makes an Olympic gold writer? If we’re looking for an objective measure, then total word output might be a consideration. The writer who creates the greatest volume of novels, articles or short stories wins. The New York Times best-seller list is another quantifiable assessment. Or we might defer instead to the many subjective considerations – the writer’s ‘voice,’ or wit, or use of language. A combination of the above might also possible, and in the real world these criteria probably all do play a role in determining which writers soar above the pack. For what it is worth, here is the position I take on this controversial subject: let’s go with the criteria which get me the most medals. That settles that.

The Olympics are celebrated as a triumph of the spirit, and I can’t dive my way down to the bottom of the why. Let’s talk no-bullshit about triumph. No one Goes For The Silver, which is why silver doesn’t even get to have its own alliteration. Bold for Bronze? Not likely. Even the last place finisher in an Olympic event is better at her sport than 99.99999999 percent of the planet’s population, but the cold and hard truth is that almost all the athletes are going to the Olympics to lose. It’s a loser-and-agony machine, churning out the has-beens. That’s not me saying this, it’s the Olympics and it’s the culture.

Think about it: who even knows the name of the guy who comes in fourth place, and who cares? He won’t be on the Wheaties box is my point. I’m sure he’ll be treated like a hero when he gets back to his village. They’ll meet at the meeting place, sing a village song, give him a free club sandwich. Then he’ll get a job delivering the turnips to his cousin’s produce stand in the village market. That’s harsh when you consider that the difference between the celebrated golden hero who comes in first and the also-ran who schmucks his way to silver is fractional. Here’s a clever visual (I bet Malcolm Gladwell doesn’t have these!) to show you what I mean.


All this agony of defeat stuff considered, maybe it’s better pursuing the sport of writing outside the Olympic framework. There’s something peculiar about deciding that you have to be better than any other human being in the universe at skiing through the woods for a while, then quickly shooting at some little black circles for a minute, before skiing around some more. But then, we writers have our peculiarities too. My version of the biathlon is writing for a bit, then going to the New York Times best-seller list to shoot holes in all the ‘crappy’ writers who are making way more money than I am. (Disclaimer: This all takes place in my imagination; I do not advocate shooting actual holes in actual best-selling authors, in an overwhelming 99.99 percent of the cases.)

Another thing to consider is the solitary character of writing. A writer is always at war with himself – must be at war. You, writer, are your own best friend and worst enemy. You’ll succeed or fail only because of you, not because John Grisham got to the finish line first and took your medal. Why compare yourself? Olympic writing is a concept more than it’s an event. In this sport you get up every day and you hit the track. By ‘hit’ I mean write, and by ‘track’ I mean stuffs. Sometimes after the day’s training is through, I feel that I’ve reached a new plateau. Most days I put in the work and feel that I’ve fallen short of my best, and that I’ll have to work even harder tomorrow. Going for the gold doesn’t mean beating everyone else; it means doing the best you possibly can. Easier said than done. That’s probably true for Olympians, and it’s definitely true for writers. That means writers are Olympians, right?

Now put me on the frigging Wheaties box, already.

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