Like many of the readers here on Writing Prompts I love a well turned-phrase. Even more, I enjoy a powerful story. It is obvious when a writer puts in extra effort to really make his work shine. There are books that I’ve read that will resonate with me forever. I also work hard in my own writing to create more than just words on paper and anecdotes strung together. I’ve studied the craft in detail and have developed a deep appreciation for the hidden structure of a great story. It’s not uncommon for me to do ten rewrites in order to hide every bit of structure. To achieve results in writing requires constant, passionate exercise of the craft.
I’m also an athlete. I started playing soccer when I was 8 years old thanks to the encouragement of a next door neighbor from Scotland. I’ve played steadily since then and am nearly half a century old now (and I have the knees to prove it!) I also ride motorcycles both on and off road, practiced Taekwondo, and visit the gym probably more than I should. Few things catch my eye more strongly than a truly beautiful goal or touchdown. Auburn Football’s “Kick-Six” against Alabama in the Iron Bowl last year was a high point of my life. Watching trials riders work their magic and trying to copy them is an obsession of mine – primarily because I can’t do it. If anything is true of high-achieving athletes, it is practicing the same thing over and over again and training tirelessly to hone the body to make what they do appear effortless.
The connection might not be immediately obvious, but writing and athletics are inextricably bound. Great athletes and great writers make it look easy. The performance of great teams and great stories have an invisible, underlying structure that requires discipline and study to understand. Few things are more beautiful. Only those who have achieved at this level understand how easy it isn’t, and the amount of effort and time required to make it happen. Perhaps this is why the Ancient Greeks were obsessed with both literature and sport. As everyone knows, the Olympics were invented by the Ancient Greeks. At the same time, they were codifying the elements of story that have remained with us to the present. Athletics and writing are both art and beauty of the highest form and their elite practitioners are dedicated disciples who strive for excellence in all that they do. It is sad then that both lie under umbrellas of somewhat less glory.
It has been said that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is the most corrupt organization on the planet. A cursory Google search turns up a long list of improprieties from representatives of every country. Embezzlement of funds and acceptance of bribes by representatives seems to be the accepted business model. How the Olympics ended up at a place that receives virtually no snowfall can only be due to under-the-table dealing. And once again, the kleptocractic leaders of Russia have used massive building projects to pocket billions, leaving the facilities incomplete and substandard. (C.C.C.P. anyone?) While the hard work of the athletes has been showcased on television, the bigger story in the end might wind up being how business magnates with no athletic talent of their own and little appreciation for hard work have exploited the athletes’ passion to line the pockets of their sable coats. Of the athletes involved, most will receive little economic benefit from their hard work while a tiny majority will come to sit atop fortunes. Seldom do the regions that are promised economic bounty in IOC proposals experience any long-term benefit but far more often inherit the economic drain of maintaining the shells of long-abandoned, once-used venues. And we’re going to replay it all over again in two years.
If you’ve been writing for more than a few years the parallels between the Olympics and the writing industry are all too obvious. On the product end of the scale are legions of writers experiencing the daily toil of creation, working hard to hone their craft and generate beauty. We give our lives to our work and produce the best we can. As with athletics there are few ‘winners’ but our love of the craft gets us up off our backs and headed towards the next finish line. On the other side of the industry is a sycophantic hierarchy built around the over-promotion of selected work of greatly varying quality. While I have no problem with a business attempting to make money, jaded industry executives more often rely on the dubious advice of talent agents, with little talent of their own, who act as middle-men between the creators and the distributors. All too often it is their own proclivities that determine product selection rather than the identification and cultivation of markets. The result is much like the Olympics – the hyper-success of a tiny majority amidst the crumbling ruins of the literary industry.
So why do we do it? Why does the Olympian compete? Why does the writer, write? When we know that so much of success depends on jaded, corrupt organizations with 19th Century business models? Because despite the ugliness of the industries that claim to represent us, in our hearts we know that they don’t. In our hearts we know that what we do reflects who we are inside. We are our own representatives. The runner doesn’t run to be first, or the skier to finish at the top, or the skater to spin to glory, or the writer to get rich. These are the dreams that sometimes keep us going, but we do what we do because we love the feel of wind in our hair and the element of danger that goes with it. We do it because we are human and without goals the thrill of living slowly ebbs. While the tantalizing hope of success pulls us ever forward, for to dream is to be alive, it is the expression of who we are inside that wins the day. In the end, it isn’t the roar of the crowd that defines who we are, it is the things we do when we are alone that matter the most.
John C. Brewer is a novelist, physicist, rocket scientist, lifelong soccer player, motorcycle rider, husband, father, and the author of Multiplayer, an adventure for young adults, and The Silla Project, a North Korean nuclear romance. Find out more about what he is doing at johncbrewer.com.