Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Writing as athleticism. As I've previously noted, I hate sport and am shit at it. Still, I live in Australia and can't help being interpellated by our national pre-Olympics narrative about how self-evidently great sport is and how heroic our athletes are as they strive to achieve the ultimate worthiness as people: Olympic gold.

John Clarke's documentary series Sporting Nation was refreshingly clear-eyed and knowing about why Australia, as a nation, stakes so much on international sporting success, while at the same time being empathetic about what this machine requires of the individual athletes who fuel it.

There was a pretty trashy and indulgent documentary profile of Ian Thorpe, The Swimmer, on TV last weekend. It was not thrilling to watch, or illuminating of Thorpe's character, as some sports documentaries can be. It was made by Thorpe's mates Gregor Jordan and Simone Kessell, and perhaps it's this pre-existing friendship that makes them reluctant to take their subject anywhere uncomfortably revealing. It felt more like a home video.

Thorpe is a stolid, physically imposing presence with a strikingly classical face. Over the course of endless press conferences and TV interviews, he has taught himself an inscrutable composure and an uneasily anodyne manner of speaking. At some points he seems relaxed and chatty over lattes, the way we are with friends; but when Thorpe scents a 'serious' moment may be happening, he slips into his public persona as cleanly and neatly as diving into a pool.

Kessell, especially, proves to be a clumsy and insensitive interviewer. (After Thorpe's crushing failure at the Australian Olympic trials, she says from offscreen, "So, you didn't make the team." A flash of contempt and anger crosses Thorpe's face: "Yeah, thanks for reminding me.")

I've also become quite fascinated by the ABC series Race to London, which follows six athletes as they prepare for 2012 Olympic selection. Three are famous veterans trying to come back from hiatus and injury; three are Paralympic hopefuls fighting personal demons and the logistics imposed by their bodies.

What fascinates me is the tenacity of these athletes in the face of failure, and their obsessive struggle to improve their physical abilities. What are their times? Their scores? Their weights and training strategies? What outside factors stymie their performances? How can they do better? How do they cope when they do badly? Who's in their support team?

At the moment I'm undertaking a Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowship. I'm writing this from a mezzanine overlooking the Wheeler Centre offices. Part of the reason I applied for this fellowship was to surround myself with a writerly environment that would act like my support team as I race to complete a 60,000-word first draft of my book by 31 August.

But I'm already encountering setbacks. Mostly these are logistical; it's very stressful to be embarking on such a sustained writing task when MIFF is going to overlap with almost three weeks of it, and I've been busy writing ThreeThousand's pre-MIFF coverage. I'm also teaching a course on Writing for the Web through Writers Victoria, and while it's handy to be in the building already, I've found the students expect more detail in the PowerPoint and course notes than I initially anticipated.

I've found the writing process on my book frustratingly slow. It's not the kind of writing I can just dash off; everything has to be informed by archival research and recourse to interviews and examples, which I have to find and look up in order to shape the structure of the book. To do otherwise would be like setting off on a road race without having a plan or strategy for how to handle the distance.

Yesterday I got a pretty devastating email from my editor. I'd almost killed myself, working night and day, trying to revise a chapter according to her comments on the previous version. I handed in 12,000 words on Friday night. Her reaction was basically that I'd handed in more of the same, and hadn't listened to her comments at all.

I was utterly crushed. I was doubting that I even have what it takes to be a good writer. What if I am just a dilettante who has managed to get this far on connections and dumb luck?

The other thing about the Wheeler Centre is that you can't sob at your desk, as I am used to doing at home. I had to go into the toilets. It was the presence of writers, the sense of an industry in the building, the very sense of being amid a community of peers, that paradoxically also made me feel nobody would be sympathetic to my failure. There's no crying in baseball!

But then I decided to think of myself as an athlete who's struggling to improve myself by a set deadline, straining my capabilities to their limit and still not working at a level that will win me selection on the team (publication) or a medal performance (good reviews and sales).

There is no point feeling devastated that all my hard work still hasn't produced the result I want. My only recourse is to become resilient, as athletes are when faced with a setback, and to be more strategic about how I can hone my skills, to learn from my editor's feedback as I'd listen to a coach.

The difference, though, is that most elite athletes have a support team of physiotherapists, dieticians and assistants around them. I can't count on my publisher and editor to be there for me. I need to be able to encourage and motivate myself.

Like an athlete who pours everything into their sport and stakes their entire sense of self on their success in it, I have nothing else in my life that makes me feel good about myself. Writing is it. And, like an athlete whose career is circumscribed by the physical limitations of an ageing body, I feel as if I've been given a narrow window of opportunity to succeed as a writer; I constantly fret that my publisher will see my lack of productivity as a sign that I was a bad investment, and that they'll cancel my contract and make me pay back my advance, and then all my work will have been for nothing.

Mel, I've been reading your blog and following your byline in various publications for many years. I enjoy your writing very much, and more than that, empirically it's of an incredibly high standard. It's sad that you don't feel supported by your editor, and that she/he has insensitively provided feedback. People can be bastards. (Chin up/cup of tea/deep breaths etc.) Anyway, you have an invisible network of supporters here on the interwebs, of which I'm but one. Which may not be any comfort at all, but there it is!
Thanks, Emmy! I do want to say, though, that my editor has been much more tolerant of my delicate-little-petal angst than she needed to be. It's not so much that she has been insensitive as that I've been absurdly over-sensitive. Like I say above, I need to HTFU.
I agree! I often use this type of sporting analogy to motivate myself for writing. The pretence of completing a series of simple mechanical tasks rather than a complex, intellectual project help me to just get it done.

Bat those balls, Mel!
Yes! Strategy and resilience - I like it! Also, can there please be a Writers Official Tracksuit circa Brisbane Commonwealth Games? Bottle green with two yellow stripes down the side?
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