What writers can learn from the Olympic games

Despite all I feel about the cost of hosting the Olympic games in London this summer (siphoning funds that could, in my view, have been put to much better use), I have to confess to finding the dawn-to-dusk media coverage not only impossible to boycott, but also on occasion compelling.

For example, women’s archery. Amazon-like contestants raise their bows, release the arrow, and there it is piercing the small gold ring at the centre of the target.

Except that sometimes, it misses. One archer I watched produced three perfect shots, then, on her next turn, fired three that were so wide of the mark they scarcely added to her score.

I suspected this was what archery is like, even at the highest, Olympic level. Some you win, some you don’t. But the commentators had a different explanation, which made me think about writing.

The contestant, the commentators said, had lost not only her focus but her nerve, and it was this that caused the arrow to land wide.

It was a theme I heard many times during the course of the London Olympics. It was footballer Aaron Ramsey’s hesitation as he took his second  penalty shoot-out against South Korea that ended Britain’s hope of a place in the final. Conversely, taekwondo fighter Jade Jones’ ‘bonkers’ gold medal win was the result of a sudden surge in confidence. No one doubts the reason Team GB did so spectacularly well at their home games was down to the belief and support of the crowd.

In many ways, writers are luckier than Olympic contestants. What we do does not depend on a few minutes’ trial in circumstances which may not be ideal (Ramsey had a long wait before that crucial second penalty, and all the archers I watched struggled with a breeze). If words don’t fire well on a particular day, we can always come back the next and try again.

And yet. There is a depressing statistic: thousands of novels are started each year but only a small percentage are ever completed. While some of these will remain unfinished for good reason, I suspect many potentially fine novels are abandoned from lack of confidence. It is all too easy, when writing, to let doubts pull us off course: do my words have the  grace and precision of an arrow? Will they reach a reader? What will that reader think of me if I miss?

Completing a novel depends on three things. The first is action. Nothing will get written if space is not cleared so that words can be set down each day. The second is persistence. It isn’t enough to write on Monday when hopes and energy are high, the process has to be repeated each day of the week over months and probably years.

The third element is confidence. As all Olympians know, believing you can do something is perhaps the single most important ingredient in striking gold.

I wonder what insights the London Paralympics, just starting, will give…

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