Perseverance – Writing Lessons from the Olympics

The Olympics are here! I’ve been watching a lot of the events on television, and no matter which sport I’m watching—cycling, gymnastics, swimming—I’m amazed at the level of accomplishment I see in these athletes.

How did these individuals reach this level? How did they surpass everyone else in their field?

Some of it is raw talent. But talent alone is not what divides Olympians from other athletes. You could make an argument for a lot of different factors—supportive families, strong coaching, hours of practice. All those things contribute to the making of an Olympic athlete. In this post, I want to talk about the factor that is arguably the most important of all—perseverance.

Whether or not an athlete continues in the face of fear and adversity can make or break their chances of accomplishing their dreams.

The same can be said of writers.

When I was younger, I knew a girl whose entire life was wrapped up in gymnastics. She trained long hours every day. She competed in state and national competitions. She was on her way to the elite level. Her dream was to become an Olympic gymnast.

Until one day, she just quit.

I asked her what had happened that made her leave gymnastics. Her answer surprised me, and I have never forgotten it. She explained that, as you progress up through levels of competition, obviously the difficulty of the moves increases. But it wasn’t that the moves had become too challenging physically; they had become too challenging mentally. She had seen a lot of gymnasts get hurt, and she was frightened. Attempting more difficult moves was just too scary. She had reached a point where she knew she would never progress to the next level, because her fear was stronger than her motivation.

Perseverance is defined as “steady persistence in a course of action, a purpose, a state, etc., especially in spite of difficulties, obstacles, or discouragement.” (dictionary.com)

Perseverance is as essential to writers as it is to athletes. Whatever your writing dream—to complete a novel, to see your work published, to develop a loyal readership—you won’t get there if you don’t persevere through the tough times.

And don’t be fooled. All writers have tough times. All writers want to give up at some point along the way.

Here are just a few of the times when I have wanted to give up:

  • When I finished the second chapter and realized it wasn’t half as good as the first.
  • When I got to the middle and realized I had started the novel at the wrong point in the story and needed to start over.
  • When I was so tired after working my day job and just wanted to watch TV “like a normal person.”
  • When I finished the first draft and knew how much work it would take to revise it into the book I knew it could be.
  • When I finished reading a fantastic book and immediately compared my own writing to it, usually with a declaration something like, “My writing stinks! I will never write as well as (insert name of author here.)”

These are the moments when I am like that gymnast. I know what it will take to reach the next level, and I begin to doubt myself.

Writing takes intense effort and sacrifice. It takes perseverance in the face of fear. It takes perseverance in the face of failure. It takes perseverance in the face of rejection.

So just how does a writer persevere when quitting is oh so tempting?

Here are some tricks that have helped me to keep going:

  • Write every day. If I’m facing burn-out on a project, I write something else—a poem, a journal entry, a letter—even notes for my next project. If I’m completely burned out, I let myself write just one sentence. (Usually, that sentence leads to many more, but not always!)
  • If my project is in the doldrums, I go back and read the outline or the opening chapter—something I wrote when I was still in love with it. This helps remind me why I wanted to write this story in the first place.
  • Talk it out with another writer. Tell your critique partner how you feel. Writer friends can give you the encouragement to keep going.
  • Remember that there is always another project, and everything is a step in the learning process. A project isn’t a “failure” if you learned from it.
  • Read up on your favorite authors. Learn about their paths to publication. Chances are there were bumps along the way.

The first event of this summer’s Olympics that I watched was the men’s cycling road race. The winner of that event, 38-year-old Alexander Vinokourov, wouldn’t even have been in that race if he had quit cycling last year as he had originally planned after breaking his femur in the Tour de France. “After so many crashes, returning to cycling was difficult, but I was still hoping for a good result,” Vinokourov said. “My family, my kids, my parents were behind me the whole time. I still have the metal plate in my hip, my femur, so it wasn’t easy. Today, a dream has come true.” (Excerpted from a story by Samuel Petrequin of the Associated Press.)

I hope you are finding the Olympics inspiring! Please share your thoughts in the comments.

16 Responses to Perseverance – Writing Lessons from the Olympics

  1. Pamela Jul 30 2012 at 12:14 pm #

    I’ve been watching a lot of “the Games” and also drawing the connection between athletes and writers. We practice, put in long hours, work toward very personal dreams. Thanks for the encouragement to keep going!

    • Julie
      Julie Jul 30 2012 at 12:59 pm #

      Hi Pamela! I’m glad you found the post encouraging! I hope you enjoy the rest of the Olympics! 🙂

  2. CB Soulsby Jul 30 2012 at 12:31 pm #

    Excellent post. I too, amm finding the Olympics very inspiring. I used to love doing gym but I (fasely) believed that you needed “natural” talent to succeed. I was too young to know that everyone is rubbish when they start doing something and that it is practise and dedication that leads to accomplishment! Thankfully, I’ve learned that lesson now. I may be too old to be a gymnast but I’m not too old to try to be a published author!

    • Julie
      Julie Jul 30 2012 at 1:06 pm #

      Hi CB! I’m so glad you found your way to writing after letting leaving gymnastics! That’s one of the great things about writing – you can do it at any age. 🙂

  3. Marie Lu
    Marie Lu Jul 30 2012 at 1:20 pm #

    This is such a lovely and heartfelt post, Julie! <3 Again and again, the Olympics are definitely a stark reminder of success, failure, and persistence. I was watching women's gymnastics last night; my heart broke for Jordan Wieber when the scores came up and she realized she was not going to make the cut for the Olympics finals. The way her face crumpled and her shoulders slumped….oh god, I felt it in my gut, because I know it's exactly how writers feel when we realize our book isn't going to make it with the agents, or that it won't sell to the publishers. It's a special kind of pain to fall after working so hard on something. But it's also a special kind of perseverance, and when we DO win (I cheered so much for Alexandra Raisman, the underdog who made it to the Olympics finals), it really is a special kind of joy. Success just wouldn't feel the same without the rejections. Sugar tastes that much sweeter after tasting something bitter. <3 Loved your post!!

    • Julie
      Julie Jul 30 2012 at 1:53 pm #

      Hey Marie! I’m so glad you enjoyed this post! 🙂 I also watched women’s gymnastics last night. I knew ahead of time that Jordan Wieber wouldn’t make it (it was already being reported on the web) but it was still just as painful to see her reaction. I was amazed at the way she managed to pull herself together and even spoke to reporters afterwards. I kept thinking how she would have to keep going, would still need to compete after that crushing blow, and wondering how she would be able to battle on. That is a unique form of perseverance indeed. As a writer, I definitely can learn a lot about perseverance from Jordan Wieber. Thanks for your comments!

  4. Rowenna Jul 30 2012 at 1:52 pm #

    Great, inspirational post–and a reminder that every day is a choice to keep going or to turn aside. There’s no shame, I think, in deciding a dream isn’t yours anymore. But when you still have a dream that you want to pursue, you’re right–fear is always part of it. And every day we have to overcome that fear. I love your tip to just write–even one sentence. I think taking action is one of the best foils for fear 🙂

    • Julie
      Julie Jul 30 2012 at 2:14 pm #

      Hey Rowenna! I always love to read your comments! I agree that there is no shame in turning away from a dream. We constantly have to weigh the costs against our drive, and sometimes the costs win out. Sometimes our dreams transfer into something else. I wrote my first novel years ago, and then worked with film and video for a long time before returning to prose writing. Sometimes I let myself wonder what would have happened if I had “stayed on course,” and not made the switch to film, but then I realize what I would have missed out on from those pursuits. Fortunately, writing is a distance race and not a sprint. 🙂

  5. Alexa Love Books Aug 1 2012 at 3:20 pm #

    This post is so inspiring. I’m at that weird point where I’ve written 10k and I just want to throw it all away and start on something new. I know there’s an important story to be told, and this post has reminded me that it’s important to just keep pushing forward with writing!

    • Julie
      Julie Aug 1 2012 at 3:49 pm #

      Hi Alexa! I’ve been in your place so many times! I go through a “honeymoon” with every WIP, and then along the way (usually more than once) I want to throw the whole thing away. If you really believe in your story, (and it sounds like you do,) you will be so happy you kept going. I’m glad you liked the post! 🙂

  6. Rogelio Oct 2 2012 at 8:25 am #

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  7. Melissa Aug 14 2014 at 5:26 pm #

    Julie, this post is great. It takes so much discipline to both sit down and write a book as well as become a great author. I recently interviewed best selling author Todd Klick, http://bit.ly/ToddKlickRBSS; and he shared a similar trick to what you recommended. You must write every day. I’ve talked to several best selling authors and they all say the same thing that writing daily is critical to achieving success as a author.

    • Julie
      Julie Aug 15 2014 at 7:33 pm #

      Hi Melissa! So happy you liked the post. I’m glad to know that writing every day is advocated by the writers you’ve interviewed. I will definitely check out your blog. Thanks for commenting. 🙂

      • Melissa Aug 19 2014 at 9:51 am #

        Thanks Julie! I look forward to having you visit my site.

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