Everything I’ve learned about writing this year I’ve relearned by watching the Olympics [Part III]

Today is my last visit to BookLife and I want to thank Jeff Vandermeer again for asking me to contribute this week. It’s been fun parsing thoughts about the Olympics through the lens of the writing life and I appreciate all the support and comments I’ve received. Remember, I can be found at Writer’s Rainbow at any given moment; this weekend I’ll be adding the March monthly dispatch, an introductory discussion into the three basic building blocks of a writing platform, so drop by sometime, check it out, and leave a comment! I wish all of BookLife’s readers a solid 2010 filled with inspiration and prosperity. 

Back to our regularly scheduled programming… I left my favorite observations for last. I live in the Puget Sound area, so the fact that I’m a huge fan of Apolo Ohno should come as no surprise. I do appreciate a golden child whenever he or she does come along (complete with awesome attitude), so I must also confess a fondness for snowboarder Shawn White. How can we not live in awe of these two Olympians? Here is what I took away from each of them over the last couple of weeks.  

Find your sanctuary. 

Who doesn’t admire Shawn White’s personal half-pipe situation? He made the decision to keep his edge by investing in a remote training facility he customized for his own needs, and clearly it paid off for him. He pulled out and perfected brand-new snowboarding tricks at this year’s Olympic games that no one could even imagine doing until last week. 

Okay, I’m not suggesting that we all go buy multi-million dollar writing labs in Antarctica that we have to visit via a private helicopter service. Let’s face it, who has the coin for that? 

But I am suggesting that, if you don’t have a good place to write regularly, you should consider finding one. Often that means taking ownership of one corner of your house, but it can also mean claiming a period of time in which you ask your friends and family to leave you alone. Sanctuary is not only about locating a designated physical space, but about finding the inner space you need to sit comfortably in your creative zone. This should include the careful consideration of your personal time and energy

I have a sign I picked up while on Broadway a couple of years ago. It says “Quiet on the set.” Originally I hung it on my office door handle to indicate to my family that I was recording a podcast file. And they understood that to mean I needed for people to honor my need for silence and stop barging in on my session. Now I use that “Quiet on the set” sign as an indication that I am not available because I am writing. (I also use it to mark when I’m meditating.) 

I don’t hang it out there for 8 hours at a time; usually I use the sign for up to an hour’s worth of time composing new work, but only when I know there will be people in the house. It works. 

Another thing that works for me when I write “offsite” (usually in a local coffee house) is the use of earbuds while I’m writing. I don’t even listen to music; I find music too intellectually stimulating when I write. But I wear the earbuds anyway, to send out the signal to folks in my small town that I’m not available for chatter. Where I live, you can’t throw a rock without hitting someone you know, so the chances are high you’ll run into a friend or colleague or neighbor every time you leave the house. The earbud strategy works as well. 

It’s not a selfish or bad thing to ask for sanctuary; it’s perhaps the one tool that will allow you to keep writing when conditions don’t otherwise permit it. But you have to have the nerve to insist on it. And remember, you do not need permission to take time for yourself. 

The cost of my investment? An $8 souvenir and a pair of earbuds attached to either my phone or my laptop. No, it’s not a Shawn White multiplex, but it’ll do. And it does. 

Stay classy (with a nod to spec-fic writer Jay Lake, who frequently uses this term in his tweets!). 

"Apolo Ohno's speed skates" by Mark Pellegrini (2008)

Okay, I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure US speed skater Apolo Ohno didn’t push that other guy down in the 500-meter race last Friday night. It looked to me like he was pulling his hand away from the hip of the Canadian racer when that skater lost his blade edge and slid into the padded wall. Physics 1010 suggests that, if you’re pulling your hand away from something, you really can’t simultaneously push against it… Unless you’re superhuman, I suppose. And maybe Ohno is… 

But when Ohno crossed the finish line in second place, you could see it in his eyes: this race is not over yet. It’s because he’s learned over more than a decade of competitive racing that the sport is subjective, people will fall and mess it up for all the other skaters, and playing dirty may or may not have anything to do with it. 

When the reporter from NBC asked him about it later, he was honest: he thought it was a bad call. But did he whine and complain that the Canadian judge was playing favorites? No. He ultimately said, laughing, “I just need to skate faster!” 

How cool is that?

Remember the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan scandal from the 1994 Winter Olympic Games at Lillehammer? I could see why viewers might hold a bad opinion about Harding; she behaved pretty immaturely and, when the truth came out about the conspiracy to assault Kerrigan, that sealed the deal. It’s widely agreed: Harding performed an unforgivable act of corruption.

But if you recall, Nancy Kerrigan wasn’t especially classy about taking her silver medal that year, either. At the awards podium, she didn’t show an appropriate amount of honor and respect to Oksana Baiul, who she clearly felt took “her” gold. 

Sorry Nancy, but this is not the attitude of a superhero.

Miss Kerrigan, take note: Last week, Canadian figure skater Joannie Rochette’s mother died before Joannie’d had a chance to take the ice. Rochette went on to skate her personal best and took away a bronze. Now that’s what I call gracious and classy to the end. 

How does this pertain to writers? 

If you see a writer you don’t admire winning a prize, you should still give them credit and move on. The awarding of prizes, like the adjudication of short track speed skating, is subjective. Sometimes the rulings will be fair, sometimes they won’t. Coming out publicly with your displeasure gives the appearance of sour grapes, but even more importantly, it doesn’t make it more likely that you’ll publish your work in that venue or others now or in the future. 

I’ve seen writers tear down other writers in this way and it’s so painful to watch. Listen, if you’re bitter enough, and you make your bitterness public enough, editors may even avoid working with you. Remember, they read everything… including the boards on the web. 

The truth is that sometimes judges do call a fair match and if you’re surprised, it might be because you, as a writer, are not open-minded or sophisticated enough in your craft and process to see that there are many, many ways to do something right.  And sometimes, as Ohno points out, that’s just the breaks of the game. There’s also the very real possibility that our work is really not as good as that of the writers we dislike. Who among us are that objective about our own work? I’d guess close to 0%. 

You could mire yourself in criticism of other writers, slander contests, pass judgment on the judges themselves… or you could use the unfavorable outcome as your motivation to do your personal best next time. What did Ohno do? He shed the loss, focused his energy on the following relay, and assisted his team in bringing home a bronze medal. What did Rochette do? She pushed through the pain and performed for all the right reasons, without using her grief as a crutch. 

Now that’s staying classy. 

Thank you so much for reading. Don’t miss out on my previous posts this week, as well! TGIF, 


Everything I’ve learned about writing this year I’ve relearned by watching the Olympics [series Part One] 

Everything I’ve learned about writing this year I’ve relearned by watching the Olympics [series Part Two] 


Tamara Kaye Sellman Tamara Kaye Sellman Tamara Kaye Sellman is director of Writer’s Rainbow Literary Services

 Photo credits: Images used in this post are the property of Tamara Sellman or have been licensed for blogging use under the public domain or the Creative Commons.

8 thoughts on “Everything I’ve learned about writing this year I’ve relearned by watching the Olympics [Part III]

  1. Thanks, Tamara! I know from the site stats it's been a good week. People seem a little shy, though, for some reason.


  2. That's okay, Jeff. I've heard via FB and email from folks. It's been fun and I'm glad the traffic has been good for BLN. Thanks again for having me!


  3. Well said. I think there needs to be more graciousness in this world.

    It's not a bad thing to try as hard as you can, and still smile when you don't win.

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  6. As I watched the Olympics I, too, compared it the pursuit of my writing career to the career of these outstanding athletes.

    Anything that you're passionate about takes the same type of dedication, practice and nose to the grindstone discipline. I enjoyed the articles.

  7. Michelle wrote:

    "…there needs to be more graciousness in this world."

    Amen, sistah!

    "It’s not a bad thing to try as hard as you can, and still smile when you don’t win."

    Exactly. If writers can't learn to do this by default, we all run the risk of dropping out way too early in the game.

    Thanks for your comments!


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