by Ron Hayes
I can’t help but love the way Brad Windhauser recently invoked the excitement and the intrigue and the infectious nature of the 2014 World Cup (congrats Deutschland!) in his post about inspiration and staying motivated as a writer. While I am not at all a sports writer myself, I am a sports guy. As a former athlete and a current high school football coach (of all things), I love watching and/or playing most sports, whether organized team activities like football or basketball or individual sports like golf or racquetball. As Brad alluded to in his last post, there’s more to these games than just keeping score. There are nuances at work under the surface and there are stretches of boredom punctuated with excitement. Kinda like writing.
As a football coach, I often get double takes and the odd eyebrow arch to indicate the “Say what??” moment when kids (or their parents) find out I’m also a poet. And vice versa. There seems to be this odd world-splitting, I guess, where most people believe that being one must necessarily preclude the other. But as I’ve noted many times in interviews and conversations with non-poets (and non-athletes), there are, surprisingly, a great many similarities to the precision and dedication it takes for being a poet/writer and what it takes to be an athlete. The nuts and bolts of it, the mechanics and such, are better saved for a different post. What’s important for this month’s topic is that there is something all writers and athletes share which I’m not sure either appreciates about the other. That something is DRIVE. Competition. The motivation to be better than that other guy. I have it, athletes of all ages and stripes have it, and, in my estimation, there are damn few writers who can succeed without it.
Now, for the most part, I’m a very non-confrontational, get-along-with-everyone kind of guy. As a teacher, there’s a large part of me that believes everyone can succeed in a supportive, egalitarian environment because every one of us can learn and all that pie-in-the-sky touchy-feely stuff. But as a writer, I also know there’s another side, a Darth Vader to my Anakin, that knows how all that egalitarian crap goes out the window when it’s time to compete. I am where I am today in part because I saw others accomplishing things (or attempting to) that I felt I could do just as well as they did if not entirely better than they did it. I saw mediocrity and something deep inside me pushed to outdo that mediocrity and share it with the world. I’m sure that sounds familiar to you writers and artists out there.
If you’ve ever sat down with a novel and, thirty or forty pages into it, you’ve said to yourself “This is garbage. I can do better than this!”…you just might be a writer. If you’ve ever been to a poetry reading and thought to yourself, “These rhymes are lame. My poems would be better than these,” you should probably be submitting. Whenever someone watches a TV show or a play or takes in a movie or hears a song and ends up having a strong opinion about the experience, my guess is that it is the writers among us who actually do something about it. (Aside: unfortunately, all too often the least writers among us are often the most vocal. These are the critics, and making it worse, the most active critics are the ones trolling the Internet comment boards leaving spiteful, ignorant anti-critiques in a sad, vain attempt at notoriety. Ignore them, fellow writers, they know not what they are…)
It is often said that Capitalism, (like Democracy) is the absolute worst system there is…except for all the others. And of course, what drives capitalism and what has made it so successful thus far is the simple idea of competition. As writers, we can simply subsist living and writing in a vacuum. It would work, I suppose, you and I just writing what we feel and what we want and what makes us happy in ways that make us happy. I suppose. But what would it take for us to LIVE as writers? I submit the answer is Competition. We in the coaching biz hear this all the time: “Oh that kid’s got fire in his belly,” which means a particular player has a strong desire to compete and succeed, to outdo and overwhelm anyone he goes up against. He is driven, we say. He’s got a motor. Writing should be like that. Writing without a belly full of healthy competition makes for bland writing and blah prose, for what is there to make us push ourselves to be better? What drives me as a writer and keeps me sharpening my pencils and my prose is the idea that Writer X is out there pumping out story after story, novel after novel, poem after poem after chapbook after anthology and dammit if I’m not a better wordsmith than that guy. And by all that is sacred, from Shakespeare to Sherman Alexie, if that guy can do it, well so can I. I have to believe that. You do too. If we don’t, if we have doubts, we might just as well put our pens away and turn our computer towers into fish tanks and our laptops into absurdly overpriced paperweights.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is why we read. Not only must we know what’s happening in our writing world, not only must we learn from what’s happening in our writing world, we must read to find out who the competition is, who has the hot hand, who’s the one to beat. And if we do that, if we let our Competitive Drive be our inspiration and motivation, we will, regardless of publication or production, have earned the right to call ourselves writers. So what are you waiting for? Bet you can’t write a better post than this…