Typically, the identities “author” and “writer” do not intersect with that of “athlete.” Sure, you can google a list of famous writers who played sports and come up with a list of the greats: Kerouac, Fitzgerald, Nobokov, Orwell, and even Tolkien. For the most part, however, not many jocks write and not many writers play sports.
When someone says “writer,” most people call up visions of beanie wearing, notebook carrying, messenger bag slinging boys and girls, noses tucked into books and heads in the clouds. They enjoy their coffee houses and their laptops and their words. Even when you try to deconstruct that image, to push past the stereotype, you get combinations of hipster and teacher or sweet and punk or purple-haired, pull-no-punches, reserved, video-gamer/writer. Athlete usually ends up at the bottom of the list.
This seems funny to me because sports and writing actually share a lot of qualities. But more on that later.
In high school, we’re separated into cliques based on interests. The jocks go one way, the nerds the other. Right? Even in the contemporary age of “smart is the new sexy,” someone still draws a line between brain and brawn. This line continues into college and the world at large. While we may toe, straddle, or even cross it, that boundary always exists.
With writing, that line may almost be worse. In the contemporary age, we are looking for writers who push and who challenge the norm. We want the voice and the narrative that has never been heard. We want whispers to become battle cries. Those are the stories that interest us—that interest me. Who wants to hear the stories that gets shouted at them every day? Who wants to read about a voice that everyone knows?
Full disclosure: I was a jock. I am a jock. I still own my high school letterman’s jacket, although I no longer wear it. I played varsity ball all through undergrad, and, even in graduate school, I have managed to find more ways to continue to play on some sort of organized squad. I love my sport. But I also love to write.
These two subjects may not seem to have a lot in common, but there are a lot of ways in which they overlap.
Motivation. Who hasn’t been in a workshop or at a writer’s conference where this magic word comes up? Some people wait for the muse. Others set word goals. Others still force themselves to produce every day no matter how good or how ugly. I’m not saying there is one right way. There’s not. But the motivation to write eerily resembles to that often-tossed word in sports terminology: drive. A fairly vague word, but it boils down to the stubbornness to continue even when you’re busy and tired and dear God you just want more than twenty-four hours in a day. Sound familiar?
Self-Discipline. Not too far from motivation, but I would argue that these are different terms, both in writing and sports. The motivated writer and athlete wants to improve. They possess that magical quality drive and probably even the more double-edged word, potential. The disciplined writer and athlete follows through. They hold themselves accountable for their actions. They make a plan or routine and stick with it. Did you go to the gym today? Did you submit to journals? Did you write at least 200 words? Did you edit that story finished in an inspired frenzy at 2:00 am? Without the discipline to follow through, potential is never actualized.
Training. Athletes train. Duh. No one argues that. Sure there are different levels of natural ability, but no one progresses to “the next level” (whether that be professional or collegiate or even high school junior varsity) without training. You have to condition your body, train your muscles, to be prepared to step out on the court or field or mat or whatever. Writing is the same. Like muscles, you need to challenge and stretch that writer’s brain to prepare it for that lyrical poem or epic short story. My creative classes (both undergrad and grad) included restrictive assignments. By that I mean assignments designed for students to focus on one craft element without worrying too much about the consequences. These exercises allow students to break down the writing process itself, become aware of it, and then improve it. In case you were wondering, the same process occurs when learning specific skill sets in sports.
Community. One reason I am at UCF today is the community of writers here—this group of thirty-five or so people who understand me, who get excited at fantabulous sentence, who spend their free time talking about dialogue and diction. They are there to celebrate my victories just as I celebrate theirs. Translation: they are my team. I’m sure this is not the first time the “team” analogy has come up in the writing world. A team works together to achieve a common goal (like improving one’s writing or getting published or getting into PhD program). Sometimes they can get annoying (I get it: I need to work on my characters…can we please talk about something else now?), but you love them anyway because they just want you to put your best work forward.
Currently, I’m in a class on hybrid forms. First class of the semester, Professor Thaxton looked at each of us and claimed that we are hybrids. That’s the best way to describe how I feel about my writer/sport self. I operate with two modes, two personas: writer me and athlete me. Sometimes they get along and sometimes they don’t. And sometimes they intersect and become just me.
That, on some level, is how all writers operate. They must balance different aspects of their lives and themselves as they make their way in the literary world.
Leah Washburn is a first year MFA candidate at UCF originally from Jefferson City, MO. She received her BA in English-Creative Writing from Rhodes College in Memphis. She is the managing editor and GTA for The Florida Review. And although she wishes she has a time turner, she still finds time to watch movies and play volleyball with her friends.