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Archive for the tag “Olympics”

Managing expectations

‘It’s the taking part that counts’ says the Olympic motto, but all we seem to see and hear is regret about missed medals, or even (amazingly) about the bitter disappointment of getting silver instead of gold. 

It’s a similar story with writing. ‘So, how are the books doing?’ people ask. Is it enough to say you have finished a new novel, or have just got one published and that readers are enjoying it? No. We long to say we have a top agent, publisher or film company sniffing at our heels, or that we are in the bestseller lists (or the Amazon top 100 at least), or that we have recently won one of the prestigious literary prizes. But usually we can’t. So, somehow, despite all the effort of writing the damn thing, all the satisfaction of finishing and getting a good book out there, we writers somehow end up feeling disappointed. 

Yet, clearly not everyone can write a bestseller every time. Not everyone can write a bestseller full stop. But then not everyone can write a readable book at all. It sounds easy – if you haven’t tried it. ‘Oh yes, I’d write a novel if I had time’ people sometimes (clearly unaware of the danger they are in) remark airily to writers. But it takes grit and determination, inspiration and a considerable amount of luck to write a novel, let alone a really good one. It is certainly not plain sailing (as British yachtsman Ben Ainslie is finding today as he tries to secure his apparently ‘certain’ gold in the Open 49er class). 

So why has the ‘winning’ (and not the taking part) suddenly become so important? In some countries just being a writer is a cause for some acclaim. And how nice that is! Because writing isn’t a competition, it is a personal, private endeavour. The truth is that, despite all the judging and criticism that goes on, you simply can’t compare one book with another. Not with any real objectivity at least. They are all completely different, they appeal to different audiences, at different times, in different moods. We all have books on our shelves that we enjoyed in the past that we wouldn’t touch with a barge pole now. In my teens I loved The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse – I can barely get past the first page nowadays. And yet Great Expectations, which I utterly loathed at school, has (rather appropriately for this post) seen me through a recent illness with total absorption and delight. 

I know people crave success (and financial reward) and there is nothing wrong with striving for it, but, as with the Olympics, there are only so many places on the podium. We should try to be content with our capacity to take part, and celebrate even the small achievements. We writers are doing a great thing. We are providing entertainment, escape, excitement, learning, humour and a myriad of other wonderful things to our readers – what more acclaim do we really need?

The Olympic Flame

On Sunday the Olympic flame will come through our little town.  Now, I am not particularly a sport lover, I usually watch Wimbledon and the Cup Final, but I must admit that the attraction of field, track and beach volleyball rather passes me by. So why am I bothering to rearrange my weekend so that I can go and see the Olympic torch going past?

Well, for one thing, it is quite something that someone bothered to send it this way – Newport, Pembs, is by any standard at the very edge of the UK, one more step and you’d be in the Irish Sea! But the allure of the torch is more than just the novelty factor, more than some weird sense of national pride (or dismay that we are hosting this ridiculously expensive event at a time of horrendous recession.) I think it is more something to do with the spirit of the Olympic athletes themselves, that grit and determination, that sense of people striving to the very limit of their endurance, the effort, the dedication, the incredible personal and physical sacrifices they make to get to the peak of their ability.

So why do they do it? It can’t just be about winning a gold medal. For most of them the chances of winning a medal is actually pretty slight. But like Mount Everest or the world’s oceans, the Olympics exist and are therefore a challenge. And the one thing the human race can’t resist is a challenge.  (Even the term ‘human race’ gives the game away.)

Whether it be to swim the length of the River Thames, to trek to the North Pole, to bungee jump off a bridge, to turn some wilderness into a garden, to learn a language, to start a business, to care for an elderly parent or to write a novel, there is nothing we humans like more than pitting ourselves against adversity. (You don’t often find dogs voluntarily putting bones to one side in order to lose 10 pounds!)

Some challenges are clearly more extreme than others, but they all require determination and courage, they often involve some kind of sacrifice, at the very least a few sleepless nights. And is the putative reward actually worth the effort? Is it worth giving up years of your life to come tenth in the pole vault or to write a book that languishes at the bottom of the Kindle lists?

Well, as my readers know, I am a bit of a sucker for courage – in one way or another it forms the basic theme of all my novels – so I would say ‘yes’, even just taking the initial decision to ‘have a go’ is a significant achievement in itself.  

So I will be out there on Sunday, cheering as the torch goes by, and reminding myself that I have often intended to have a go at synchronised swimming …

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