As I hoofed it around the lake this past Saturday on my morning run, sweating buckets as the temperature climbed towards ninety, I called on a well-used part of my psyche to spur myself on for the final mile. It’s the part that says “Yes, you can. You don’t want to, it’s unpleasant, but yes, actually you can,” when whatever else it is that is screaming out in protest threatens to overwhelm me.
One of the best compliments I ever received was from a childhood tennis coach and friend of my family’s named Perry. Growing up, he was like a big brother to me and his influence in me went far beyond developing a surefire second serve. It was he who taught me that being tough and being positive were usually the same thing on the tennis court. Your most fearsome opponent was yourself, and the moment you started talking her down, you might as well give up.
A couple of years ago when I was getting back into tennis many years after my college career ended, he said to me after I just finished cranking through a set of forehands: “There it is, AD, the eye of the tiger.” I laughed at the hokey reference and asked exactly what he meant by that. “It’s the look you get: so determined and focused. In all the years I’ve coached, I’ve only seen a few other people who had it.” As Perry pointed out, I’d beaten many people over the years that I had no business beating because of “the eye”. Players who were ranked much higher than me, who had better strokes, were stronger and faster, had more raw talent, and had been paying since they were three. The one thing in my tennis game that I could count on was that I wanted it more than my opponent. When I got on the court with someone who wanted it as much? Those were the matches I lived for.
Tennis is a game where skill matters a great deal, of course, but it’s also a physically and mentally taxing sport. The willingness to do whatever it takes to win can make the difference between losing a match and being done with it and winning, albeit excruciatingly slowly.
Writing is exactly like this.
It takes a long time to learn how to write a book, and even longer to time to actually write one, and much longer still to write a decent book. And that’s before you even step into the publishing arena to endure—most likely—years of rejection letters, close calls, and other varied disappointments and indignities.
Going through these things is no fun, but somehow talking about it once you’re on the other side of it (you have a book deal, or even better, a bestseller) is downright glee-inducing. Writers love to talk about the struggle easily as much as readers love to revel in the stories of an unemployed JK Rowling scrawling the idea for Harry Potter on a napkin while her train was stalled or Cheryl Strayed having her garbage service discontinued just a year before Wild hit.
Of course writers would want people to know what they went through to get where they are, how hard-earned their success really is. Any writer can tell you that there are few things more frustrating than when a friend or acquaintance with no writing background casually suggests that perhaps they too should write their novel or memoir and get their share of publishing pie.
I also think that looking back on the hard-fought ascent to writing success—however you define it—has a tendency to make writers nostalgic. Because as good as it feels to finally be getting somewhere with your writing, it was on that rocky path that—bit by bit, bird by bird—you found yourself, that you discovered that part of you that says: yes, actually, you can.