Friday, February 24, 2006

Olympic (and Writing) Dreams

I have reached the point where I've realized that I must give up on a long-held dream. It's time that I face the facts and accept that some things just aren't meant to be.

Yep, sad as it is to admit it, I will never win an Olympic gold medal in figure skating. Even in the alternate universe where I actually learned to ice skate, if I haven't won one by this age, it's not going to happen. When they awarded the medals last night, I knew it was over for me.

I've always been fascinated by ice skating. When I was little my parents took me to see the Holiday on Ice show. I guess there was some kind of licensing tie-in with Peanuts because Snoopy from the show visited my kindergarten classroom and we "skated" around by taking off our shoes and sliding around on the floor. I have vague memories of "skating" around the house, possibly while wearing my ballet recital outfits (Mom may have to verify this). I first became aware of the idea of figure skating competition during the 1976 Winter Olympics when Dorothy Hamill won the gold medal. I dressed my Barbie doll in her ballerina outfit and a pair of short boots, and she skated along with Dorothy. But we didn't have an ice rink anywhere nearby, so it was pointless to dream of skating. I kept up with ballet, then switched to gymnastics early that summer. Later that summer, Nadia got a perfect ten at the summer Olympics, so it was gymnastics for me for a while. I did watch skating when I got the chance, and I got my parents to take me to the Ice Capades when Tai and Randy were starring.

I didn't really start thinking seriously about skating until the 1984 Winter Games. That was when I caught myself choosing and even editing my music for my short and long programs, as well as drawing designs for my costumes. I'd been on ice skates once in my life, when I was at a shopping mall rink in Dallas a couple of years earlier, and since I'd managed to stay upright and even start building speed in that first time, I convinced myself that I was a natural. In my dreams, I decided that when I went to college in a city that actually had an ice rink in it, I would start taking lessons and then stun everyone with my prowess. I started exercising at home so I'd be in great shape for when that time came.

Of course, I soon got sidetracked by other things. I was in the band and the drama club. I went through a phase where I was going to lose weight and be a cheerleader (that didn't happen). Mostly, I wrote a lot. I filled a lot of spiral notebooks with the beginnings of stories and with story ideas. When I went off to college, I did go to the local ice rink a couple of times, but I used that time in my life to explore a lot of things. I took fencing, was involved in professional and service organizations, took voice lessons, got back into ballet, tried to get back into gymnastics (my body objected), and learned ballroom dancing. I was also writing, taking journalism classes, still filling spiral notebooks and later computer disks, and taking other classes I thought might come in handy for writing (I took fencing primarily so I could write about swordfights in fantasy books -- along with almost every other person in that class. We tended to throw a lot of bad fantasy cliche dialogue into all our bouts.). I used to criticize myself for being so scattered when it came to interests, but now I realize I was training myself to be a writer because you do need that variety of experience to bring to your work.

I guess I must not have wanted that gold medal enough, considering I've had an ice rink in my neighborhood for the past twelve years -- in walking distance! -- and for six of those years it was only a few blocks away, and I've never gone there. That hasn't stopped me from daydreaming and choreographing my programs every four years. I did reach the point where the dream was in that alternate universe where I'd actually carried through on all those grand plans (as well as not having bad knees that can't handle high impact anything or bending deeply with a lot of weight on them). I even mentally took up ice dancing for a while because I thought that was more suited to my abilities. But now, though, I have to accept that I won't even have that alternate universe gold medal. And I'm okay with that because in my universe, I think I've done the equivalent. I wouldn't trade the things I've done for a life spent doing the kind of training it takes to reach the top in a sport like that.

There are some lessons from this that can be applied to writing, or to any other dream:
1. Wanting it isn't enough.
You have to actually do something about it. If you want to be a figure skater, you have to actually get on the ice. If you want to be a writer, you have to write. Yeah, I know, duh, but you'd be surprised at the number of people who find out that someone is a writer and then say, "I've always wanted to write a book," but have never written a word. If you're not doing anything about it, then maybe you don't want it as much as you think you do. It makes a nice daydream, but if you're not willing to take the steps to get there, that's all it will ever be. If I can live within blocks of an ice rink and never go skating, I never honestly wanted to be a skater.

2. You have to do the right things to reach your goal.
All of my off-the-ice cross training, ballet classes and the like would have come in really handy if I had decided to take up skating, but those things did me no good toward the skating dream because I never actually learned to skate. Sadly, I see a number of would-be writers making the same mistakes. They write a lot of beginnings but don't finish books. They win a lot of contests, but they never submit to editors or agents. They go to a lot of conferences and workshops, but they never get around to really writing anything because they want to learn it all before they start. Contests, conferences and workshops can all be helpful, but they won't help you reach your goal until you write a book and submit it to someone who can help you get it published. Period.

3. Sometimes, hard work and desire aren't enough.
Writing groups are great for support and encouragement, but they're also bad about spreading what could be described as false hope. There's an often-repeated mythology in these groups that if you want it enough and work really hard, someday, you'll be published. I'm sorry, but that's not true. For one thing, talent really is a factor. So is luck. So is timing. There are a lot of people out there wanting the same thing, and the odds are against you, even if you are good. Look at Michelle Kwan. She's considered to have been at the top of her sport for about a decade. She's won numerous world championships. But she's never won an Olympic gold medal. There were 30 women who went to the Olympics for the figure skating event -- out of the ENTIRE WORLD. Think of the thousands of other women out there who had skills not far below that level, who were very, very good, but who didn't make the cut. Three women from the United States are competing, and it's a good bet that some of the women who didn't make the cut there could have beat some of the women from other countries who did get to go. But that's the way it works. Agents and publishers receive hundreds of submissions a week, and each publisher (aside from Harlequin) only puts out a few books a month. Do the math. It's all about getting the right manuscript on the right desk at the right time. Sometimes, someone less talented who hasn't worked as hard will sell just because of having the right material at the right time, just as a possibly less-talented, less-experienced skater will win the medal because she happened to be better on the night that counted.

4. You have to love it enough to do it for its own sake, not for the ultimate reward. Otherwise, you'll go nuts.
If your life as a skater is worthless without an Olympic gold medal, then you may as well give up now because they only give one of those per event every four years. You're not going to drag yourself to the rink day in and day out unless you enjoy it for its own sake, unless skating brings you some kind of pleasure. That's not to say you shouldn't aim high, just that you need to be able to appreciate the process along the way enough that if you never reach that lofty goal, you won't feel like you've wasted your life. It needs to bring something to your life beyond just that one medal. The same goes with writing. If you don't enjoy it enough that you'd do it even without the hope of publication, if you wouldn't be making up stories in your head no matter what, then you'll only make yourself miserable if you keep slogging away just because you want to make some money eventually. If you do luck out and get published, you're still going to have to keep writing, and you'll be writing to deadline, so you'd better find some pleasure in it because it only gets harder. There will be days that aren't fun, but if the only thing that will make you happy with writing is selling a book, then you're setting yourself up for misery.

I guess the bottom line is that focused work is what separates goals from daydreams, whether you're a writer or a figure skater.


Alfie said...

Great post, Shanna. Thanks. I needed that.


MJFredrick said...

What a wonderful post! I'm printing it out!

Trish Milburn said...

I agree with the others -- this is an excellent post. And I like the comparison between writing and skating.

Colleen Thompson said...

Wow. You are so on the money, Shanna! This post should be required reading for everyone who's ever said, "I want to write a book." Or aspired to any challenging goal.

Well put!

Lara Rios said...


You make so many great points! A workshop topic, perhaps?

Shanna Swendson said...

I have done a similar workshop, only without the skating metaphor, on the ups and downs of a writing career and especially how to cope with the "downs." A key thing is to be sure what you have is a goal and not just a dream and to make sure you're taking steps toward that goal.

It's just more fun to think in figure skating terms. :-)