On Triathlons and The Myth of ‘Wasted Words’

628x471One of the coolest parts about my job as a reporter is that for all the meetings I attend and hard news I write, I also get to do a whole host of feature stories, which means I get to meet a lot of interesting people.  And last week, once again, I got to dip into my email and pull up Olympic triathlete Sarah True’s (formally Groff) contact and email her congratulating her on qualifying for the 2016 Summer Games in Rio.

Sarah, like her sister Lauren ( NYT bestselling author of Monsters of Templeton and the forthcoming Fates and Furies) are Cooperstown natives, so whenever they do something awesome — which is seemingly all the time — I get in touch and write a story.

And as I looked through photos of the qualifying race, I thought about what it takes to compete in a triathlon.  I ride my bike into town to get coffee, sure, and I can run to catch a bus pulling away from the curb, maybe swim a little in a hotel pool when I’m on vacation, so seeing someone like Sarah kicking ass on the course just blows my mind.  And she got there by practicing her butt off, swimming Otsego Lake as a teenager, and getting up every day to ride and run and swim some more.  You don’t get to the Olympics twice by playing video games and eating chips all day.

A good writer should follow a similar regiment of practice and persistence.  I generally advocate writing every day (I’m lucky in that I’m a professional writer so I’m able to do this, although sometimes it’s Oneonta City Hall rather than The Big Rewind‘s Brooklyn).  Every sentence you write makes you a better writer than you were the day before.

I was recently talking to a friend who’s just getting back into writing.  He was struggling with his new story, and I suggested that he go to a conference or take a refresher course to inspire him.  I even gave him some writing exercises that might help him flesh out his characters and streamline his plot.  He adamantly refused, saying that he “didn’t have time” to “waste” on pages he was “just going to throw out.”

And I thought about Sarah and the miles she runs/swims/bikes every day.  Are those wasted miles because there isn’t a podium waiting at the end of the course?  Of course not, don’t be dense.  How is putting words on a page any different?

And sure, no one likes to spend an hour at their desk, only to realize that what they’ve written doesn’t work for the story.  I ended up scrapping more than one scene in The Big Rewind.  I got rid of lines I was in love with and combined characters for ease of reading.  But even if you scribble it out, tear out the page, erase the paragraph or delete the whole scene, those words aren’t wasted.  They’re not wasted because they helped strengthen you as a writer.

I recently found half a novel I’d written over two journals during my post-college year in NYC.  It was exactly the kind of vomitous, self-indulgent prose that all 22 year old creative writing majors churn out, but what I noticed the more I read, the more I saw the threads of the character (then named Lucille) who would become Jett Bennett, the protagonist of The Big Rewind.

I didn’t make any money/publication credits on that novel.  Hell, I never finished it.  By my friend’s approximation, those were wasted words.  Except they weren’t, because they were sketches — even if I didn’t know it at the time — for a book that would eventually get published.  I borrowed the character Sid from another story I never sold, and supporting characters Mac and Reese from other, smaller pieces that never quite had their due.  Like an Indian using all parts of the buffalo, I salvaged what I could from what I had.  Nothing was wasted.

There are plenty of ways to be idle:  TV, video games, Netflix binges, Facebook, Buzzfeed quizzes.  But writing, creating, is never a waste of time.

No one ever got worse by steady practice.

Only by inactivity.

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