“You Have to Fear Failure More than Death”

Diana_Nyad_routesI think of writing as an extreme sport.

Physically, I might not look like an athlete at the keyboard. But psychologically, writers have a lot in common with athletes.

Writing a book requires repetitive daily practice, year after year. Daily practice requires the kind of discipline or obsession that propels people to the Olympics. Overcoming the logistical obstacles to writing requires the single-mindedness, focus and determination that powers people who run marathons.

I love to read stories of people pushing themselves to their limits, because the question at the center of them is the same: “Give up or keep going?” And what writer hasn’t asked that question, perhaps several times a day for decades?

But though I often look to athletes and adventurers for inspiration as I write, I don’t expect athletes and adventurers to realize we’re distant kinfolk. So I was excited listening to this radio segment today about long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad, in which she compares her physical feats to the work of writers and artists.

She tries to explain the motivations that drove her to continue trying to swim from Cuba to Florida despite several failures.

She first attempted the swim at the age of 28, in 1978. Strong winds pushed her off course and she gave up after 42 hours. But at the age of 60, she started to train again to make the swim. She made four more attempts before she finally succeeded at the age of 63, in 2013.

When she explains her refusal to give up, she says writers and athletes focus on their goals to the exclusion of all other concerns. Her greatest fear was to die without achieving something amazing. Her goal was more important than the risk of death.

And I knew what she meant. I want to get so much done in this little lifetime. I can’t afford to waste time on things other than writing. Or—since I do need to eat and sleep—I can’t waste time on things that don’t help me write.

This single-mindedness leads to dilemmas sometimes. Will clean clothes help me write? All that schlepping around laundry baskets feels like a waste of time when I could be writing. Eventually I need to leave the house and look presentable. But how often? How little laundry can I get away with, to do my best work?

I bet Diana Nyad understands the laundry dilemma. You can hear her for yourself on this 12-minute segment from The TED Radio Hour.

Credit for illustration: Froggerlaura [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Tell me what you think