As the Commonwealth Games wrap up here on the Gold Coast, it’s easy to feel proud of our city. Not only did we manage to host athletes and other visitors from around the world, but we managed to do it in an atmosphere that was all at once festive and civilized. We celebrated the spirit of friendly competition between nations, and looked on in awe at the persistence that it takes to succeed. As so often when athletes gather, they modelled the values of hard work and respect.
Here’s the thing, though: why do we so often notice those values mostly in athletes?
After all, everyone must know a store manager who was promoted because he was willing to work a double shift. We all must have heard stories about an entrepreneur who kept her business solvent by promoting it online late into the night. Surgeons pull marathon shifts in theatre to keep us alive, and teachers go bleary preparing feedback to keep us educated.
Dare I say it? Writers, especially, have to push and push themselves just to get a novel into the marketplace: even a beloved bestseller.
Now, you’ll need to bear with me, because I’m no mathematician… but sources like Inside the Games seem to commonly cite around 10,000 hours of training—six hours per day for six days per week—before an athlete is ready for the Commonwealth Games. That’s an impressive sum, and one that would test anyone’s persistence. Dividing the number of hours per year into the total comes up with an average of just over five years of full-time sweat. That definitely warrants some applause.
The success of a writer is not so predictable, and much more dependent on luck. Just for a minute, though, let’s compare the athlete’s story to the journey of one writer. In his how-to, The Truth about Publishing, bestselling author Ian Irvine tells how it took nine years’ of effort to get his novel published, and his article goes into some detail about how his version of ‘sweat’ might have looked. That’s just the beginning, though: according to LitRejections, Agatha Christie was rejected for five continuous years, Alex Haley tried to push Roots for eight years, and the bestseller Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance endured 121 rejections. That’s got to be worth a few years right there.
Now, when I write and submit, the first submission that I make rarely looks like the most recent one. I develop and change the query letter and the manuscript itself over and over, based on feedback from my editor, from my beta-readers, and from the rejections. My best guess is that these literary greats did the same. The novel that a publisher finally accepted was almost certainly a much better product than the first version they submitted.
Hey. Doesn’t that sound a lot like training?
It’s not very often, though, that a cheering crowd is standing by to reward the marathon efforts of a store manager, teacher or writer. In fact, our instinct to cheer for athletes seems to overwhelm everyone else. Just take a look at the structure of an average Western television newscast: One-third is dedicated to stories that affect average people, one-third to the rich investment class, while fully one-third of most newscasts focuses on who managed to kick a ball the farthest this week.
Oh, and that’s only when nothing startling happens in sports. When there’s any kind of an event or scandal, the ball-kicking news gets a repeat in the first third of the broadcast.
I know this might all come across as disrespect to athletes, but I don’t really feel disrespectful at all. Great role models from any walk of life are what keep our culture—our Commonwealth—moving in positive directions. We just need to get to know a greater ‘wealth’ of those role models… even the ‘common’ ones. If you doubt it, take a minute to ask yourself the last time you felt proud of a gold medallist you’ve never met.
Now, ask yourself the last time you felt proud of a Pulitzer winner.