3 Things I’ve Learned About Writing & Competing Against Others

Atos in the Olympic Park in Sochi

#1: If you must compete, compete against your peers. 

The first writing contest I ever won was for a local haiku competition my teacher entered me into. I was in the sixth grade, and my entry was:

Splish! Splash! Raindrops fall

Making puddles ev’ry where

So that flowers grow

I was thrilled to learn it won first place. Obviously, my mom was, too. We showed up at our local indie bookstore so  I could get my picture taken for the newspaper with all the other contestants…who happened to be second graders. I towered over those kids in the picture. I looked like a literary bully, picking on kids half my size with my larger vocabulary words like Splish and Splash.

#2: Better yet, compete against yourself. 

In my other life, I was once a belly dance teacher and performer. But before that, I was a student who looked up to her mentor in awe and admiration (and okay, a little bit of jealousy) thinking, I’ll never be able to dance like her. Sensing this, she once told our class of frustrated dancers:

“I’m not a better dancer than you. I just started before you.”

Her point was that it doesn’t make sense to compare ourselves, or compete with, people who are at a completely different stage of their journey than you. But some competition is healthy, right? Years later, when I began going to bootcamp classes, I found my perfect competitor when my personal trainer told me:

“You’re only competing against yourself.”

Each day I’d come to class hoping to do a little better than the day before. I couldn’t do a single push-up when I began working out, but within six months, I was doing 20 in one minute. That was a huge accomplishment for me, even if the person next to me could do 40.

Lesson learned from both of these fitness badasses: Compete against you: past, present, and future.

#3: Sometimes your best work happens after your biggest losses.

I’m with Lori here, obsessed with the Winter Olympics. I’ve been DVRing most of it, so forgive my late reaction, but did any of you see figure skater Jeremy Abbott’s fall during the Men’s short program? It was heartbreaking to watch. He attempted a quadruple toe loop, fell and then hit the wall, and for moments he wasn’t getting up.

But then the crowd started cheering and he got back up and finished the rest of his program…beautifully. He nailed every element after that. What’s even more amazing was his energy; it was as if the fall had given him strength, and now that his worst fear had happened he had nothing left to lose. So he gave it everything he had.

I nearly cried as I watched. True, I am an absolutely terrible ice skater, but in that moment I could relate to him; I felt the sting of my own falls and the ecstasy of hard fought success.

Failure hurts. It comes at you hard and leaves you stunned for a moment, but if you manage to pick yourself up and keep going, you become better because of it. That’s the real triumph: always get back up.

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Natalia Sylvester

Natalia Sylvester is the author of the novel CHASING THE SUN (Lake Union/New Harvest, June 2014), about a frail marriage tested to the extreme by the wife's kidnapping in Lima, Peru. A former magazine editor, she now works as a freelance writer in Texas. Visit her online at nataliasylvester.com

15 thoughts on “3 Things I’ve Learned About Writing & Competing Against Others

  1. Omg I cracked up after your first anecdote! I’m just picturing little you, pleased as punch, until you look around and see all these little heads below you.

    And yeah, I had the same feeling about Abbott, although I didn’t think to extend it as a metaphor to myself. Such a great point!

    Such a great post. 🙂

    • Thanks, Kristan! I get so motivated just watching the Olympics in general. How the athletes train every day for 4 years all for a moment that might last a few minutes…it’s inspiring to me.

  2. I’m always leery of comparisons between sports and art — the analogies and lessons are there, obviously, but the two activities are fundamentally different. If that gets blurred, you end up like Hemingway, forever fretting about whether he’d finally scored a knockout against “Mr. Shakespeare” or Mr. “Turgenev.”

    That being said, your rules are good. #3 reminds me of a Tori Amos performance I heard once, where she was doing a cover and in the middle completely lost track of where she was in the song. Recovering herself, she really bore down on the rest of the song, singing the hell out of it, and you can hear the audience react.

    My ex was an equestrian (still the only Olympic sport that I pay any attention to, by the way), and she later applied that same level of discipline to learning the drums, which she mastered very quickly. On the discipline level, there is a lot of similarity between art and sports, because that applies to any human activity. If I can write passably now, it’s because I wrote badly for twenty years, almost every day.

      • “All through the Night” (the Cyndi Lauper song). It was on one of those “official bootlegs” a few years ago. Worth listening to if you can track it down.

        Glad to find another Tori fan. I wrote a blog post once about her. I’ll post a link when I’m at a computer (and not at work 🙂 .)

          • She has so any great covers, but I’m particularly fond of “Rattlesnakes” (though I never heard the original until after I heard her version) because it resonated with a chapter I was writing once in three different ways, so I called the chapter “Like Crazy Paving” (after a line in the song). Also her version of “Famous Blue Raincoat.” And… (I’ll stop now 🙂 )

            Here’s the blog post I mentioned (about Tori and genre fiction): http://u-town.com/collins/?p=648

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