As a writer progresses in her craft, she may sometimes wonder how her particular path will look. In this four-part series, Charity Singleton Craig envisions a possible progression of a writing life through the lens of a snowboarder. In today’s installment, she considers the role of risk.
Writing in the Half Pipe
For months after watching the snowboarding competition in the 2014 Winter Olympics, I couldn’t stop thinking about the similarities between the writing life and these extreme sports. For most of us, comparing our writing lives to winning Olympic gold medals creates a false sense of what qualifies as success. Athletes in the limelight, like snowboarder Shaun White, inspire millions of children and adults to take up the sport. Most of these newbies, however, never go on to compete in the Olympics or land product endorsements like their heroes. They can still have rewarding amateur or professional careers, though.
That’s why sports journalist Esther Hershkovits believes American Sage Kotsenburg’s gold medal in slopestyle snowboarding did more for the sport than if mega-star Shaun White had won in the Sochi Games. In her February 2014 PaperMag article, Hershkovits discussed the high-stakes tricks of a few elite performers that draw most of the attention and sponsorship dollars, but overshadow the hard work and artistry of the snowboarding community as a whole.
“The majority of professional snowboarders do not compete in the X Games or in the Olympics but rather take their skills from terrain parks and apply them to urban settings or the back country,” Hershkovits writes.
This is the natural progression from play to risk that athletes—and writers—must make. We all have to work hard, take risks, commit to our craft. Some of us will achieve breakaway success, even in the early days of a career. White scored his first corporate sponsor at age 7. But the majority of us will never rise that quickly, or that far, and still, we will see rewards for our risk. We may even find “success,” if we are open to evolving definitions.
Though I now make my living from words, my early days in the writing life looked nothing like a professional writing career. While I committed a great deal of time to writing, I spent most of my days doing other work. The writing I did was rarely compensated, and to this day, about half of my published writing is done for free or with very little payoff—monetary or otherwise.
Does that mean I’m still just learning my jumps, still practicing in a shallow pipe? Maybe. I think there are a lot of us writers wearing extra padding and playing it safe as we grow more confident in our skills and plan ahead for bigger moves, greater speeds, and deeper pipes. On the other hand, maybe the greater risk, the risks millions of writers take every day, is to commit in a big way to my craft even if it never pays off in the typical ways, like a big advance or a best seller list recognition. Taking these risks, doing the writing I want to do even if there’s not a large commercial audience, is success in its own right, even if it don’t produce the same results I dreamed about when I was younger.
In other words, I can look around at the few writers who have made it big, resenting their tricks and envying their endorsements. Or, I can use their achievements as a motivator to keep improving my style, submitting my work, and finding my own definition of success.
Make the Most of It
Taking risks in the early days of writing felt exhilarating.
When I was just out of college and hoping for a career as a freelance writer, I pitched ideas and sent query letters to national magazines as often as local newsletters. In my naivete, I didn’t realize how hard it was to land a spot in some of those big name publications. I had little to lose. I didn’t have a reputation; I wasn’t trying to support myself or a family.
The myth of overnight success was a lusty muse to this young writer.
After a few too many rejections, however, my exhilaration waned. For long stretches, I didn’t write anything at all. The fun was gone. The risks weren’t paying off. Even now, I could use a little more of that moxie. Too often I take myself and my writing so seriously. When a friend recently suggested I submit an article to a large prestigious magazine, I hedged. Too risky.
To keep growing, though, I am going to have to take some risks, and it’s not a risk if there isn’t the real possibility I might fall flat on my back.
Read a poem a day. Become a better writer.