It was the darkest night of my life. I stood in a hospital corridor with another mother, each of us waiting to hear if our child was alive or dead. Hers had been gunned down in a school gymnasium. I’d watched helicopters fly over my house, dashing the shot children to hospital. Now, unbelievably, I was here too and my toddler was fighting for her life. A burst appendix. A crazed gunman. I steered my mind from the horror that I could be burying my 2 year old in the same week as the little Dunblane victims.
My little one survived, but you never forget. So when a young talent burst like a firework from the darkness that had engulfed Dunblane, I was hooked.
This shy, passionate kid was an artist, a poet of the court. He’d picked up a racquet as others might pick up a guitar, a paintbrush, a pen - and he was taking on the world. It was sheer inspiration. I’d watch him make it up as he went along, solving problems on his feet, berating himself - while I sat doing exactly the same at my laptop, in a creative struggle of another kind, each of us in very different, but brutally competitive environments, trying to impose our ‘game’ on the world.
The demon of self-doubt lives inside every artist and athlete, in anyone who has ever pushed beyond their comfort zone. So many actors, writers, musicians and comedians (professions of self-doubting stagetakers) were passionately caught up in the Olympics and in Andy Murray’s battle most of all. Writer Irvine Welsh was not the only one in Twitter meltdown during the US Open, recognising it as a creative struggle of the most epic kind. It was just happening on a tennis court, instead of a page or a stage.
Here’s what every writer can learn from Andy Murray and the Olympic athletes.
Writing is the athletics of the mind. A book requires a whole lot of stamina - mentally and physically. Hundreds of pages, countless re-drafts, a million words by the time you’re done. And then you have to sell it. When writing is at its most intense you need to unwind, de-stress, pump yourself up, re-fuel (no, not just in biscuits, caffeine and alcohol.) It’s easy to forget that your brain is just another part of your body. But it is, so get moving. Walk, run, swim, get thee to a gymnasium! Even the dreaded hoovering gets the blood pumping to the brain and irons out the aches and pains from sitting tensed up at a computer for hours on end. (I draw the line at actual ironing.) Physical exercise is necessary decompression after living all day in your head. And it’s amazing how, when blocked or stuck, a solution pops up once you re-connect your mind to your body.
Self-belief, Self-doubt, Self-Criticism & Serious Intent
There's an ancient saying by an Egyptian Pharaoh, Akhenaton - he who doubts himself is wise. Doubt and self-questioning are crucial. How else do you rise above the ordinary to a seemingly impossible challenge? You’re going to win a Grand Slam, are you? Or write a book that stands out in a slush-pile of thousands then grabs itself a readership among a million others? Who do you think you are?! Well, you are someone who dares to dream and you need to know what your weaknesses are before you can make that dream come true.
‘I looked at myself pretty ruthlessly. I wanted to play my own game’ - Andy Murray on his 17 year old self.
Self-criticism is essential, alongside a healthy dose of self-belief. Balance is the key. Berating yourself as useless can be a self-defeating spiral - but it can also fire you up, make you struggle beyond what you thought you could do to achieve something extraordinary. The right mix of self-belief, self-doubt and self-criticism makes an athlete reach their brilliant best. It’s what you need to write a great book. It’s a mindset of serious intent.
Be thrawn. That’s not a typo. Thrawn is a good old Scottish word that doesn't quite translate into standard English. It's a kind of perverse contrariness, but so much more. Thrawn souls can blow their chances by being too stubborn, not listening to people who can help them, too set on Doing It My Way. But a thrawn, cussed self-belief keeps you hacking through the undergrowth to find your own path, to create your own destiny, against all the odds.
Tenacity keeps you going through the hard stuff, the bad reviews, the times when you give your all but are walloped by a Roger Federer Moment - the entire publishing team disappears on maternity leave or off to pastures new just as the book you’ve worked on for years goes to print. Or your book is scheduled for release in the same month as JK Rowling’s. Tenacity makes you dig deep at the very point others give up.
‘Many of life’s failures are people who did not realise how close they were to success when they gave up’ - Thomas Edison, inventor of the lightbulb
|Robert the Bruce and Spider: thrawn, ingeniously cussed.|
Get the right team around you. Not easy. So much of a writer's career is determined by people and events beyond your control, but it's important to influence what you can. Successful athletes, writers, artists and musicians often make very hard decisions in their careers to have the best team possible around them. I've changed publishers and agents when it would have been much easier to stay put. But each time, the impulse has been to work with the strongest team - the people who believe in you and will work energetically for you.
In mainstream publishing - unlike self-publishing where you hire your own team - the financial risks are the publishers, but a writer has little control. An editor was once a writer’s key mentor and they’d stick together for an entire writing life. In today’s fast-moving industry, that’s rare. Editors, publicists and publishers move on and writers exist, more than ever, in a precarious, shifting world. An agent is often your one and only constant - so if you have one, make sure he or she is a good one.
‘If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise’ - William Blake, artist and poet
Dig for GOLD
A mentor is pure gold. It could be your agent or editor or trusted, writerly friend. But a mentor is not someone who holds your hand and tells you what you want to hear. It’s someone who truly understands your unique creative struggle in a challenging world where there are no givens, where talent and hard work do not always win through, but who believes in you and pushes you to become the best writer you can be, the one you’re meant to be.