At my final MFA residency at St. John’s College just outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico, we are discussing Cormac McCarthy, Richard Rodriguez, the art of rhetoric, describing smell. The one thing we are not discussing this week, oddly, is the Olympics.
I love the Olympics. Because my family came with me this final residency, we are renting a tiny mother-in-law apartment just off campus, and it has, unlike our home in Seattle, a TV, with cable. And so each night we are watching an hour or two of swimming, gymnastics, with a dash of kayaking and crew. Despite the international Olympic celebration, this coming together of athletes and strivers and dreamers from around the world, this display of sportsmanship and excellence, there hasn’t been a peep of it in our classes, or even around the lunch table. Much of this probably has to do with the lack of TVs available on campus and the excruciatingly slow internet. But I suspect some has to do with a perception of a lack of congruence in some way, too, between this head-art and the body-art of the Olympics. I think this perception is inaccurate.
Part of the importance of the Olympics is the social participation, this attention from all parts of the world to a spirit of healthy competition, the cheering on when the fifteen-year-old Ruta Meilutyte from Lithuania comes from behind and wins the gold in swimming, only the second gold a woman from Lithuania has ever won. It’s the pride not only for your own, but for the effort and successes of others. Being a part of this collective human effort, this international excitement, seems like it can only add to a writing sensibility.
Part of it is appreciating the similarities of the athletic and creative process.Haruki Murakami writes about this in the balance of writing and running, the necessities of the creative process, both focus and endurance, as those he finds he needs to run as well. Why consider this? Because understanding similarities in processes in the work for excellence can only enhance our work in a particular field (and perhaps motivate us to get up and have adventures, too, as Colson Whitehead suggests.)
I wondered watching swimming lately if I shouldn’t be looking over notes for the next day’s class or looking at my manuscript in the final weeks of editing. The answer came out both ways.
First: I can’t write and think about writing all day. I need the balance of family and movement of my body and something else (the Olympics works well for the something else.) But I do need the writing time. And perhaps because this is our final residency, I’ve been lucky to find it. So yes, that’s the priority.
Second: exposure to other frameworks, assuming frameworks that typify high standards of ethics and performance, stimulates our abilities in our own areas of focus. The good and the bad. To wit: though I’m as proud of Michael Phelps’ 20 medals as any American (perhaps he’ll have more by the end of the Olympics) I’m annoyed at the punk persona he’s put forward these past four years. And his perfection in performance four years ago is gone this Olympics. Still, his talent is nothing less than exhilarating to watch. In the 200 butterfly he dominated, pulling ahead a half a body length early and maintaining it, all the way until the end when he stretched for the wall while the South African swimmer Chad le Clos next to him pulled it in hard— out-touching Phelps by five one-hundreths of a second. I cheered for Chad. Phelps admitted he hadn’t done as much work lately. I don’t have patience for that. Chad deserved to win. And yet I’m glad for Phelps and the US that he set the new medal record.
Here is my lesson in that: I’m in the final stretch of editing a manuscript that has been alternately exhilarating and utterly consuming (read: crushingly exhausting). It’s with the editor now, and I can move on to other things and wait for it, or I can do that extra half a stroke and bring it in hard. Make that extra call, send the extra email, do the extra email on those couple of details I thought I might include. That extra effort, that last push to the wall, counts, big time.
So I’m glad to be watching the Olympics, even if it’s just my husband and me (and some Facebook chatter) talking about it this week. It only comes every two years. It’s striving and excellence, some fumbles and disappointments, and that’s a lot like the writing I know. I think I’ll write better for this few hours of TV time. And maybe once the manuscript is in, I can find a little time in the pool.