gallery Sailing into the writing life


Sour grapes and an apology

The other day I moaned about the America’s Cup regatta and wondered if I was the only person in New Zealand who didn’t give a rip about a boat race in Bermuda. Two days later I realised that I admire Team New Zealand’s achievement.  The team got hammered at the last America’s Cup and came back with an innovative and energetic plan, they worked incredibly hard, and they triumphed.

Kudos to them. In fact, kudos to anyone anywhere who achieves anything in their chosen field.

What I don’t like, I realised, is the insane sycophantic extensive ‘news’ coverage. (Note to media: The fact that Peter Burling’s family are proud and happy is not news. If they weren’t happy it might be news.) Dial it back, you journalists. The team sails on water, they don’t walk on it.

Setting sail with ideas

Anyway. To my point.  This mini-revelation made me think about writing (let’s face it – everything does) and I started to think about how easy it was to get in a grump and to write an opinion that wasn’t true, and how it’s the same with writing. How easy it is to write at a ‘first level’ of thinking – that is, to get an idea, let the muse take over, and to just write it out. Maybe that initial writing is followed by some editing and proofing, but the main original concept remains.

That’s a bit like jumping in a boat and pointing the front end in the right direction and trusting the wind to get you there. Except sailing isn’t that easy, as anyone who’s tried to trim a sail, avoid a boom or catch the wind will tell you. Take it up a notch to competition level, and that approach will have your little Optimist at the back of the fleet watching the swoop of sails ahead.

For the writer, settling for the first level or expression of an idea is like settling for being last in a race.

I firmly believe that it’s important to capture ideas, to seize moments of inspiration and to write for as long as those moments last. But the true work of the writer comes with pausing, reflecting, evaluating, digging deeper, in looking for the ‘real’ truth of a piece of writing, the gold in the pan. It comes with peeling back story layers to see what lies beneath, with reviewing information to see if it saying what it really should, to see if it is constructed in a fresh and meaningful way.

Get a bigger boatYachtRace

To over-work the analogy, being prepared to work at writing and to develop a story or idea is a bit like getting a bigger and better boat. A bigger and better boat means a writer is more competitive in a big market and has a better chance to succeed…that alone makes it worth the effort for writers who want readers, I reckon.

Beating the competition

The main competition for writers isn’t other writers, you know. It’s the self. It’s the tendency toward the ‘this’ll do’ attitude when looking at a piece of writing, or the tendency to over-fuss, to nit-pick and polish a piece endlessly until it has lost all shape and meaning, or the tendency to not give a rip about what the market or reader wants.

For the writer, then, it’s all about self-knowledge. I’ve said it before and no doubt I’ll say it again: know your strengths and limitations. Use your strengths, strengthen your weaknesses.  Be cheerful about admitting you’re hopeless at something – we all are, so welcome to the club; be honest about admitting you’re good at something – it’s not bragging, it’s practical and useful knowledge.

Such knowledge is how captains and grinders and tacticians get chosen for their roles in a yacht race.  Imagine if skills weren’t identified and the skipper was made the driver-trimmer and the bowman was made the navigator. It’s the same for you. Know your skills and use them.

Reaching the finish line

Team New Zealand didn’t need to cross one finish line to win. They needed to cross many on the way to that final race. Many races were to beat other boats for the right to race Oracle USA, some were in the final series of races. The point for the writer is this: we also have a lot of finish lines to cross on the way to that final. Our finish lines might be learning the craft, or getting the work done, it could be winning a competition or finding an agent, or it could be self-publishing a book.

If we can recognise the importance of each step of the writing and publishing process, if we can see that each step is its own kind of finishing line, then that will help motivate as we push toward that final finishing line, and we too will know the triumph of a well-fought campaign.


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