Artists and athletes are rarely grouped together. It’s hard to see the similarities between, say, Tom Brady and Toni Morrison. Heck, it’s hard to even wrap your mind around the fact that Simon Biles and Truman Capote are of the same species. But the things artists could learn from athletes could, well, fill a book.
Unfortunately, we are waaayyyy behind when it comes to understanding how to help artist flourish in this country. That might have a little something to do with the fact that most working artists could probably find their entire annual salary in the cushions of Tiger Woods’ couch, but I digress. The good news is that a little education can usually go a lot farther than a lot of money.
To begin with, now that we’re well into the second decade of the 21st century, it’s time we unburden ourselves of those hundred-year-old, mis-educative ideas of artistry so many of us are still laboring under. Romanticism is over, peeps. No one works well under the conditions provided by fickle muses, self-sacrificing devotion, glorified mental illness, and/or substance abuse. And while we might all generally understand why these notions don’t work as driving forces behind artistry, we’ve done really little to try to improve on them. And it’s starting to piss me off.
It makes me so angry, for example, when I run into a would-be writer who believes she can’t write because when she sits down to write, it doesn’t go well. Or that she doesn’t have enough time. Or talent. Where else does this thinking work? Would we ever tell a budding football player to give up and go get an MBA if his passes were falling short during practice? It’s past time we all embrace the unglamorous and empowering fact that artistic practice is infinitely more practical and boring than we’ve allowed ourselves to believe.
As a case in point, I spent approximately thirty years waiting for my muse to show up, or my talent to rise to the occasion. Then, after my third child was born, I accidentally started running. I was wrecked from three C-sections in five years, but with my kids (aka three people who couldn’t read) calling the shots, I couldn’t exactly sign up for an exercise class and expect to ever get there on time. So I learned to seize whatever moment came along, lace up my sneaks, and run until I had to come home.
Turns out, showing up for myself whenever I could and keeping my expectations down taught me more in a year than a lifetime of misguided notions about art ever could. Athletes, I learned, don’t decide they’re talented and unworthy if their training isn’t going well. They just keep training. They don’t give into horrible stories about themselves if they’re one mile into an unusually painstaking run; in fact, they get through the next two miles by recognizing that they’ve got to improve their mental game, or just get out of their own heads. They deal with exhaustion and injury by resting. They know that if they fill up with junk, they’re not treating themselves; they’re undoing their own best efforts. They learn to stay level-headed, to develop mental grit, to appreciate that they are their own best coaches, to remember to breathe even when stretching themselves to their limits. The best of them, in other words, are unfailingly practical and understand that how they treat themselves is directly related to how far they’re going to get.
Similarly, when we show up to our writing practices and see them as practices, we get our best work done. When we politely sidestep the terrible stories we like to tell ourselves when things aren’t going well, when we recognize that both ten pages and ten words of writing represent some kind of progress and drop the self-flagellation, when we recognize that there will be weeks when we need to shoehorn practice in between all the other demands of life and don’t make that into a story about not having enough time, when we see missteps as par for the course, when we remember to breathe – these are all the things that sustain a healthy writing practice.
Being an artist, in other words, is just that: a way of being in the world, not an identity that is defined by abstract things like talent, muses, or the public. It’s much more boring to think of it this way, but it is thousands of times more rewarding. And if you absolutely must keep your eyes on the prize, the wonderful irony is, when it comes to any investment in the heart – whether that be athletic or artistic — the more we invest in the day-to-day, the more likely we are to realize the truly exceptional.