Next weekend I shall be competing in the European Masters Swimming Championships. Sounds impressive, doesn’t it? But it’s really not. I’m just a plodder, not one of the serious swimmers. My goals are to post a decent time (for me), not to come last in my age group and, most of all, not to attract the dreaded sympathy applause.
One of the things I’ll enjoy most is the camaraderie and support of my team mates and my fellow competitors. We’re all in this together. It’s a bit like being amongst my writing friends. We support one another, we moan collectively about our failures, and we rejoice at our conquests.
Writers are amongst the most supportive group of people I know. I might have given up writing if it hadn’t been for the encouragement and understanding I’ve received from my fellow writers. But, what about the competition between us?
When a writing friend achieves success, I am happy for them. Of course I am. But, because their success highlights my obscurity, it can serve to fan the flames of self-doubt. Similarly, when I see someone fail or falter, whilst genuinely disappointed for them, I take some comfort in knowing others face the same struggles I do.
Turning back to swimming for a moment, there is a piece of advice that coaches love to dish out to their swimmers. It goes, ‘Swim your own race.’ When you dive in, you should have a strategy based on an understanding of your strengths and limitations. You must not allow others to divert you from your personal strategy. This is especially true of long distance events. Some swimmers go out hard on a 1500m, leading the field by a country mile, and hanging on as best they can till the end. Others start off more slowly and build into the race, reeling in the leaders during the closing stages with a strong finish. The swimmer who is best suited to a slower beginning must not allow himself, or herself, to be panicked by the leaders going out fast. They must keep to their own pace, or else they will surely ‘die.’
There is a parallel here, naturally, to be drawn with writing. When my fellow writers race ahead to the finish line – when they complete their novels and go on to acquire top agents and lucrative book deals – it can put me in a panic. It can make me want to rush ahead to be where they are. To finish my novel as fast as possible and fire it off to a hundred agents and by-pass the meticulous, arduous work that I know I personally have to undertake to make my writing the best it can be.
This is when I have to remind myself that writing is not a competitive sport. Yes, we all want to get published. We all want as many people as possible to read and enjoy our work. We all want recognition and acclaim. But it is not a race. There is no first, second or third. There is only the work itself. This is what I am striving for as a writer: to produce the best work I can.
So, next weekend, I’m going to try to remember to swim my own race. And when it comes to my writing, I’m going to continue at my own pace. Hopefully, with a little luck, I might make it to the finish line.