Years ago, I used to be a tenpin bowler. Hard to believe, I know. Harder still if you'd seen my pathetic sporting efforts at high school. I hated hockey, loathed netball, despised running, and although I could play tennis, I found it boring after a while. Basically, I disliked sports because I was no good at any of them. And I was no good at sport because I didn't like it. Didn't even like watching it.
But when I gave tenpin bowling a go (because I was living in a remote town where there was nothing to do except play a variety of sports, and women's touch rugby and soccer weren't going to see me turn up for training!), I finally discovered a sport that I liked, and that I was good at. Don't ask me why - I suspect liking and being good were connected. Sound familiar?
I don't bowl anymore. For a variety of reasons, but partly because it got too expensive, and I had to choose where I was going to put my time and energy - so I chose writing. But over the years, I've thought about the solitariness of being a writer, and how similar it is to those sports where, in the end, you're really playing against yourself. Bowling, golf, marathon running ... So here are my thoughts on how they connect.
1. It takes practice. Lots of it, if you want to improve and win. I used to have coaching once a week, play four times a week and try to add at least one more practice session on my own. That's a total of about 7 hours - do I spend that much time on my writing? The theory is that it takes 10,000 hours to achieve mastery of something. I never got close with bowling, but I am pretty sure I've passed that with writing.
2. Most of it is inside your head. You can be technically brilliant, have perfect technique and style, and know all the 'rules', but that's still only 5% of being good at it. The other 95% is about what's going on inside your head - a strange combination of being totally in control which then allows you to enter the zone and do amazing things, on a regular basis. Not once a year.
3. It takes focus. It means you don't take any notice of what anyone else is doing, whether they're winning or doing badly. If you take time to feel envious or gloat, you're taking time and energy away from your own practice and work. You ignore their tantrums (boy, I saw plenty of those on the bowling lanes, especially the guys!) and you ignore their amazing scores. Your own are all that matter.
4. In the end, your score doesn't matter. It can't. Everything that comes before your score - practice, training, focus, commitment, engagement, determination, technique - will make your score better (or get your books published), but you have to work at all those things first. A great score doesn't happen like magic, even if other people make it look that way.
5. Some people (a very, very few) are naturally brilliant. You can't do anything about that. Jealousy is a waste of time. Being mad at them for achieving something easily that you have to work really hard at is a waste of energy.
6. Perseverance, despite everything, is what counts. Even those naturally brilliant bowlers/writers might not last (being great at something can turn out to be boring). When you work hard, for a long time, improving your skills and growing in your practice, you will appreciate the success more, value it more. And feel really proud that you achieved it.
7. There's always more to learn. More training. More skills. New tricks. New ideas. New equipment, even! A new coach can give you a lift into a whole new level of achievement and technique. You can't ever stay in one place. It's not good for you, and in fact you will slide backwards. The challenge of constantly learning and improving is exciting, the prospect of getting better is exciting. And one day you might score the perfect 300 (the million-seller), but the next day you'll want to do it again, and this time, do it better.
8. What it comes down to is you. You alone. Alone inside your head. Shutting everyone else out so you can focus and do your absolute best every time you set foot on the lane/sit at the computer. Of course Tiger Woods (I'm onto golf for a moment) has a bad day now and then on the golf course. But if he went home and thought about how everyone must have been laughing at him, or criticising him, he'd never get out of bed the next morning. I bet he goes home and thinks about how he can improve his swing, or what little adjustment he can make to his putting, or, more likely, how he can stay inside his own head and focus totally on his craft.
9. It's great at the end of the season when you take home a trophy, or win an award, or get a lovely big royalty cheque. Or simply get that phone call that says 'We're going to publish your book.' But after the celebration, are you back on the lanes, bowling ball in hand, ready to train again? Are you back at your desk, writing?
10. When someone says, 'You play tenpin bowling? Isn't that kind of ... (insert insult of choice)?', what do you say? When someone says, 'You write novels? Yeah, I'm going to write a novel one day', what do you say? I've learned to be more polite these days, and have some handy answers ready. But for some people, unless you're JK Rowling, whatever you say will never be enough. So you have to know inside yourself that what you do, you do because you love it and you can't imagine doing anything else. You only have to answer to yourself.