Words and inches Eleanor Shearer on the similarities between sport and writing

Cover Image - Words and inches
Giacomo Nanni
WordsEleanor Shearer

Sport and creative work are often positioned as binaries. One is the domain of the body; the other of the mind; one is shaped by physical strain, the other imagination. But having experienced the struggle of both, author and rower Eleanor Shearer knows firsthand that each requires similar degrees of grit, faith, and perseverance. Here, she muses on those moments that match.

Illustrations by Giacomo Nanni.

There’s only so much self-discipline I can muster first thing in the morning. On good days, I go straight to my Word document. On bad days, maybe a little time on Twitter first. But either way, I will eventually be pulled into my novel; into the slow, sometimes painstaking process of tapping out my allotted word count for the day. 

Five hundred words is the goal—about 0.005% of a book, if your manuscript ends up at 100,000 words. Most days, progress feels invisible. And yet, little by little, those words add up. Out of them grows a novel.

Sat there in my pajamas, barely moving except for my typing, and the occasional stretch to give my cat a scratch behind the ears, it is a far cry from the early morning rises of my past life. There was a time when I still set hideously early alarms and stumbled out of bed in the dark. But then I kept going, out the door and into a minibus full of women heading for the river, where, with tiny lights affixed to the bow and stern of our boat, we launched ourselves into misty darkness. We would still be there an hour later when the sun rose, gliding across the water, oars slicing the surface.

For three years, I was on the rowing team at my university. Sport and writing don’t seem to have much in common. One is associated with the body, with muscles and strain and the limits of human physical endurance. The other is of the mind, creating something from nothing, words and worlds shaped by imagination and then transmitted to the page. And yet, I would not be the writer I am without sport. The lessons it taught me are the same ones that carried me through my first novel, “River Sing Me Home,” and I hope they will keep carrying me hereafter.

There are exceptions to every rule: whole drafts of books bashed out over a feverish week, or feats of extraordinary sporting prowess from those who have barely done any training. But in general, in writing, as in sport—as, maybe, in life—Rome was not built in a day. 

Debut novelist Isabelle Schuler, author of the novel “Lady MacBethad,” grew up playing competitive tennis and is now a runner. She is not the first to notice the link between running and writing—Haruki Murakami has a whole book about it. She says she is “fascinated by the overlap, the way the endurance that is built in early morning runs transfers over to marathon writing sessions.” The word “marathon” is apt because that is how a novel can feel, especially when you are at the start, at the base of a first draft, staring at the impossible summit of 100,000 words. The discipline of habit is invaluable—returning to a manuscript again and again, however motivated or inspired you are feeling, just as athletes commit to training even when it’s hard. 

As well as consistency, sport teaches patience. Speed, endurance, strength and skill cannot be achieved with any one session. Progress isn’t quick or easy. For Indyana Schneider, author of “28 Questions,” who started Kyokushin karate aged three, this was especially true because of the strict grading system in her sport. Each new belt demanded a specific skill set, and she had to wait months, sometimes years, to move on to the next one. When writing her debut, she knew that rushing the manuscript would be no more useful than rushing her karate training. She took an approach that, like the belt system, went step-by-step, layering the novel’s pitch, characters and synopsis over each other one at a time.  

In all sport, the amount of time spent training vastly exceeds the amount of time that really matters. The big competition or race can be over in minutes. For some sports, in seconds. I always enjoy watching divers at the Olympics, marveling at the fact that four whole years of work come down to those few plummeting seconds, as their bodies twist through the air.

When I was rowing, our whole year built to a single race. Winning it was all that we wanted, and all that we trained for. But however much we believed, fervently, that we could win, winning was never really in our gift. There was so much that was uncertain, from the weather on the day to the speed of our opponents. So when I started my first novel, the uncertainty of it felt familiar. Would I be able to finish a draft? Would it be any good? And would it even sell to a publisher?

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Both writing and sport are an obsessive act of faith in winning, finishing, publishing. But they are also a devotional ritual, something that must begin and end with the process itself. Unless you find joy in the moment, you can’t possibly keep going, because in the end you will never know. My old rowing coach used to say, “Control the controllables.” As a novelist, the controllables were not whether an agent or editor would like my book, whether bookshops would stock it, whether readers would buy it and enjoy it. The controllables were my words on the page.

And the strange thing about writing—and about sport—is that even though it is a long, hard slog, there really are moments of joy. Of course there are days of training that are cold and miserable, sessions that you “survive,” hating every minute of it. There are days of writing like that, too. But there are the days when you transcend, when you achieve a kind of flow, and it feels easy and wonderful and free.

I always found the highest degree of flow during races, when you had to move somewhere close to instinct. In a race, you need to be able to react quickly, trusting muscle memory to keep your movement fluid and smooth even as you change tactics according to what your opponent is doing.

Writing lacks high-adrenaline moments akin to a race, but instinct still matters. A manuscript can be a long, meandering beast, where it is easy to second guess yourself. Schneider feels that the trust-your-gut instinct that she honed doing martial arts was invaluable for working on her first novel. It didn’t quite feel like “writing in the dark” for her, a phrase sometimes deployed by novelists needing to rely on instinct. It felt more like a maze. “I can see, but I have no idea where I am, where I came from, or where I’m going. And a deep sense of self-trust, which I learnt through karate, is vital in that first-draft maze,” she says.

One of my favorite memories from my time rowing is on the day of our big race, the whole crew crowding around a laptop to watch one of the quintessential motivational speeches in sport. The film “Any Given Sunday” follows a struggling American football team, with Al Pacino, their coach, giving them a locker room speech that at one point in my life I had memorized word for word to quote on the start line to nervous athletes. The speech is about the fact that the team has to be prepared to fight for every single inch in the game: 

“We claw with our fingernails for that inch, because we know when we add up all those inches, that’s going to make the difference between winning and losing! Between living and dying!”

Writing doesn’t have winners or losers, however tempting it might be to feel that way. And despite how invested I am in it, I am not living and dying by my writing—nor was I living and dying by my sport. But there is still something that rings true in this speech, because writing and sport were both games of inches. When I wrote my first novel, each of those 500-word chunks was only a tiny part of the completed whole. And some days, by god, I was clawing with my fingernails for them. 

But, add up all those words—add up all those inches—and that’s what makes the difference. That’s how a novel takes form, one word at a time.