Sunday, August 24, 2008

Training for the Gold

The comparison of writing to athletic disciplines has been made many times before but I’m going to go ahead and make it again as the 2008 Beijing Olympics (and what an Olympics! Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt, world record after world record . . . but I digress) draws to a close. The reason why this comparison gets made again and again is because, let’s face it, it’s true. Whether you believe that there is such a thing as natural talent or whether you think it's all about practice, either way you surely must admit that ultimately, success as a writer, or as an athlete, comes down to a whole lot of hard work.

And training is key.

This is where an MFA program comes in. I would never suggest that there is no other way to train at writing than MFA programs; that would be absurd. But I will say it’s an excellent option for those who have three years or so to dedicate to it. In an MFA program you’re pushed hard to constantly work (always be producing and revising), you’re pushed to go out there and compete (by submitting and entering contests), you’re set up with a group of peers to work with and to work against (share your stuff, trade feedback, but also remember that in the race for the Gold it might be you or them so you’ve got to try your best to hold your own), and you’ve got coaches, all who have been through it themselves in different ways, to encourage and guide you along the way (the MFA faculty, obviously).

Okay, so writing is much more subjective than most Olympic Sports. It’s not like a race where there will be three people who were objectively faster than all the rest. In writing, you can train and train and train and get to where you, personally, want to be, and still have some people who read your stuff and go “Eh, it’s just not my kind of thing.” Even if you win the writing Gold, say you snag one of the many prestigious writing awards, or your latest book makes the New York Times Bestseller List, there will still be people who read your stuff and say “Eh. Overrated.”

So what that means is there will never be an end to your training. You will never have one specific goal that you’ll retire after reaching. The training you go through in your MFA program isn’t really the means to an end. It’s more like the beginning of a lifetime of training that, if you’re in it for what I would consider the right reasons (again, a very subjective issue), will prove to be its own kind of Gold medal in itself.

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