After winning the Australian Open Tennis final in 20112, Novak Djokovic said he allowed himself to eat one square of chocolate. He was talking about discipline. He believed that was the level of discipline he needed in order to be the number one tennis player in the world. It must have worked, at least for Djokovic. He is now and has been for a long time, the number one male tennis player in the world.
In contrast, I read a short essay in Writer’s Digest that suggested – In writing, progress is the goal, not perfection. Those two attitudes seem to be in stark contrast. Somewhere in the middle between Charles Dickens and Novak Djokovic lives us mortals. Having played tennis for over thirty years, my game came closer to that of a skilled ball boy than it did a professional tennis player. In writing, I’m a few steps past the coffee boy that jumps when Stephen King says his coffee needs more cream.
Fortunately, my livelihood depends on neither activity. I no longer play tennis, but for the years I did, it brought pleasure, good friends, and a few trophies. Writing still provides joy, challenges, great friends, and no small degree of frustration. I relish the first three and dread the fourth. A challenge is always an unknown, still when I overcome one, it feels good. At this stage of my life, family and friends are my greatest pleasures and I can count on them bringing joy. I’m coming closer to finally understanding frustration is a part of life. I still don’t like it, but I’m better at accepting it.
So what’s all this gobbledygook mean? Maybe nothing, maybe something significant. I want to be a good writer. As nebulous as that sounds, it’s what I aspire to be. What that means is something I’ve determined for myself, only something I can decide as it pertains to me. Just as your definition of good is singular to you. As a sidebar, I’m not willing to give up chocolate for that purpose. I like chocolate far too much and I have no interest in being the number one writer in the world. Whatever that title would mean.
I want to write well enough so that others who might read my efforts can honestly say we’d made a fair trade. They’d paid the price of their time to read it, and I’d offered my efforts of writing in exchange. I’d like to also think that out there somewhere in the universe of readers someone might say, “That was fun” (interesting, clever, entertaining,) – fill in your preferred word. I’d even like on occasion to say to myself after I’d finished a piece, “That wasn’t so bad.”
Succinct answer, please. – “I want to write well enough that I approve of it and others also approve.”
Talking with a friend about this issue at coffee, he asked an important question. Something like this. “Do you have a path that will take you where you want to go?” That’s not an easy question to answer. When I was younger and starting to play tennis, I played with this older man. He was on the courts almost every day, but he never improved his skills. He never improved because he played the same way every time he stepped on court. He never perfected a proper backhand, he never tried to improve his paddy cake serve or to learn to anticipate where the ball was going to go when his opponent hit it. In Rick’s case, those things didn’t matter. He loved to play tennis and to be with his friends. That was good enough for him. I wanted to be a better player, so I took lessons, played in a league, and practiced those skills needed to improve. I got better.
I think the question my friend asked this day is similar to that story. I can type words on a screen. Spellcheck adds twenty IQ points to my writing, and I can blissfully say I’m a writer. But skilled writing takes effort, time, will, and determination to get better. It takes walking a path that will actually get me to my destination. I’m slowly finding it. I am an active reader, that does not necessarily mean I read a lot of material, it means I try to pay attention to the writing I’m reading. I push myself to take chances when I write. There’s a statement that says – insanity is doing the same thing over and over again in the same way and expecting different results. I think that’s also true in writing. Writing the same thing over and over and in the same way and expecting it to win the Pulitzer Prize, is also a good definition of insanity. I attempt to check my ego at the door, and then consult my writing friends, I listen to them, when it feels right, I incorporate their suggestions.
Bottom line for me – discipline means finding something meaningful enough to stay with, even when it’s hard. Finding the right path means not heading west to try to get to Chicago if I’m now in Tucson. The path needs to actually take me where I wish to go. Taking appropriate risks. Maybe a bigger task and challenge for all of us is to believe that we can accomplish our goals, that they are worthy of something, and then making the effort necessary to make it come about.
I’m not sure who said this, but I’m betting someone did. “If you don’t try, you’re guaranteed to never fail, but also know you are guaranteed to never succeed.”
I wish everyone the best success, discipline, and joy in trying to make progress. Let perfection be the task of Novak Djokovic. But I ask, “what’s the joy in being worth $220,000,000. If you can’t allow yourself to eat a snickers bar sometimes?”
Go well, David