Thanks, Rowing, for the Writing Reminders

Nowadays, if I’m not writing, I’m likely doing something rowing related. I’ve been a competitive athlete as far back as I can remember, whether it was club softball, volleyball, or basketball. For the last decade, I’ve been deeply entrenched in rowing, first as a collegiate athlete, then a collegiate coach, and now a juniors coach. It’s a sport that’s highly feedback-based, and ever since I’ve started taking writing seriously, it’s been easy to draw parallels between writing critique and coaching athletes. However, giving advice is not the same as receiving it. During my last two morning rows, where I was in the boat instead of on the launch with a megaphone, I came to appreciate a few things rowing reminded me about taking feedback, and how it’s helped me become a better writer.

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The fellas I have the privilege of coaching

1. Commitment to a Shared Vision

In the rowing shell, there is always one, clear goal – make this boat move as efficiently as possible. With every stroke, nine people are locked in on how to better move through the water, get more loaded on the oar, stay even over the keel…whatever it takes to cut swiftly. Along the way, the coach or coxswain is giving pointers and communicating adjustments which each athlete accepts and applies, because everyone believes that’s what it takes to make the boat run.

In writing, the objective is to make the manuscript the best version of itself.  When the vision is clear, and everyone, from critique partners to editors, is giving feedback to that end, it turns feedback into something that’s eagerly anticipated instead of feared.

2. Taking Personal Responsibility

When my coxswain says, “The boat is off to port at the release,” my first thought is what am I doing in my stroke to toss the shell? Are my hands too low? Is my shoulder angle off? Am I not maintaining lateral pressure? I run through the list, checking my positions to see what I can do to contribute setting up the boat. It’d be easy to ignore her call (as many of our novice athletes do), and assume someone else is the reason for the flop.

While this comes up less in critique (you can’t hide from your own work, and that rawness is something I love about this craft), I certainly see it in my writing time accountability. It’s too easy to blame missing word counts on having to cut the grass or being swamped at the office. But when I take ownership over my actions and my goals, suddenly, new words appear on the page. What a concept. Easier said than done, and the discipline is something I still continue to work on daily.

3. Celebrating Victories

The path toward the mystical rowing nirvana of perfect ratio, perfect set, perfect run is paved with an inordinate amount of discipline, grit, frustration and more calls of “even hands!” and “lift into the catch!” than one can count. But occasionally, there are these moments where everything is silent except for the click of oars and bubbles running alongside the boat. Bubbles. Oh, those glorious bubbles. The little pops that show that even for a few strokes, you got something right, and all nine people in the boat share in the bliss together.

All too often in writing, we beat ourselves up – always looking for what we did wrong, never for what we did right. Recognition of strengths and wins is just as important as identifying what needs work. It’s not arrogant to allow yourself the time to appreciate all the effort it took to create that one awesome sentence or nail that particular scene. Sure, it might not survive to the final draft, but you can enjoy the moment for what it is – however brief it may be.

This list could go on forever, as I believe many of life’s best lessons can be learned on the water, but if I keep blogging about writing and rowing, I may not hit today’s word count goal. In two, weigh enough.