Hopefully, you have been watching some of the Olympics this past week. All those fine young athletes and their incredible bodies are something to behold. One thing I love about watching these young men and women give their best is seeing how differently they are all built. To me, this is real beauty, and not the anorexic model so many in the Hollywood and magazine industry set as a standard, especially for young women, in the 21st century. I digress, but only slightly. We’re talking about strength and the form it takes. This is how it looks physically. Like an Olympian.
I have been working so hard to prepare an essay for the Southern Sin contest and publication in Creative Nonfiction that I have hardly come up for air these past two weeks. Keeping my head down and working was made somewhat easier by the fact that it was not possible to be outside in the triple digit heat and drought, anyway. But it wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t particularly fun either. Essays are new territory for me and I am a self-taught writer. I read books about craft. I read essays and more essays. I turn my work over to my partner Leigh, who has a natural knack for the essay. I have yet to take a real workshop or class, but I’m trying. The one I signed up for in October with Janisse Ray (Ecology of a Cracker Childhood) was cancelled due to a family emergency. I haven’t given up, though. I’ll keep looking until I find the right class. And I’ll keep writing and submitting, learning what I can from books and other writers.
I don’t know when I’ve worked so hard as I have on the last two essays I’ve submitted. I actually went out and bought the 2012 Poet’s Market so I could stay with my commitment to submit something every month, realizing I can’t possibly make it an essay each time. Good lord! I love to write, but what I love to write most is the original draft. Sometimes those first drafts are the best drafts I’ll do, but most of the time they are not. The elephant’s portion of the work comes in rewriting and revising. Sentence by sentence and sometimes word by word. As the deadline approaches, I get a little more panicked each day. Leigh hands me back another draft with red ink bleeding down the page, and I think I will just throw up. How can I work it again? I don’t even like the damn thing anymore. But I always go back in. I put my head down and I dig. That is the best term I know for it, “Dig.”
When I was a competitive swimmer, both as a youngster and then as a master swimmer, “dig” was the term that was used by the coach to try to wring the last bit of fire from you. You make the final turn. You see the flags pass overhead (backstroke). You turn your head slightly and see the woman in the lane next to you. You are neck and neck. Somewhere from another planet, a dry planet, someone is hollering your name. They are shouting “Dig, girl, dig! Do it now! Dig!” And just when you think you have nothing left to give, there it is– that final spark, the fire that will push you to the wall. That is the finest feeling in the world, a lift of the spirit that feels physical, like your body has lightened and suddenly that resistance which has been fighting you gives and you are uplifted; I don’t know what else to call it. But you know you can make it. Ask any athlete, that final dig only comes from practicing, practicing, practicing. It is a final show of strength that you have earned because you gave your best all along, and not just when it came time to run the race. If all that beats your competitor is the brush of a finger, you will know that you truly earned it.
If you , like me, seldom take gold because there are those out there who are gifted beyond the ordinary worker bee, know this: steady-be-working builds strength. Strength builds character. And character builds commitment. So don’t be surprised when one day the tortoise beats the hare because that old turtle knew how to dig while the rabbit dilly-dallied, distracted by a dozen other things. Turtle kept her head down with one goal in mind, and she dug the shit out of that essay. Besides, digging is its own reward. It feels great to know you have the determination to work that hard and not give up. So, dig, writer, all the way to the deadline!
Photo of Missy Franklin by Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images