Success as a writer is never easy as this tale shows…
One of the Oscar nominated films this year is The Fighter, conceived by and starring Mark Wahlberg. See it – even if you’re not into boxing – it is a triumph of writing and acting based on a true story known by few outside of the boxing world.
You probably know a thing or two about Wahlberg, that he used to sling his pants just above his butt crack as a lil’ white boy rapper named Marky Mark, and that he went on to become a bonafide Movie Star and become richer than God as the producer of cable hits like Entourage, which is loosely based on his acting career.
Here’s what you may not know about Mark Wahlberg. It took him five years to get The Fighter made, all of them at the height of his career. It was his baby, and in the face of continued rejection he continued to prepare for the day when someone said yes.
And when I say prepare, I’m not talking about taking meetings. I’m talking about blood and sweat… literally.
There are two lessons here for us writers.
First, when someone says no to you (as in, a rejection slip), feel sorry for them. Their loss, they may have just missed out on something wonderful. Then move on with hope, revising and growing as necessary, because each no is an obligatory stone in the path that leads you to a yes.
Everybody gets rejected. Everybody.
Secondly, Wahlberg went into training to become world champion welterweight Mickey Ward, upon whom this true story is based. He trained over the entire five year stretch between the idea and the green light. Even when he was making other films, he would get up two hours early to hit the gym and put in the sweat equity required to be ready when that yes moment arrived.
That’s how badly he wanted this.
Critics and viewers are swooning over the way Christian Bale morphed into Ward’s crack-addicted brother (it earned him a Supporting Actor nomination, while Wahlberg was shut out of the nominations), and certainly it was a stellar display of acting chops. But it was Wahlberg’s film, because it is drenched in the sweat and blood, any way you want to define those terms, that it took to get this project made.
The idea for this post hit me today when I was at the gym, sweating profusely.
There’s something about taking yourself to the wall, to the point of the sweet pain that signals you’ve given it everything.
Kinesiologists will tell you that’s an endorphin high. Nothing but bio-chemicals kicking in. Funny thing about bio-chemicals, though: they can take you to places you wouldn’t go otherwise.
I realized that I have, on occasion, experienced that same exhilarating high about my writing. And then, between sets on a machine inspired by something out of a medieval dungeon, it hit me: I don’t do that enough.
I couldn’t wait to get home and start writing this post.
I slept until 9:00 am today. Even in the face of no less than 11 blog posts due now, two overdue freelance projects and three career-defining letters to a prospective new agent and two publishers I want to get into bed with
There was a gap between how badly I want success as a writer, and the degree to which I will push myself to get there.
And now here I am, writing this post instead.
And sweating profusely, I might add. Because this is an important message for anyone with a writing dream.
Consider it Day One in my new training regimen. Throw it out there to the world – and what better way to do that than to say it here – and you can’t look back. Not if you have an ounce of pride and self-worth in you.
I don’t know a lot of writers who are also athletes. I’m sort of an odd duck in that regard. I’ve often used analogies from my own athletic past in the writing workshops I teach, and they are sometimes greeted by blank stairs and the fidgety body language of folks jonesing to get outside for their next smoke.
Not judging. But it’s not an athlete’s mindset.
But that doesn’t dull the shine on this particular truth: success in writing is really no different than success in sports. Or in any endeavor in which only the manically dedicated and self-made world-class achievers see their dream come to fruition.
Behind closed doors, you have to pay a steep price to make it happen.
We don’t hear much about that private agony at awards banquets and profiles in major magazines, but this backstory is almost always there.
Which makes me ask myself, and you, this question: how much blood, sweat and tears are you putting into your writing? Are you casual about this, thinking that if you tinker enough you’ll get there? Or are your words drenched with pain and desire? Have you felt the endorphin high of writing something brilliant in the middle of the night, and the fear of suspecting you’ve not done enough in the face of opportunity?
A Case Study In Discipline
You’ve heard of James Patterson, he of the 68 books written (eight in 2010 alone) and 40-some-odd bestsellers and more shelf space in the bookstore than, well, anybody on the planet. But you may not know this guy’s backstory, and it’s soaked to the bone with blood, sweat and endorphins, all of which were in his life long before those big writing bucks showed up.
Prior to being James Patterson the immortal writing demigod, James Patterson the wannabe novelist held a pretty cool day job. He was the CEO of the largest advertising agency on the planet, J. Walter Thompson. In fact, he was the youngest CEO of a major ad agency, ever.
Patterson’s train to get to his Manhattan high rise office every morning left at 6:30 am. He rarely got home before 8:00 pm, and traveled frequently.
How do you manage the dream of writing novels – indeed, how does the dream even endure when you are pulling down seven figures in your day job? – with a schedule like that?
Answer: you get up at 4:00 am and pound the keyboard for two hours. Every day, no matter where you wake up or how bad your head hurts.
He wanted it that badly.
How badly do you want your writing dream to come true?
You may not know many athletes, you may not particularly like the ones you do know. But take a closer look at the intangibles of making it big in sports in today’s competitive environment, an era in which current high school jocks can out-run, out-strength and out-play professionals of as little as two decades ago.
Now put that into context to today’s publishing market, which is tighter and in a greater state of flux and metamorphosis than at any time in history.
You have to want it badly enough to pay the price required. To humble yourself before the high bar you seek to clear. To compete with others who hold their dream just as dearly as you cling to yours, when there are only so many open slots in the chaos of today’s collective publishing landscape.
Are you writing hard, or are you writing smart? And do you realize you have to do both to make it?
You have to go back to the drawing board frequently to review the basics and test your abilities. Just like athletes go to training camp each and every year to brush up on fundamentals. You need to keep learning, practicing and experimenting. To keep pushing yourself. You need to read everything and everybody in your target niche, and you need to have an insider’s take on the industry you are trying to break into.
You need to sweat blood. You need to bleed tears. You need to seek the high that only endorphins deliver after you’ve taken yourself to the wall.
You need to back your belief with sacrifice and solitary, intense effort. Casual practicioners of the writing craft need not apply.
Never settle. Never quit.
Never forget that mediocrity is everywhere, but also there is an abundance of quality writers with killer manuscripts out there, too.
You have to be better than they are.
You may not be the fastest, strongest, most naturally gifted writer in the game. Dare I say, James Patterson wasn’t, and isn’t. But he is a role model we can learn from. (I met him at a book signing once. There were about 300 people waiting for his appearance, and when I got there late I was at the back of the room. I felt a tap on my shoulder, and when I turned, there he was, beginning to thread himself toward the podium. When he saw the recognition in my eyes – the dropping jaw helped, too – he extended his hand and said, “Hi, I’m John Grisham, thanks for coming.”)
Like I said, and like his work or not, the guy’s a role model.
Maybe you’re not going to win the Pulitzer, but you can be the most disciplined and focused of writers. Determination isn’t something you claim, it is something you earn through demonstration and performance.
Ask any professional athlete, they’ll tell you.
Because more than ever before, in sports and in writing, this is something that is required to elevate a dream to a career reality.
I feel better now. High on endorphins from writing this.
Let the bloodletting and the sweating begin.