Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Coming last

Between the ages of eleven to eighteen both my son's used to be keen competitive swimmers. We used to get up every morning at 5 and take them into training in town. They'd train for an hour and a half in the morning and ten an hour in the evening after school. At weekends they'd either be competing or training. Occasionally they'd get a Sunday off. If it sounds horrendous it wasn't. They had a great social life and a wide circle of friends throughout the country. And they glowed. They had an aura about them. Life was fun.

They were both good too. Very, very good. For a while we even wondered if the eldest especially might not be good enough to make the Olympics. But good as they were they didn't win every race they entered. At that level there's always someone, somewhere, at some time who is is better than you.

I used to comfort them when they didn't win by saying that swimming was a competition they couldn't lose. No-one forced them to do it, they could opt out at any time, it was only a game.

Later on, as they grew up and started to make their ways in life, whenever they encountered any setback or disappointment I adapted the swimming analogy to console them. Life wasn't a competition you could lose etc. Sure it was a race in a way, but everyone was in it. There were no losers. No-one ever came second in life.

I was wrong of course.

You can certainly lose at life. All you have to do is fail to give it your best shot. Your very best shot. Then one day you'll wake up and realise it's all too late. And you'll feel bad, so very bad, because you'll know you didn't try as hard as you could have done. Whatever it was you once wanted so badly will be beyond you now. You'll have failed because you simply didn't try hard enough to make the most of your talents.

Writing is the same. It's years since I gave it my best shot, applied one hundred per cent effort. As a result, all those dreams I used to have, where are they now? Tarnished, gathering dust, most of them half forgotten. I'm not talking about getting published here either. I'm talking about writing something that you know is as good as you can make it, maybe even, in parts, perfect. Good writing doesn't just happen. You have to work your ass off at it, give everything, your very best shot until what you've got is as good as it can be. When you reach that point, find that word, shape that perfect sentence, you've won, and you can die happy. At least you can until the next page looms, when the race starts all over again.

Obvious as it may seem I've only just worked this out for myself. I can only hope I'm not too late to achieve something that's really important to me. From now on I'm going to give my writing my best shot. When I die I want to die happy.

And while I'm alive I certainly don't want to come last.


  1. You can only come in last if the judge is an almighty greedy S-O-B. Who'd you say will be at the finish line, booing?

    "OK, you did this wrong, so NEXT time you get to be born in Bangladesh, Marrakesh or Darfur. No more hoity-toity little island for YOU buddy!"

    Or is this some mysterious Anglo-Saxon work ethic thing designed to keep you from enjoying your vacations? Just wondering.



    "Weren't resolutions supposed to be in place BEFORE January?"

    "It's before January."

  2. It's not the winning, or the coming last, it's the being happy and contented with what you have achieved. Sometimes this requires a step backwards and a smack on the head with a wet fish.

    And no, Mr Blue, nothing mysterious. Us Hoity-toities have an inbuilt misery gene when it comes to holidays. You're not really supposed to enjoy them, are you?

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  4. Yur 2nd-last long paragraph, full of truths, said it all.
    I feel the same after years of a self quest.
    It's the inner discoveries I'm making through my own writing journey that is remarkable.
    And writing returned to look for me even when I had abandoned it.
    I don't think anyone who is being true to the self can come in last.
    And I never once pictured you in that way. Enjoy the new spit 'n polish to your art & all the very best. A highly-inspiring post, Pundy. :-)

  5. But how do we do our best? My daughters (water babies all--thrown into the pool as infants) were swimmers too, and also usually won their heats, but the elder trained a good deal harder than was strictly necessary. Consequently, she'd arrive at races in a partially exhausted condition, and often had trouble winning, though she managed. Writing's the same, it seems to me--a certain amount of training and practise and just plain work are a necessary minimum, but beyond that we need to be out in the world, noticing its infinite variety and exquisite detail--a bigger job than any piece of writing--and simply enjoying the process. Being alive, in other words.

    Striving for perfection may be a fool's errand. It can lead to the destruction of promising material--leaving us with writing that doesn't work, dead, flattened, overwrought. Taking time to live authentically may be the best investment a writer can make.

  6. Dear heart, this is a lovely piece.
    One thing though, sometimes it's not just giving it your best shot or not trying hard enough.
    It may be because you made the choice to put others and their dreams before yourself and yours.
    Like Kipling's "famous men."

  7. It's never too late! And we need to celebrate the small things not just the huge ones. Like you could feel really good at having just written such a good post, couldn't you?

    I was utterly crap at all sports at school and even lost the losers' race when I was in the oldest class and running against children years younger than me ...

    Very very good to have you back, by the way ...