What Writers Can Learn From The Olympics

Future Olympics gymnastThere they were, beautiful female athletes from the wide world over, mounting the balance beam at the Olympics to do their routine in front of an arena of fans plus, well, everyone, everywhere, who was watching them.

“Whoops, the judges will subtract a point for grabbing the beam that way.” (To keep from falling off and possibly injuring herself.) “It’s going to cost her. She didn’t do that in practice, I’m really surprised.” (Not me, who couldn’t heft myself up on the darned beam, much take one step, if my life depended on it.) “Maybe it’s the pressure.” (You think?)

While I understand the need for judges to have standards by which to choose medalists, this Olympics season I find myself annoyed with commentators.

In these days of 24 hour news coverage, both journalists and announcers are required to keep talking even when they have nothing useful to say–which far too often is the case. And rambling on invariably morphs into making judgments, because what else is there?

As one who sits there, chin on the ground, as these young women perform death-defying feats without breaking a sweat, I’m beginning to take the volleys of criticism personally. What effect must it have on the athletes? Does it make them perform better, or when it’s extreme, does it strip the life from their routines because they are so afraid they’ll be judged?

The constant stream of negativity has me considering the effects of criticism on creativity, the joy of performing, and the desire to compete.

My latest novel, When We Were Sisters, came out in June. The reviews have pleased me, and RT Book Review made the book a top pick for the month. Not all the reviews are positive, of course, although taken in the proper spirit, all but the most nonsensical can be helpful. All these books later I’ve developed a thick skin, and I can see beyond what reviewers say, to what they “may” mean and how, if I want to, I can improve as a writer.

For instance it’s clear from some of the reviews that books written in 1st person point of view are not the reviewer’s cup of tea. And this book, with three narrators, sometimes confuses them. Readers who want a fast paced adventure aren’t as pleased with first person, either, since sifting through the narrator’s thoughts often means a slower novel, with more introspection–because hey, we’re hiking through somebody’s cerebral cortex.

I recently read a beautiful novel, written in first person. I stopped and reread sentences to savor them because they were so delicious. The narrator’s thoughts and the description were not overwrought but perfectly expressed. But action? From the reviews, those who wanted more story and faster, were unhappy enough to say so.

Last night on the balance beam different styles emerged.

Some of the gymnasts were graceful and thin. They danced and posed, and their complicated routines looked effortless. Others were stockier and athletic, in perfect control of every muscle and prone to the most challenging moves. I am sure every onlooker appreciated one style over the other. Viewers know what they like.

Without praise or criticism athletes and artists might not know where their strengths or weaknesses lie.

If we don’t know that we aren’t meeting expectations, we can’t improve. On the other hand, too much criticism–especially for athletes who are still as young as these gymnasts–may inhibit their performance. If a writer tries to write for a certain audience, she loses her individual voice and probably ends up pleasing nobody. If an athlete worries that every move won’t please her critics, she’ll stop moving at all, or move so cautiously that she loses her natural grace and rhythm.

Praise and criticism, two sides of every coin, but guess what? Most of us are watching the Olympics on television. We can turn off the sound and just appreciate the performance.

For the writers out there? If you find that criticism begins to affect your ease with your craft, turn down the sound in a different way. Stop checking review sites. Skip Goodreads or online bookstores for a while. Have a friend send you the best reviews and pretend the others don’t exist, at least until you’re ready to see them.

Now, for the remainder of the Olympics?

Let’s not terrify all the budding young athletes in this worldwide audience so that they will be afraid to compete in the future. Let’s stop harping on what all our fabulous athletes are doing wrong and just wallow in their amazing success. They trained and competed for years to get where they are. They are among the best our little planet has to offer. Aren’t we all that much luckier for having seen them?


  1. Eva Maria Nielsen on August 17, 2016 at 1:33 am

    Dear Emilie, I really love your point to Watch the performance and turn off the sound. 🙂 And the friends help to find the best reviews for a while! I love your books! Keep writing on!

  2. Marilyn Cox on August 17, 2016 at 9:19 am

    My thoughts exactly while viewing the Olympic events! Thank you for expressing it so eloquently!

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