Missy Franklin makes me smile—and want to write. She motivated me to get up early this morning and dive into a pool for a mere 2,200 meter swim. She’s the darling of the 2012 Olympics for every right reason. She’s positive. She’s strong. She owns her gifts and shares her gratitude and enthusiasm in abundance. I just read that she’s thrilled she gets to bring the bed comforter from the Olympic village apartment home with her. She’s the kind of girl we love.
Even as I type this, Missy Franklin is preparing for her 200 meter freestyle race today. But it’s not the medals this teenager is expected to win that’s got me watching her. It’s her grace and indomitable spirit. Her authenticity and her will. And she’s cute lip-synching on a plane.
What you see is what you get. Hard work, big dreams realized, and a refreshing refusal to sell out. I wonder if spending so much time in a pool, surrounded by water, incubates and nurtures a spirit as big and bright as ‘our’ Missile Missy. Her biggest strengths, perhaps, are her versatility, integrity and endurance.
When we watch Missy swim four lengths of a 50 meter pool (eight laps in a normal 25 meter pool), we’re actually seeing the result of 5,000 meters per day for weeks, months, years. On the low end, that’s swimming approximately100,000 meters per month or one million meters per year (astonishingly, half of most elite swimmers!), given a 10-month swimming schedule and a few weeks of recovery. That’s a lot of laps for just four that count, at least in the Olympics.
Or maybe that’s the point.
Every lap counts. Every stroke matters. It’s Missy’s effort that astonishes and delights us, not just the result—Olympic medals. Even Hollywood has finally caught on. We, the audience, respond most to obstacles overcome in a story, not just happy endings. I suspect Missy Franklin isn’t thinking about gold when she races. Best case scenario, she’s not thinking at all. Instead, she’s being fully in herself, connecting to the source of her greatest strength with every stroke.
And this is what makes me see the connection between Missy and the many writers I’ve been watching go for their own gold. Two weeks ago, we met in the fabled Rocky Mountain meadows and peaks of Crested Butte, Colorado for the annual Skywriter Ranch writing retreat. I tried to prepare everyone for their adventure with a packing list—noting the affects of high altitude, the aberrant weather conditions, the rustic accommodations and the inevitability of seeing wildlife.
Missy Franklin would have fit right in at Skywriter Ranch (in her native Colorado), cheering for her teammates. I’m also certain she could score a Mason jar or cow skull from the cabins as a souvenir. The Skywriter group this year arrived with paradoxes: highly successful professionals carrying a large degree of uncertainty and ambivalence about their creativity and how they might manifest it in the story they felt compelled to write. In Missy speak, they had been in pool for a long time but didn’t realize they could actually swim well. They needed a large, clean mirror and a few mountains to conquer.
More than overcoming the initial inertia that strangely seems to happen once inspiration strikes (Obstacle 1), these writers had plenty of other challenges. One had been very recently re-diagnosed with breast cancer. Another had just lost her 15-year-old nephew to a rare bacteria. They all recognized that life can easily and almost always get in the way of their creativity—and all our dreams, but they refused to ignore their impulse to write and arrived with laptops at 9,000 feet, ready to “climb mountains” (I think they thought this was a metaphor), even though two had never set foot on one and one writer admitted she had never done any exercise.
Not one complained of the task: seven days living in a mountain cabin to reclaim their creativity. Though they weren’t racing against a clock, they were fighting to hold onto the solitude—that deep, relaxing pool where the incubation and nurturing happen for most writers. I emphasized that this cabin-in-the-woods scenario was the biggest fiction they’d ever experience, and that their greatest task would begin the day they went home and applied everything to their real life.
Still, they grounded themselves and dove into the dirt, finding the value of their creativity and their stories. We started each day with a different hike to our outdoor classroom—by the banks of a river, by a lake, on top of a mountain and one day, a huge boulder. I prayed for sun. The Hopi’s knew all about the importance of connecting with the earth’s energy first: the sky begins with the feet, and so I encouraged them to take off their shoes and soak up the goods.
They did. The inspiration trickled in like little rivulets and brought a sparkle to their eyes. They engaged each other at meal times like old friends. They swapped war stories of being in the trenches of writing their novels and screenplays, and in one unique case, realizing the dream to start a high-quality wellness and fitness center in San Francisco. All of it required writing.
By the end of the week, our little tribe had climbed up and down 4,000 feet in elevation, tripled their pace, supported each others need to recover each afternoon and write with the spirit of endurance athletes. Though they called me the ‘Biscuit Burner,’ they discovered not just what they wanted to write and made a plan to do so, they actually wrote, laughed a lot and changed.
Seven days honoring their creativity produced more buoyancy, brightness and confidence than they knew they possessed before they arrived. They would all agree that writing, like swimming, is an endurance event and that the goal of gold (in this case publication or a produced movie), while honorable, isn’t nearly as fulfilling as the process itself. When Missy Franklin lights up the world with her next gold medal, we all can’t wait for her to dive back into the pool and thrive.
If the Olympics periodically remind us of the strength of our bodies and the will of our spirits, endeavoring to write well and share our stories (of loss and love and everything else) is as Kim Addonizo says of poetry, “not a means to an end, but a continuing engagement with being alive.”