What Gymnastics Taught Me About Writing

It’s Archive Revive Day! I’m swamped with gymnastics coach training this month, so this re-post is appropriate…

Gymnastics bars

Originally posted on Feb. 10, 2014. Updated Oct. 5, 2015

I had two childhood dreams – be a novelist and be a gymnast. I was a strange juxtaposition of sedentary nerd kid lying on the couch reading for hours, and spastic athletic kid jumping around the backyard practicing cartwheels and roundoffs and walking the wooden fence like it was a beam. In my 30s, I finally pursued my crazy dreams and discovered that though these disciplines seem like opposites, both require certain characteristics that, unfortunately, I didn’t yet possess.

#1: Patience.

Yeah, that's me, circa 2013.
Yeah, that’s me in 2013. Not the best form (toes together, Heather!), but I was learning.

I don’t think anyone in my life would describe me as a patient person. When I want something done, I do it as soon as possible. So when I set out to write a novel in a year, I was bitterly disappointed that a year later I still had no novel. And it wasn’t for lack of trying. I was writing lots, but I had more to learn than I thought, which meant the novel was taking much longer than expected. In fact, it was such a mess I couldn’t even predict when it would be done! The horror!

Similarly, when I started gymnastics, I thought I’d be able to compete at an entry level in a couple years, but I spent the first year just getting strong enough to execute even the most basic skills. I was frustrated with what I perceived as a lack of progress. Why was I taking so long to get good? Thing is, it wasn’t just me. Everyone else in the class was progressing at the same glacial rate because gymnastics is hard. Just like writing a novel is hard. To be a writer/gymnast, I needed patience to stick with it through years of suckage. Though that might seem obvious, it wasn’t to me, because I lacked something else…

#2: Humility.

I am lucky to be gifted with brains and coordination. School was easy. Sports came naturally. When I decided to become a writer I did so with confidence, because I’d been told my whole life that I had a talent for writing. When I took up gymnastics I expected to be good at it because back in the day I’d been recruited to the high school team even though I had no gymnastics training. But despite my natural talents, I wasn’t immediately awesome at either. Thankfully I recognized that, since the first step to becoming good at anything is to acknowledge you’re not yet great. Then you need the patience to practice and get better. I was working on that. But I was still missing something…

#3: Mental Strength.

Me in 2015. Getting a bit better, and enjoying bouncing outside!
Me in 2015. Getting a bit better, and enjoying bouncing outside!

Facing a blank page and facing a vault inspire the same emotion – fear. The first time my coach told me to run at the vault, launch off the beat board, catch myself on my spindly little arms, and flip over… well, I was terrified. I kept picturing my arms giving way and my face smashing into the vault. But there comes a point where you just have to go for it, trust the training exercises, and leap. As I ran at that vault, I decided to do the same with my writing. Instead of procrastinating all morning and well into the afternoon to avoid “falling on my face” and writing crap, I forced myself to leap at that blank page first thing. And yes, I did fall a few times, in writing and on the vault, but I got back up, faced down the fear, and did it again.

Fast forward a couple years later, and I feel like I’ve got a handle on humility and am getting better at mental strength, but I still struggle with patience. I wish I had a best selling novel published right now. I wish I could do a flawless trampoline routine tonight. I get to the gym and watch some 12-year-old do an amazing routine and feel crummy I can’t even do half that until the coach puts it in perspective – that kid has been training 20 hours a week for 7 years. Being great at something takes time. And patience. A whole lot of patience.

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Author: Heather Jackson

Heather is a cartoon screenwriter, YA novelist, small town fugitive, and late-blooming gymnast. For more, visit her website at heatherjacksonwrites.com or follow her on Twitter @HeatherJacksonW

13 thoughts on “What Gymnastics Taught Me About Writing”

  1. Favorite line from the post: “The first step to becoming good at anything is to acknowledge you’re not yet great. Then you need the patience to practice and get better.”

    THIS. And mental strength. In an industry rife with rejection and waiting, only persistence is going to lead you to success. Keep improving your work. Keep recognizing when you need to improve. And know when you’ve done enough, and when you need to keep picking yourself back up and keep trying in order to succeed.

    –Sam Taylor, AYAP Team

  2. Some greats truths here, Heather 🙂 Nothing worth having comes easily, and if you want it, really want it, you will drag yourself through the days when the words are like treacle or your body gives up on that vault!

  3. Hey, if you were just taking up gymnastics in 2013, then good for you! Most kids start at age 5 or even younger, and by 10 if you didn’t start, you probably aren’t going to. I think you’re older than ten…

    Taking up something later requires even more patience. Your body hasn’t done it for decades. There are habits to be formed. Muscles you didn’t know you had that are now sore…

    Patience is virtue I do not possess, although my five year old daughter has brought out what I do have, which is more than my wife realized I had, so that’s something. Talk about building muscles. But patience can also allow people to polish a work forever and not publish.

    Like in gymnastics, balance is needed!

    1. Thanks, Dan! I actually started in 2011 but spent the first year doing a lot of push-ups and crunches to try to get strong enough to do anything, hence not taking any pictures at that time. But you’re right, I am MUCH older than 10. I’m the same age as the kids’ parents. 😉

      Glad your daughter has brought out the patience in you. And you’re right, too much patience can be detrimental to writing. We all need to find the right balance!

  4. I never was a very good athlete, but plan to strive someday to become an author. All of the tips you’ve provided will certainly help toward that goal. Thanks!
    @dino0726 from 
    FictionZeal – Impartial, Straightforward Fiction Book Reviews

  5. Can definitely relate to what you said in #2. I was used to athletics coming easy for me, so I expected to be good at sports and other endeavors right away. As a new writer, I’m constantly having to remind myself that writing is an art form that takes practice. I may have some natural talents, but without practice, patience and mental strength, I’m never going to develop them to their full potential. You hit a trifecta for me in this blog post (smile)

    1. So glad to hear you can relate! Some people think writing is a mysterious art where one is simply born brilliant, and the truth that it takes practice and training just like any other discipline can be a rude awakening. But at least we’re awake!

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