Who is on Your Writing Rushmore?

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

A few reflections on the recent Super Bowl.

First of all, what more can be said of Tom Brady? I mean, it’s astounding. It’s not just that he has won seven Super Bowls—more than any other franchise in league history—it’s that he won the latest at the age of 43! And with a full head of hair! And a new team! And he’s going to come back and play at least another year! Exclamation points are required for all this!

More on Mr. Brady in a moment.

I want to say a word about young Patrick Mahomes, the Chiefs quarterback. He is an incredible talent, fun to watch, and no doubt will be back in the big game more than once. I’m just as impressed with him off the field. After the game he said, “Obviously, I didn’t play like I wanted to play. What else can you say? All you can do is leave everything you have on the field, and I felt like the guys did that. They were the better team today. They beat us pretty good, the worst I think I’ve been beaten in a long time, but I’m proud of the guys and how they fought to the very end of the game.”

That’s called leadership. Mahomes (whose father was a major league baseball pitcher) also said something that applies to all of us as we face the challenges of the writing life:

“My dad lost in the World Series in his career. He continued to battle and continued to be who he was. Obviously it hurts right now. It hurts a lot. But we’re going to continue to get better. We have a young group of guys that have had a lot of success and have learned from that. We’ve had a few failures, and we have to learn from that. We can’t let this define us. We have to continue to get better, going into next year and being even better and preparing ourselves to hopefully be in this game again.”

That’s how you handle a setback.

Now, back to Brady. He has long been considered to be the GOAT (Greatest of All Time) at the quarterback position. You really can’t argue with that. The question after this Super Bowl has changed to: Is Tom Brady the greatest team athlete of all time? The only other contenders, in my opinion, are Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky. (I’m not counting individual athletics, where you have numerous contenders to argue about, e.g., Serena Williams, Usain Bolt, Tiger Woods, etc.)

Brady, in my view, is now at the top of the list. There was always a contention by Brady doubters that he benefitted from being coached in New England all those years by Bill Belichick, a supposed football genius. Well, guess what? Brady leaves the Patriots to go to a team that had finished 7-9 the year before. He takes them to the Super Bowl and wins. Maybe it was Brady who made his former coach a “genius.” (The Patriots went 7-9 and failed to make the playoffs.)

Now, to turn this to writing, I got to thinking about the GOAT of literature. It’s probably an impossible discussion because there are so many variables, including personal taste. So to make it easier, let’s go to another metaphor that’s often used in sports. Who would you put on your Rushmore of writers? That means you get four names. To narrow it down, let’s make it from the nineteenth century on, so we’re not arguing Shakespeare, Homer, Cervantes, Chaucer, etc. My criteria would be an author who wrote at least two novels we still talk about and study today; and who exerted a palpable influence on other writers. With that in mind, here is my Rushmore:

Fyodor Dostoevsky
My choice for the GOAT if I had to pick one. Best novel ever written? The Brothers Karamazov.

Mark Twain
Hemingway said, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.”

Ernest Hemingway
His style was envied and copied, but never duplicated.

Raymond Chandler
I select him over Dickens because of the influence he had on an entire genre.

Now it’s your turn. Who is on your Rushmore of writers? Do you have a GOAT?

Let it Bite, Then Start to Write

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Matt Ryan

By now you all know that Super Bowl LI (that’s 51 for you scoring at home) was one of the most thrilling football games of all time. Down by 25 points in the third quarter to the Atlanta Falcons, the New England Patriots somehow managed the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history, pushed the game into overtime, then won by scoring a sudden-death touchdown.

There were many spectacular highlights, most notably an impossible catch made by Patriot receiver Julian Edelman. With under three minutes to play in the fourth quarter, Patriots QB Tom Brady threw a ball that was tipped into the air. There were three Falcons in position to pick it off. The ball almost hit the ground, but the diving Edelman reached for it with his right hand. The ball then bounced off the foot of a grounded Falcon and was, for

The Julian Edelman catch

But the key sequence of the entire game revolved around two huge mistakes by the Falcons.

It was the fourth quarter. Atlanta was ahead 28-20 with 3:56 left. They had the ball at New England’s 23-yard-line, which was well within field goal range. All they had to do was get the 3 points and the game would be out of reach for the Pats.

But then … disaster. Falcon QB Matt Ryan, the league’s Most Valuable Player, dropped back to pass. Patriot’s defensive end Trey Flowers broke through the blocking and pulled Ryan down for a 12-yard sack!

Uh-oh. Well, the Falcons were still barely within field goal range. But on the very next play, Falcons lineman Jake Matthews was called for holding. That lost the Falcons another five yards, and no chance at a field goal. After an incomplete pass by Ryan, the ball ended up back in Tom Brady’s hands, and the rest is Super Bowl history.

Oh my.

Monday morning QBs across the nation were saying things like, “Matt Ryan just cannot take that sack!” They posited that he should have thrown the ball away. To be fair, after watching the replay several times, I don’t think Ryan had that chance. Trey Flowers simply made a huge, game-changing play.

And yet, that’s the way it is in the NFL. The quarterback gets most of the praise when a team wins … and most of the blame when it loses.

But to lose in such a spectacular fashion, on the world’s biggest stage, has got to be a gut punch like no other. In the locker room after the game a subdued Ryan could only mouth the expected words.

“That’s a tough loss,” Ryan said. “Obviously, very disappointed, very close to getting done what we wanted to get done. It’s hard to find words tonight.”

So much changed because of that one sack and one penalty. Tom Brady went from being “in the conversation” about the best QB of all time, to the undisputed holder of that title.

And Ryan, who had been brilliant in the regular season, could have put himself on a track to the Hall of Fame. Instead, has to hear from all the naysayers that his mistake cost the Falcons a championship and that he “chokes” in the big games.

All elite athletes know the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat, and the sting of abusive criticism.

It’s what they do about it that makes champions.

I know Matt Ryan doesn’t have any quit in him, nor does the Falcons talented young coach, Dan Quinn. They will be back. All the way to the Super Bowl? I would not bet against it.

But let’s talk about you, writer. There are so many ways you can feel defeated.

  • You’ve just started. You love to write. You’ve poured your heart into your first novel. Every day you wrote was a high. The story flowed out effortlessly! Now you show it to a trusted friend, someone who knows good writing. And you get back the words, “This just doesn’t work.” (Been there.)
  • You’ve studied and practiced and written three or four more novels. It’s taken you a couple of years to feel like you’ve got a handle on things. Your beta readers, and a freelance editor, tell you this one’s ready. You query agents … for a year and a half … with no takers.
  • Your book gets accepted by a small publisher. Not one of the Bigs, but hey! It’s a traditional publisher, after all. They’ll do the cover, the layout, the marketing! Then the book comes out and lays a soft-boiled egg.
  • You’re a midlist writer, one who had a three-book contract with one of the Bigs. You even got invited to BookExpo to sign your first book, which got a great review from Publishers Weekly. But when it didn’t sell enough copies to satisfy the bean counters, your next two books were brought out with virtually no support. The publisher did not offer you another contract.
  • The book of your heart, the one you’ve labored over for a year or more, off-brand, gets the green light from your publisher but the red light from critics, and dies on the vine.
  • Your agent stops returning your phone calls.
  • You self-publish your first novel, and you know darn well it’s good. You do everything the indie gurus tell you to do to get the word out. You try every promo trick in the book. After a year you have three reviews on Amazon and a rank in seven figures.

All of the above has happened countless times. Something like it has happened, or will happen, to you. So how do you handle the agony of defeat?

Let it bite, then start to write.

Meaning:

Let the defeat hurt for a time … an hour … if you must, a day where you eat nothing but ice cream … but no more! Get back to your keyboard! When you are concentrating on the page in front of you, you are not thinking of the bad thing. When you finish writing, and the bad thing tries to come back to bite you again, the feeling won’t be as strong as it was. If the bad thing persists, rush right back to your typer––pen and paper works, too––and start writing immediately! See first if you can use your emotion to intensify a scene in your WIP. But anything else will do, too … a journal entry, a first line out of the blue, a jingle for toothpaste, a poem, a rant, flash fiction. Just get the words down without too much thought. You can think later.  “Write like there’s no tomorrow. Edit tomorrow.” Repeat as needed. 

“You must stay drunk on writing,” sayeth the Great Bradbury, “so reality cannot destroy you.”

So what did Matt Ryan have to say the day after the game? He took to Instagram:

“We came up short last night and my heart hurts for you Atlanta. Hats off to New England they played a heck of a game. We will adapt, we will over come, we will #RiseUp again.”

The same for you, writer. You will adapt. You will overcome.

You will rise up again.