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Looking at the connection of sports to writing

It appears, friends, that I will only be writing a few more of these columns. In order to start another career in the world of academia, I will have to leave my post with The Aegis at the end of next week, meaning this installment will be my second to last. It is very strange to see that spelled out, for more reasons than I can relate in 600 words, or 6,000 for that matter.

I've spent roughly one-fifth of my life, seven years out of 34, cranking these things out, usually, as is the case with the one you're reading, so close to deadline that the editors probably wanted to throttle me. Some of them came to me so easily it seemed as if my fingers were a direct line to my thoughts, and the keyboard was just an extension of that machinery. Others just did not want to be written, and I had to wrench them out of my brain, sentence by sentence. The former were reminders why it's such a joy to get paid to write, while the latter were illustrative of what a grind writing can be. I often think about what Truman Capote said concerning the art of putting words on the page: "Writing is hard, and you get depressed." It's never easy, but when it's going well, there aren't many better feelings, at least not for me.

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I witness scenes very much like my own played out on athletic fields every day of my professional life. Athletes spend insane amounts of time torturing themselves mentally and physically, slogging through endless practices, memorizing playbooks, running defensive sets until they've become programmed into the muscle, running sprints until their lungs are ready to burst, all in order to improve, to gain an advantage that might not materialize day-to-day. As with writing, some days it's just not going to go your way. Either the pitching mound is an inch higher than you're used to and it skews your mechanics, or the opposing team's forward fouled you so hard in the opening minute that it threw off your concentration, or the other runner is just faster than you at that particular meet. You can practice all you want, and it will only make the troublesome days less difficult to deal with.

If I'm not sounding negative enough yet, there's also the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately ethic in both of these fields. You win the game, the championship trophy, you finish the story and win an award for it, and you have about five minutes of elation, which is quickly followed by the, "what do I do now?" feeling. A friend of mine, a PhD. candidate and a very good writer, said that was the hardest part for her to navigate, the trough that follows the crest, when you realize the next project, the next game, stands in front of you. And whatever success you've just had has no influence on what you're going to do next. You have to let the rock roll back down the hill and push it back up, all over again.

Why, then, do we torture ourselves over something that's so unsure and so fleeting? At the risk of descending into cliche, we do it because there's nothing better when things are going well, when you're so locked in that it feels like you can see the future, or that time is slowing down and allowing you to make the connections quicker than everyone else. Psychologists call it "flow," but it's better knows as "the zone." Hunter. S. Thompson, in a piece on Olympic gold medal skier Jean-Claude Killy, described it as "the rumored echo of a high white sound that most men never hear."

I've experienced it as an athlete and I've experienced it as a writer, probably less than a dozen times total. I'm always waiting for the next one, failing along the way, but it's worth it.

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