Thursday, April 18, 2013
The Man Who Thinks He Can
"The Man Who Thinks He Can”
If you think you are beaten, you are;
If you think you dare not, you don’t.
If you like to win, but you think you can’t,
It’s almost certain you won’t.
If you think you’ll lose, you’ve lost,
For out in the world we find
Success begins with a fellow’s will;
It’s all in the state of mind.
If you think you’re outclassed, you are.
You’ve got to think high to rise.
You’ve got to be sure of yourself before
You can ever win a prize.
Life’s battles don’t always go
To the stronger or faster man,
But sooner or later the man who wins
Is the one who thinks he can.
Walter D. Wintle—1904
I was at a funeral, and the pastor read a poem about success in life. It wasn’t the one above, but the pastor’s words brought “The Man Who Thinks He Can” to my mind. What’s the big deal about the words to Walter D. Wintle’s poem? Well, when I was in high school, I had the same basketball coach for my freshman, sophomore, and senior seasons. Coach Legutko would put the aforementioned poem on numerous printed materials, and he would quote it—especially the last verse—often. It’s interesting how more than thirty years later, I could quote the last verse from memory and easily find it on the internet. Coach Legutko’s words impacted my way of thinking.
Most of my youthful years I dreamed of being a pro baseball player, but as the years progressed, I found that I was actually more proficient as a basketball player—a sport I also played nowhere near a professional level. When I graduated, I was 5’7” and 140 pounds. But I had a coach for a father, a man who spent unfathomable amounts of time working with me and developing my skills. And then I had Coach Legutko who believed in me and instilled in me the certainty that though I was a small man playing a big man’s game, I had skills and attributes that gave me an advantage. My dad molded those skills, but my coach gave me confidence and determination.
Today, I write books (and an occasional blog), but I would have never believed I would be a writer during the twenty-five years or so from the time I graduated high school. In those years, I continued to play golf, softball, and basketball competitively. I coached two or three sports a year for twenty-six years. My two kids experimented with numerous sports and played three varsity sports each. I was a competitive person who coached competitive athletes and raised competitive kids. And now I’m a writer, so naturally, I write competitively.
What? I know some of you are thinking, “LaFerney’s a nutcase. I figured he was as soon as he starting writing, but now I’m certain.” Well, like a true competitor, as a writer I refuse to quit. I learned from sports that people who are successful don’t give up, so every novel I’ve started (four), I’ve stubbornly completed, and in my opinion, each has been better than the one before. And like the competitor that I am, I battle writer’s block like it’s an enemy to be defeated, and it’s never gotten the best of me. I obsessively and compulsively keep on keeping on until I’m done because I believe that what I’m writing is worth reading, but no one can read it until I’ve finished. I’m so philosophical. I also write competitively because I refuse to be lazy. Successful, winning competitors are not lazy. That means when I write, I do research to accurately portray even the smallest of details. I talk to experts. I read and read, determinedly learning about my topic. Does anyone remember that silly advertisement from years and years ago where the actor said, “I’m not really a doctor. I just play one on TV”? Well, I put together a brain surgery from my research, and then I sent it to a doctor to read. He suggested one alteration. I was pretty pumped about that. I’ve since had an anesthesiologist tell me I made a minor mistake, but that means my brain surgeon friend did too. It’s probably good that he’s not responsible for that part of the surgery. But I digress.
I also write competitively because I’m not willing to settle. Some writers are in such a hurry to be published that they do not take revision and editing seriously. I do, and it’s not just because I happen to be an English major (which scares the crap out of people who write notes to me). I happen to understand that mistakes happen in the writing process, but I’m determined to get rid of them. I know punctuation rules better than most; however, I still look things up when I’m not 100% certain. And I know grammar better than most, but I’m not so vain as to think I do things right the first time every time. You know, I even take those red, green, and blue lines seriously when I use Microsoft Word. Sometimes they’re wrong, but usually they’re not. I also write with my thesaurus and the search feature open, and I use them—they don’t just sit there taking up space on my screen. When I finish my draft, I’m certain I want my book out just as much as the next writer, but I want to be proud of it, and I don’t ever want anyone criticizing my writing conventions. I’m a writer…I ought to be an “expert” at my craft.
The fact that I can take constructive criticism is also an indication that I’m a competitive writer. I never had a coach—and neither did my kids—who didn’t give constructive criticism. Some even managed to give criticism that wasn’t constructive at all, but once again, I digress. What I do when I revise is I have people read my books before publication, and I ask them to tell me what they really think. It’s amazing how their ideas and suggestions make so much sense when I’m not being defensive. Being defensive just means we’re stubbornly unwilling to grow. I don’t agree with everyone’s every comment, but I’ve learned a lot and changed a lot of things over the last four years by listening to people, and I’m not afraid to be told something could be better. I want it to be better.
Finally, I’ve learned from my competitiveness that it takes time to get good at something. I understand from sports that I can start over and re-do and re-try things until they’re done right. In sports, it was called practice. In writing, it’s called process. Who doesn’t practice music over and over before performing it? Who doesn’t rehearse scenes before acting them? Who gives up on the meal simply because they burned something (my wife is not to be included in that example). In the novel Robinson Crusoe, when Crusoe was stranded on his island, he salvaged corn kernels from his sunken ship. The first two years he experimented with planting them, and he failed miserably both times. But he got it right the third year, and he had corn for the other twenty-five or so years on the island. He tried I-don’t-know-how-many times to make cooking utensils and chairs and what not, failing before he learned how to do it right. And once he figured things out, he did them over and over until he found it wasn’t so difficult, and he was getting better and better at it. He got better during practice. Writing is a process that takes time, attention to detail, trial and error, successes and failures, and good days and bad; but over time, I’ve learned about planning, researching, organizing, characterizing, dealing with time issues, leaving clues and misdirection, writing dialogue, and on and on. I wasn’t an expert when I started, and I’m still not, but I’m getting closer. I’m making strides.
I know “The Man Who Thinks He Can” is a poem about sports, but I think it applies to writing a novel too. Writers get rejection letters or lose contests or get bad reviews or publish a book that doesn’t sell or have writer’s block or let life’s circumstances get in the way of writing. But I’ve learned to treat writing a book like competing in a sport, and I hated to lose. I hated to perform badly. I was driven to be better than others, and considering my size, I usually had to work harder than them. Now I take that competitiveness to my writing. I hold fast to the “dream” because I write competitively, and I’m “the man who thinks he can.”