Coach's Corner: Angie Abdou
Everything I know about (sports) writing, I learned from mountain biking
1. Feel. Don’t think.
As soon as you start thinking on a mountain bike, there are a thousand reasons to be scared. Of course you should get off your bike and walk! You could hurt yourself up there. To carry on, you must get out of your head and into your body. Act and react. The same is true of writing. I don’t need to list the countless ways in which writing is hard, the countless reasons not to bother. You know them. Don’t think. Get out of your head and into your body. Rather than thinking about writing, immerse yourself in the act of writing. Doing so is arguably more important in sports writing, where the writer must put the reader into the body of the characters. Let the reader feel life inside the skin of an athlete. In sports writing more than anywhere, the physical beats the cerebral.
2. Precision is perfection.
Precision of movement is important in mountain biking as in all sports, but in mountain biking the consequence is higher. If you’re too far back in your seat on the steeps, you’ll crash. If you’re too far forward, you’ll fly over the handle bars. If your pedals aren’t perfectly level on a stunt, they’ll catch and there will be blood. If you don’t open your knee on a turn and point it exactly where you want to go, you’ll end up tangled in the bushes. The same precision is necessary in sports writing. Don’t say your athlete is tired. How exactly is she tired? What is the precise feeling of that fatigue? What muscle is sore? How is it sore? Do the athletes have a name for that specific kind of fatigue? Use their special language. Sport is interesting as a subculture. Employ precision to immerse the reader in that bizarre world.
3. When your heart is in your throat, get your ass behind your seat.
This sentence is in my head every ride. To be sure I’m not misrepresenting myself, I am a chicken. There is nothing rad about me (though my husband tells me I’m the raddest Medievalist from Moose Jaw). My heart is always in my throat. The idea behind this mountain bike mantra is if the slope is steep, a biker needs to readjust balance by hanging her ass off the back of the bike, and then she’ll be fine. Staying on the bike and doing it right is actually safer than chickening out and trying to walk down a mountain lugging a bike (as I have often done, to not-so-great effect). A similar concept applies in sports writing. Predictable and clichéd and safe sports writing is boring. Risk is thrilling, for the writer and the reader. When you come to a part of your story that feels uncomfortable or scares you, readjust for balance, brace yourself, and head straight for it.
The discipline of the writing life is much like the discipline of the athletic life. Set your goal and work towards it every day, even (especially!) on the days it feels like work. Don’t listen to the people who say you’ll never be able to do it. Don’t listen to the people who tell you the competition is too stiff. Don’t listen to the people who tell you to grow up and get a real job. With your heart in your throat, get your ass in the seat and go for it!
Angie Abdou is a fiction writer who lives in Fernie, BC. The title story in her first collection, Anything Boys Can Do, is about women's wrestling. Her first novel, The Bone Cage, follows the lives of an Olympic wrestler and Olympic swimmer. It was the first One Book, One Kootenay selection, a finalist in 2011 Canada Reads, and the 2012 MacEwan Book of the Year. Her most recent novel, The Canterbury Trail, is a dark comedy about ski culture. It was a finalist for the Banff Mountain Book of the Year and won a 2012 IPPY (Gold Medal Canada West). Angie has two young children and teaches full-time at the College of the Rockies.