The Uncompetitive Gymnast

We all get lumbered with mythologies about our character long after we’ve outgrown them. In my family, for instance, I’m thought to be fiercely competitive, keen only to do those things at which I excel.

This version of me came about with good reason: at about ten years old, I asked my mum whether I stood a chance of getting into Oxford or Cambridge; in my teens, I could hardly enjoy exam success if a classmate got 98% when I got only 96; I was so appalled at my ineptitude at driving that once, during a lesson with my dad, I stormed out of the car at traffic lights, leaving him to take the wheel. My parents were amused and bemused by the precocity and ferocity of my ambitions, wondering how I’d acquired such traits.

Friends I first met in my twenties, such as Emily, rarely recognise my family’s characterisation of me. In my own narrative, my competitive streak disappeared during my university years. At Cambridge, I tell myself, I learnt to study simply for the joy of it; I became privileged enough to consider reading and writing and thinking as ends in themselves.

But when Emily commissioned me to write about gymnastics, the memories I mulled over complicated my own version of this change in me.

After years of pestering my parents, they let me join a gym club when I turned seven. Even at that young age, I was acutely aware of the need to catch up with those who’d been training since they were three: I’d get really worked up about competitions, not allowing my parents to watch, and eventually feeling devastated when an excruciating 3.0 on the asymmetric bars led to my demotion from the squad.

But I carried on training throughout my teens, attending as many as five sessions per week, long after I’d accepted that I’d never get back into the first team, let alone really make it as a gymnast.

The experience of practising something that didn’t come naturally gave me a tiny glimpse into my sister’s life. Lou’s cerebral palsy and autism make everyday tasks at least ten times harder for her than they are for me. After years of hearing me talk nineteen to the dozen, she kept on sounding out words in front of the mirror until she eventually said them clearly enough for us to comprehend; after years of watching me cartwheel around the garden, she managed her first steps at six.

Emma Claire and Lou
Emma Claire and Lou

 

More remarkable still, Lou undertakes her daily graft with such aplomb that it rarely comes across as onerous. She’ll introduce herself to strangers, trying out her favourite phrases, and she’s invariably the first one on the dance floor and the last one off. Lou’s zest for life is never based on achievement or competition, her sense of self-worth never reliant on beating someone else.

When I made the choice to continue with gymnastics, I came to value the journey without getting fixated on the destination – a lesson that’s served me well when it comes to writing. It strikes me now that I was unwittingly following Lou’s example by doing something simply for the love of it: a quality that comes naturally to her but that was at least ten times harder for me.

Jill Dawson and Kathryn Heyman: competition and correspondence

When Kathryn Heyman read our profile of the rivalrous friendship between Kathryn Mansfield and Virginia Woolf, she told us about the role of envy in her long-distance friendship with fellow novelist, Jill Dawson. So we decided this week to feature a guest blog from them.

Jill Dawson and Kathryn Heyman
Jill Dawson and Kathryn Heyman

You either want to kill your competitors or become their friends. We chose friendship. But perhaps it’s slightly disingenuous to present it that way: when we feel that competitive spirit, it’s partly because we are attracted to the very qualities which we have – or aspire to have – ourselves.

Like Woolf, who wanted to be a better writer because she believed Mansfield had set a high standard, when one of us is successful it spurs the other on. We have allowed ourselves to be truthful about the role envy plays in our friendship because envy, after all, is a way of discovering what it is that we want.

Because we are in the same field, there are inevitably times of difficulty, of one achieving something the other wants. Award shortlists, film deals, new book deals, invitations to international events: we are, in some ways, competitors, at least if we chose to believe that there is not enough to go around. Both of us would say that we would prefer to be the one winning the Booker Prize in a given year, for instance – but if the other won it the same year, that would be a pretty neat next best thing.

We live on opposite sides of the world now, which causes us some pain. But we talk to each other every week. Our conversations are about writing, gossip, lipstick, what to wear to events, children, husbands, our works-in-progress. We’ve been alongside each other for each of our novels – thirteen between us – and know the stages of writing. ‘I thought it was going so well,’ one of us will say, ‘but now it all seems so flat. I can’t hold it together, it’s going to collapse.’ ‘Yes,’ the other will say. ‘You always say that at precisely this stage, just before you discover something wonderful; remember the last book? And the one before that?’

We write to each other regularly too. Like Woolf and Mansfield, we discuss our novels-in-progress, money matters, the books we are reading, our mutual friends. At one point, the notion of the ideal reader cropped up in our correspondence, the person who we really write for, the one who is capable of understanding the depth and intelligence of our work. And we realised then that we’ve found in each other our ideal reader – the one writer in the world for whom we would value ourselves as a reader as much as a writer. We are extraordinarily blessed that the competitor we most fervently admire is also the friend who we adore.

Kathryn Heyman’s fifth novel, Floodline, was published by Allen and Unwin in 2013.

Jill Dawson’s eighth novel, The Tell-tale Heart, will be published by Sceptre in 2014.

This post is adapted from a longer article by Kathryn Heyman, originally published in Vogue in 2008.

Remember: 

We’d love to hear about the letters you’ve exchanged, or perhaps you would like to share some reflections on the role of envy in your friendship.

We’re still on the look out for famous female writer pals, so do keep them coming too.