Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Waiting to Inhale

I'll never run marathons, dance all night or play Twister again, but I'm a pretty decent swimmer. I love water; it's the only thing on this planet that makes me feel elegant and weightless, and swimming is the one exercise that doesn't put too much stress on my joints. I grew up near the sea, so that's likely why water has always been my favorite element. Whenever I needed renewal, I go to the nearest beach or body of water, and I always find it there.

As much as I love the water, I also respect and fear it. I nearly drowned in a rip current when I was nine. A guy I went to high school with lost his arm during a shark attack when he was out surfing. I took lifeguard training in my teens, and had another near-brush with death when I was swimming with a weight belt and got hit with leg cramps. Some of you remember Frank, a friend of mine who commented regularly here at the blog, who died with his wife in a boating accident.

Water is beautiful, but it is also a force of nature, and it can't be controlled, owned or ever taken for granted. Swimming means being immersed in that power, with its pressures all around you. You have to keep moving, even during those times when all you can think about is when you can take your next breath. That's all swimming really is: continuous effort, and waiting to inhale.

No one taught me how to swim. I found out through trial and error, playing at the beach as a kid, going out a little further into the waves each time, discovering first how to float and then how to dog-paddle. I probably would have learned faster with proper lessons, but there was no money for that. As with almost every other skill I've learned in life, I had to observe, study, experiment, and teach myself.

I can remember clearly the very first time I tried to swim in about three feet of water; the way the salt water stung my eyes and how long I coughed after I snorted a lungful of ocean up my nose. But I also remember that amazing feeling of being part of the sea, my body being supported and cradled and hustled along all at the same time.

Water worked its way into my imagination. I collected seashells and painted fish and spent endless summers at the beach, always in the water -- no sand castle building for me. I dreamt of being transformed into an aquatic creature and living out my life on a waterworld. And I wrote stories, and much later on wrote a couple of SF novels about that imaginary life.

No one is born knowing exactly how to swim, but anyone can learn and get better with practice. You can take lessons or you can teach yourself, but diving in alone that first time is scary, and incredibly freeing. If you fight the water, you'll flounder; if you keeping fighting eventually you'll sink. If you surrender completely to it, you can get swept off and carried away. The only difference between swimming and drowning is you.

You can also love to swim and still find a lot of excuses not to do it. Swimming is time-consuming, demanding, and ultimately exhausting. It can seem messy and inconvenient and not worth all the trouble. There are sharks out there who can smell a drop of your blood from a mile away, and rough seas, and constant storms. Sometimes you have to travel great distances to reach the water, only to find that the beach is closed, or it's been fenced off, or there's no place left to park.

There are other swimmers out there, too. Swimmers who are a hundred times better than you will ever be. Without even trying, they make you look like a total klutz. They don't go away, either; they just get younger and better every year.

Then there is the solitude of swimming, because even when you swim with a buddy you're still alone in the water. No one can hold your breath for you; no one can kick your legs or lift your arms or keep you bouyant. The ever-present danger of failing and sinking or being swallowed up by an enormous wave or some lurking monster will always be there, swimming right alongside you as well. No matter who is in the water with you, fear is your buddy on every swim.

It is much, much safer never to go near the water. Far easier to sit up on dry land, bask in the sun and work on your tan. You can amuse yourself by laughing at the novices splashing around, and sneer at the dedicated swimmers slogging along. Up there where it's safe and dry, there are no monsters or rip currents, no risks or dangers. No effort required. No waiting to inhale.

The funny thing is that however we feel about it, the water doesn't care. It was here long before us, and it'll be here long after. It doesn't serve us. It doesn't matter to the water who we are or how well we swim. It will never admire our swimming trophies or condemn us for not winning them. It doesn't choose or reject us. It accepts whoever dives in. It ignores whoever doesn't. It doesn't need us or want us. It's not aware of us. It is just water. Forever.

If you can know that and still wade in until the bottom falls away and you're all alone, holding your breath and swimming and becoming part of it, then you'll discover what the beach bunnies will never know.

And that? Is writing.

Photo credits: Paintings by Jeannie Maddox; "Diver" photo taken of the original painting with permission of the artist's husband; "Girl in Surf" print part of PBW's personal collection.


  1. Anonymous12:42 AM

    I learned to swim probably around the time I learned to walk. I love the water, it's one of the few places I feel at peace with myself.

    There's also a great deal of wonder below the waves.

    ( and yes, some scary stuff, but it doesn't quite frighten me.)

    Writing is definitely much the same. wonderful post. Dive in!

    Nico..the marine biologist in training...

  2. The whole time I was reading about swimming, I was thinking that a lot of what you said could be metaphors for other things in life, and since I'm a writer, of course I thought of writing. Nice to see I was right in synch with you. :)

  3. It's not just a nice metaphor for writing, it's a nice metaphor for life.

    You mentioned that you might have learned faster with proper lessons. I had them for a few years when I was young--we didn't have a ton of money then either, but a neighbor offered them for cheap--and I felt they slowed me down. Held me back. I learned to tread water well, but holding my body in perfect form for each stroke held me back. Slowed me down. I concentrated so much on being in the absolutely correct position that I forgot to swim. It wasn't until I let go and realized that I would still float even if my limbs weren't at the precise correct angle that I really began to swim well. And now my favorite stroke isn't one I learned in swim class, but one I learned when fooling around on my own, and I'm a lot faster with it than the breaststroke or the butterfly.

    Other than that, we sound very similar in our feelings about the sea. I thought for most of my life that I would be a marine biologist when I grew up. Though I eventually chose a different path, it's still a private passion. (Well, not really; I talk about it quite often.)

  4. Wow. I was with you on the water even though I live in the desert now. I grew up half fish. But when I got to the That is so true.

  5. I understand that fear and love of the water. Excellent metaphor and exactly how it feels to write...especially when you feel like you're writing in a vacuum.

    Thank you for that.

  6. We had a swimming pool in the apartment complex I lived in when I was little. I learned to swim by, oh, say two so I don't have recollection of it.

    Great post!

  7. And this is why I have a picture of Dory from "Finding Nemo" on my desk. Her line is "Just keep swimming, just keep swimming." I tell myself that when I get stuck on the writing.

  8. Excellent post, Lynn. You're so right. We're in this writing thing alone, and no matter who might join us, it's still up to each individual to sink or swim.


  9. Anonymous9:52 AM

    Beautifully stated! I am also a Pisces in all aspects. My mother once commented that if there was a way for me to swim underwater all the time, that's how I would have done it.
    I remember slipping under once at a lake when I was very little. I was surrounded in a yellow-green murkey world, and remember seeing my own shadow and waving, knowing it was probably my shadow, but believing, somewhere deep inside, that it could be another little girl spirit. When my feet hit the bottom, I realized I had no idea how to get up, and I tried unsuccessfully to jump and flutter my feet to the surface.
    Fortunately, my dad was right there and I remember the feeling of bursting through the border between worlds and finding air. I have no idea how long the moment lasted, probably less than 10 seconds, but it still seems timeless 40 years later.
    The water also taught me about people and learning. I learned how to swim a version of the breast stroke, with trial and error and parental help. When I was in formal lessons, the focus was on the crawl, and formation. I didn't progress very far even though I swam pretty well.
    When I was in high school, I taught lessons, and was allowed the flexibility of teaching kids either the crawl, or the breast-stroke. My thought was it was more important to have a child who could propell themselves in the water than children who learned strokes in a rote order. :)

  10. Lynn, I took swimming as part of my GS badge thingy when I was very young. The instructor we had was a twit. I'd never had a swimming lesson, never paddled around in the water, had no idea how to float, wore coke bottle glasses that of course, I couldn't wear in the water, and her idea of learning was for each of us to just jump off the diving board into twelve feet of water.

    After the ambulance left and my mother had given this woman a piece of her mind for almost drowning her kid, it took me years before I was comfortable enough to get back in the water. I forced myself to learn how to paddle around, as long as I can keep my head above water, but that's the most I'll do. To this day, I won't even get my face wet in the shower. The best thing to ever happen to my daily routine was the disposable pre-moistened face wipes! :lol:

    It's funny the things we fear. I'll drive a quarter-mile car down the dragstrip in nine seconds at 130mph or more and yet, when we go to the beach, I'm the one sitting in the sand working on my tan.

    For me, writing is sitting in that car at the light, revving the engine and watching the tree, then pulling the best light I can. When the car launches, it's me, the car and the finish line. And for 8 or nine seconds, I'm on the ride of my life. That's what writing is for me. And it really does correlate to swimming because either way, it's just one lone person who, for a few seconds, is caught up in being a part of that car, or the water you're in...because I too hold my breath, waiting to burst through the 'other end.'

    Love the analogy. :)


  11. This post sings to me. I feel the same about the ocean and swimming - and loved the extended metaphor on writing. Thank you PBW for the inspiration.

  12. Anonymous11:41 PM

    Delurking to thank you for this post. I find all of your posts enjoyable, informative, and useful, but this one really touched me and, maybe, we'll see, helped me. Thank you.

  13. Anonymous11:46 PM I never likened swimming to writing until now, even though I've said a million times that I'm drowning in edits/deadlines/etc.

    Definitely some parallels, though. :)

  14. Ver Good. You Scare me even more now. You write so well and I am just like a kid putting her toe in the water. I got the writing metaphor straight off. Two thing spring to mind. One having just finished Stay the Night and feeling thoroughly depressed that you write so well and I dont I am alone in this. It scares me. But you are also right. When I was a Kid we lived in South Africa a long way from the sea. When we did go I used to go in with my Dad. He was my anchor. Years later I went with a friend. I spent 2 hours floating up and down in the waves and the warm water. Riding up and down thinking my own thoughts in my own bubble I was free. That is what it can be like when I get a writing stretch it is like I am floating there and dreaming.
    Just once in a while though I would like to be part of a water polo team and have someone in the water with me to help me achieve the goal.
    Thanks for thrilling and depressing me all at the same time.

  15. Anonymous10:41 PM

    I needed this tonight, and thanks.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.