Swimming in fiction’s deep sea

You’ve been writing for years. Then, one gorgeous summer night, you decide to commit to a writing life. You have floated in the sea of fiction, but now you want to compete with the best.

So you work out. You build your strength for novel swimming. You hone your legs, abs, arms, and shoulders; the craft of gliding through water. A few times a week you venture out beyond the waves, to a point where you can no longer stand with something hard under your feet, and when you’re suspended, there’s no support to prop you up if you need it. You’ll set a modest goal, telling yourself, “I just want to swim seven hundred and fifty meters without stopping.” Like a triathlon athlete; which is an absurd presumption.

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On your first few attempts out you have to stop to catch your breath after a hundred and fifty lame strokes. You’re disgusted and discouraged. You tell yourself it can’t be done. You don’t have the strength. The craft is not there and you don’t see how it could make much difference to your endurance. Besides, the demand on your time and stamina is unreasonable. You miss the next appointment with yourself. You’ll be happy with a hundred meters. Fine. You go again. Nothing changes.

Yet, you continue to pursue the dream–just to see if you have the guts. Now when you swim again you think less about yourself and how to not keep swallowing water. Instead, you wonder if swallowing some might actually do you some good. Or not. Your mind wanders. You think about salt. Fries. For some odd reason, something has changed–you have swum further. Not much, but it’s a start.

Again, you want to liberate yourself from that feeling of self-consciousness. You take a risk and go further out, deeper, realizing that you crave the immersion. You begin to express yourself in your swimming. Every stroke, kick, and breath refines, defines your free style. You realize that the paragraph of the well-formed stroke starts with an inciting, inhaled breath, is driven by the plotted kick, the pull of craft and ends with the exhale, the paragraph’s reflective sentence. You inhale and quickly make the same repetition. You keep alert, as your hands stab through the surface, leaving a contrail of bubbles, the vestiges of memory, struggling up for reality. You align your armed characters, controlling the rolling pace, mindful of the long haul ahead. Your story has acquired a conscious thrust. Suddenly you have reached your goal. But you’re slow and exhausted, and you’re just not good enough.

So you go back, encouraged, and do it again. You learn how to improve. You repeat, somehow finding more energy. There’s a moment of revelation: you now listen for cadence and you’ve stopped watching. You’ve started seeing things in the deep, beyond the stretch of your hands. Now, when you inhale, it’s a quick check with reality, followed by a plunge forward into imagination.

You realize that every microsecond spent looking above the surface is a distraction from the real work underneath, in the thinking water. The brief glimpses of the shore and the horizon are so much more. They are filled with the minutia of the practical world: your dentist appointment on Tuesday, the leaking faucet in the bathroom, the conversation you had with your soul mate. But having inhaled the oxygen of reality, you can become immersed again and start the next chapter.

Your mind explores the deep canyons of your genre. If swimming to thrill, these are dark, traitorous canyons, a land of threat, of predators ready to sever a limb without warning. If swimming for romance, these are the canyons that funnel the unreliable currents of emotion, pulling you down past amorphous shapes whose relationship to each other is a mystery. Regardless, here there is no boundary; you have been freed from a reasonable life.

Over time, you reconcile the dichotomy—the here and now, the there and how. The churning oscillation between the real world and the second nature of the other-world spreads a buttered voice over your swimming life. Lost between these unsympathetic worlds, you are nevertheless buoyed by the quest, not due to the extrinsic reason of having to complete seven hundred and fifty meters, but because you don’t care anymore. There are no better options.

You are not alone. You meet other swimmers who conquer distance and performance–because they love to swim. And they all tell you that they are not good enough.


To get an inkling of how Jonathan Franzen swims in fiction’s sea, listen to his interview with Terry Gross:

http://www.npr.org/player/embed/437221079/437824472

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Geoffrey Wells writes about privacy, elephant conservation, cyber trends and music. And of course, updates on his latest thriller, Atone for the Ivory Cloud.

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