Wednesday, August 22, 2007

swimming lessons

It's a sad but true fact of my life:

I do not know how to swim.

I used to include this in my litany of "Oh, I'm a city girl!" excuses (alongside with "Sure, I never got my license, but I can ride the subway better than you"). And while it's true that I never did the summer camp thing, preferring to hole up in my air-conditioned bedroom with ice cream, my journal, and a pen to scribble stories, there WERE neighborhood pools where I could have taken lessons. Most of my city friends know how to swim -- some not too well, but at least they can stay afloat in the deep end. I guess I blame my parents to some extent as well -- when I was very little and fearless, they didn't take advantage of that time to throw me in the water. By the time I was old enough to be neurotic and worrisome (um, like I am now...) the idea of putting my face in chlorinated water was horrifying.
Fast-forward to this summer, when a crack team comprised of my friends and my boyfriend decided, in the pool of a friend's beautiful country home on the tippy-tip of Long Island, that their mission for the afternoon was: Teach Aimee to Swim.
It was terrifying. Six cheering, encouraging voices urged me to "Let go! Let go!" of the side of the pool, to "Pick up your feet!", to "Keep kicing!" and, most importantly, "JUST RELAX!" as I sputtered and sank and splashed. I defy anyone to "JUST RELAX!" while they are being screamed at, and bobbing in freezing cold water. I gripped people's arms, I announced, rather calmly, that I was "seriously freaking out," and in one life-flashing-before-my-eyes moment, I submerged completely, only to come up shocked and shaken. For the rest of the weekend, a favorite game of my friends was "who can best imitate the expression on Aimee's face when she came up after going underwater?"
I swear that, despite all this, my friends are very kind people.
The hardest part for me was learning not to leave one foot on the bottom of the pool for safety, to kick off with both legs up and floating. Once I mastered this, it was surprisingly easy to float across the pool (while hanging for dear life onto my boyfriend's wrists, of course) and I began to, well, have fun.
I'm sure this metaphor has been used before, but writing is a lot like swimming. At least, for me. When I first sit down to write a novel, there is that scary sensation: I CAN'T take my feet off the bottom of the pool. I can't plunge in and begin. There are so many traps, so many pitfalls that lie in wait --what if I cramp up and get stuck? What if I lose myself in a sea of narrative and drown? So much of writing is learning to trust yourself, to trust that you've done it before, that you won't sink and drown, that you have supportive friends on the sidelines to cheer you on and hold your hands when you're at your worst.
I'll be starting a new novel this fall, and though the idea for it is still simmering, I'm pretty sure it will have something to do with water, with swimming. No, I didn't really learn to swim this summer, but my experiences in the water taught me a lot about myself, and the nature of trust and friendship and fear. Maybe I'll be braver when I sit down to write this time. Or at least I'll know that, in the worst of scenarios, I can always summon a life preserver by calling up a friend.

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