This column explores the myriad ways we can — and maybe should — engage with our creative process beyond actively writing.
The oven of a sun blisters my new-to-summer skin. In a few weeks, I will embrace the melting heat of a summer sun, but right now I feel an onslaught of almost-pain. A tightening where the streaks of light hit my legs, a begging for relief.
Relief that comes when I twist to move off the chaise, bare feet slurping against the hot concrete, and make my way towards the metal bars. With one hand on either side, I lower myself into the cold one inverted step at a time, slipping between every summer I’ve done this before: I’m five and swimming; I’m ten and swimming; I’m twenty-five and swimming.
I come from a family of people who float. Effortlessly, as if the inside of our bodies are hollow. And that’s what I do now: In the expanse of blue, I let the water’s density push up against my back then my bottom then my feet, until I’m suspended with arms outstretched wide. The sun beats against my closed lids and behind them everything looks golden. Tides and waves made by wind or other bodies rock me away.
This is the scene I describe when my therapist asks me where I’m calmest. I tell him in the water, when I’m floating and the sun explodes across me entirely. And when he later is walking me through breathing exercises for dealing with moments of panic, I’ll tell him that actually the best thing for me to do is hold my breath until I no longer can. That I found out long ago the calmest I am is underwater, the pool’s pressure pushing against me, when I feel empty. The only time my heart rate slows. He’ll lightly laugh and say, “I can’t think of many people who would agree with you on that.”
But it’s true: I love being in water, swimming. It’s perhaps the only moment I let myself lose control. Where something else is responsible for my movements, what I feel, and where I go. Like when I’m at the beach with my family and before I know it, I’m somehow yards away from their small forms in the sand. Waves crash into me and I can’t see past the horizon; it doesn’t make sense given my character in any other situation, but I get giddy and high. I just want my hair defying gravity, I want the utter silence of the deep blue, I want a hollowness that feels welcoming.
In her column last week, Mackenzie Sanders writes about the in-between space of sitting on a train and witnessing other lives whisk past you outside a window, and the nostalgia she experiences for moments that are not her own. Like when she passes by overturned canoes on the side of a road and wonders if another woman on the train has, like her, thought of just getting off and running through the hills.
Mackenzie asks us, “What is the exact amount of work we should be doing?” Before I headed to the water for the day, I woke up and finalized my syllabi and class discussion board, I pitched my August story for my local newspaper, I started readings for a class I’m taking. And still it doesn’t feel like enough because I have not entered my manuscript, slipped beneath its pages and word count, for a while now. Because the idea of doing that is not a hollowness but an overwhelming onslaught of work. Because I’m maybe not as motivated by the content as I was before.
But I’ve actually been writing a lot. Just not for the memoir. I’ve been writing like I did in graduate school. In various ways, in over- and under-stimulated environments. Like I’ve said before, this column has been the one constant in my writing life for almost a year now. It’s the singular thing that forces my hands to a keyboard at least once every two weeks. And before I open up the blank page, I’m never exactly sure what’s going to come of it. Which is to say this entry isn’t really about not writing. But it is still about the ways in which I find the act and process of writing, of being a writer, paralleled in other activities.
Mackenzie and I find it easier to write than read. As if some other beast or thing inside of us is unleashed every time we sit down to create. I often tell her that whatever voice comes out on this page feels unfamiliar to me since it’s always influenced by whatever I have been reading, even if my cognitive self isn’t aware of it.
Back in the pool, I carry my copy of “One Hundred Years of Solitude” as close to the edge as I dare. I’m reading the novel for the first time, and as I make my way through the dampening pages, children are throwing basketballs and diving rings behind me so every few seconds a small wave laps against my back. I’m alone in my solitude but not in actuality; there are so many people around me, and so many people in this book, and I have a hard time keeping up. I close the soft covers and lay it to rest against the boiling sun while I punch beneath the surface to hold my breath one last time before getting out.
Of writing, Mackenzie’s says, “I am emptying words onto a page instead of absorbing them, which makes me realize it is easier for me to follow my own thoughts than the thoughts of others.” It’s a sort of hollowness, an exhale. And when I’m done with an essay or story or even maybe eventually my memoir, I will recognize it by that empty feeling. Similar to when I dive down into the deepest part of the pool or lake and just stay there, calm in the absence of air, of thoughts, of myself.