Sunday, January 16, 2011

Adult Swim

In Austin a few months ago, after one of my lectures on writing and creativity, a woman in her forties came up to me and asked if she could talk to me about her dream of writing a book about her experiences as an immigrant in America.  After chatting for a while, we decided to go and have a cup of coffee--my new friend was bright and articulate, the day was beautiful, and the setting (on wide, green Lake Austin) was energetic, with boaters and paddlers splashing all around us.  The chance to sit in the sun and talk about memoir was irresistible, so we settled down at a table, and she shared her story, both unique and familiar to me (as an immigrant writer) about feeling neither here nor there, neither one thing nor the other, unsure of home but somehow, slowly, more sure of the self that crossed fluidly back and forth between two cultures.  She told me her book would begin on an airplane . . .

She asked me to tell her everything I knew about undertaking such a project (she was a tax specialist, and this was the word she used) and what it felt like; I remember telling her that the journey was long, required a great deal of passion and doggedness, and would take her through not just intellectual but emotional highs and lows.  We talked about what she read, and what she liked to read.  She'd never written anything creative before, she told me, or taken a creative writing class, but she had always believed, with hard work, she could do anything.  She was so self-possessed I didn't doubt her for a moment.  We parted with smiles and hugs, and agreed to stay in touch.

Last week we spoke again, over the phone, and I was curious to hear how she was feeling about her project.  She told me flatly she'd given up on the whole idea.  After talking to me, she said, she'd admitted to herself that what she'd been carrying around in her head all these years was the fantasy of publishing a book--not the job of actually writing one.  After our talk, she said, quite confidently, she'd understood she didn't have the patience to do it, the will, and it was time to let the fantasy go.  She said it felt wonderful.  Like a boulder lifted from her shoulders.


A few weeks later I sat with another woman in her forties, an old, dear friend from high school whom I hadn't seen in ten years.  We had dinner, and at first things were a little stilted, as things tend to be when a lot of water has gone under the legs of the bridge.  Then finally we started talking not just about our successes, but about our many failures and detours and dead-ends.  She told me she had never felt like a very creative person, though once she'd thought she would do something artistic that would make her wildly famous, like be a singer.  She remembered, even now, very clearly the moment in her twenties when she realized it wasn't going to happen.  She'd made peace with it a long time ago.  It was fine.

But then, very recently and out of the blue, she'd decided that she needed to be creative somehow, because she (a lawyer) was somehow less than she should be.  So she bought every book she could find on throwing ceramic pots, and paid three thousand dollars to have a kiln installed in her garage.  After a few months, and after much contemplation of the kiln, she sold it.  Without ever having fired it up or touched a single piece of clay.  She'd realized that it was a fantasy; that she really wasn't interested in doing what it took to make pots.

"Are you okay?" I asked.

"I'm fine.  Do you know what I really like?  Finding pots.  Finding things.  I love those treasure-hunting shows on TV.  That's when I realized I don't want to be stuck in one place, in my garage.  I want to travel.  I want to find unexpected things."


One day I woke up and decided I needed to take swimming lessons.  My mind had been seized, almost overnight, by the idea that I must swim the English Channel.  It was a persistent dream.  That I would become athletic.  Buy a one-piece, regulation, approved bathing suit.  Register with the Channel Swimming Association.  Train for months on end.  Arrive in England.  Hire a pilot boat.  Battle the Channel garbage, the tankers, the current to get to France (which tries to pull you away, I knew, just as you begin to reach it).  Return triumphantly and, as is the right of every, and only, successful Channel swimmers, sign my name on that ancient pub wall.

I read every book I could find about the crossing.  I bought goggles.  I discovered I had no natural talent for the crawl, that I was sorely lacking in bodyfat and buoyancy, and also that I didn't like and was in fact afraid of depths I couldn't reach with my big toe.  I discovered, in fact, that I don't like to swim for more than thirty minutes at a time, and prefer keeping my head out of the water, even then.  I started to let the dream go.

It didn't feel like a relief, though.   More like a death.  The death of a universe, alternate though it might have been.  The collapsing of a star.


There is an art, of course, to relinquishment.  It's often an act of will, not just a giving up.  A creative leap.  This is not my place.  Jump.  Here I go. 

I'm not quite sure I've mastered it.

I looked today, again, at open swims, places to train in lakes and bays and oceans.  I haven't been in the water since last summer.  I don't like cold, you see.  I won't swim in the winter.  (The Channel is forty degrees.)

When my new friend in Austin had told me it was my describing to her what it took to write a book that had driven the idea completely out of her head, I'd said something like, "Oh my God!" and made a sound that approached blanching over my mobile.

"No, no, don't feel bad," she'd consoled me.  "It made me see more clearly what I really want to do.  And what I really want to do is just start working less.  And have more time for myself.  That is really the dream.  The dream of time."

I want more time.

I want to be able to travel.  To find things.

I want to sign my name on that ancient pub wall.

In the dream, there are clues.  But then we always knew that.

I want to sign my name.


Photo credit: Bruce Barone

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