Turning Whine Into Gold
This is a picture of me at the age of 52, swimming the length of Trout Lake in northern New York. My husband Dave is trailing behind in a rowboat with a life preserver—you know, just in case. Off to the left is a loon who popped up to watch, alarmingly close, wondering how that would turn out for this middle-aged broad (everyone has to deal with critics!).
The first time I swam the length of the lake I was 47; the last time was last year as I turned 60. Distance swimming might sound like an odd thing to take up late in life. Truth is, I would not have been able to do it before then.
When I was a teenager on the lake, my father would row its half-mile width while my three sisters and I swam behind the boat. At the time, I was active in dance, cheerleading, waterskiing, and snow skiing. I’d grown up in this water and was the second oldest daughter. I should have had every reason to believe I could complete the swim.
Much to my shame, however, I couldn't keep up. My Dad had to help me climb into the boat to ride the rest of the way. I dripped onto its floor, shivering in defeat, while my sisters got the glory.
That would change.
More than three decades later, I’d swim the length of the lake—almost four times as far. I was no better a swimmer than I was in my youth. It's not that I was a fiercer competitor, either—as you can see from the photograph, no sisters. It's just me, the water, and the loon.
So how is it that I was able to start doing in my late 40s what I couldn't physically achieve in my athletic prime? I have some pretty nasty life obstacles to thank. They required that I summon inner strength that as yet had remained untested.
The result: I just figured I could do it. I finally understood the way the accumulative nature of effort applies to all disciplines: if I kept my arms moving and my legs kicking, and continue to breathe in and out, I would eventually reach my destination.
The metaphor works for any long process, including writing a novel.
You'll get there, stroke by stroke.
I like "one stroke at a time" better than "one step at a time." Because water molecules have more heft than air, it’s easier to see that not only am I moving forward, I am physically creating a path for myself by applying my muscles and willpower to part a medium that resists me. I seek change by pushing aside fear and self-pity and denial and any other obstacles standing between me and the destination I seek. I leave ripples in my wake.
Swimming is taxing but so is change; productive change is never achieved without a significant application of effort. In swimming as in writing, I am using the very medium through which I must move to help me move through it. The water buoys me as my legs and arms press against it; the very experiences my writing requires me to face will help demystify all that frightens me and weighs me down. If I am truthful on the page, the words and sentences and paragraphs will contribute enough meaning and structure to hold me up.
Swimming, my focus alternates above and below the surface, separating that which is easily seen from that which is hidden. I fear that which is hidden; after all, there are those legends of the Trout Lake monster... but then up pops a beautiful loon. Despite his sharp beak he wishes me no harm, but simply wants to join the blue sky and evergreen pines and my patient, understanding husband in witnessing my journey.
Novel writing isn't a sprint. You won't achieve the same effect if you close your eyes, hold your breath, and make a mad splash to "the other side." With one purposeful stroke at a time, at my own pace and with my eyes open to note the changing scenery along the way, I could eventually turn around and see that I'd gained distance from my starting point. Its details, once so sharp they could bite, had blurred. Renewed to my task, I turned toward the future, knowing in my heart that I am capable of reaching my destination, and reminding myself to look around along the way because the journey has so many rewards.
Note that the number of strokes I have taken has not made me a better swimmer, any more than the number of black marks on the page makes you a better writer. There’s more to mastery than pushing yourself through to completion. But knowing that you can complete the journey takes a lot of pressure off of a novelist, who now has a better sense of the scope of her undertaking.
This picture came to mind because I am starting a new novel. The cursor blinks at me from a still-empty page. The old fear creeps in. Yet I know I can do this: I have swum the lake! In fact, I’ve swum it four times now, one for each manuscript completed, and plan to do it again. Stroke by stroke, I will reach for the grace that comes from facing adversity, the grace that whispers in my ear: "Keep swimming, we're almost there."
Do you have any personal experiences with extreme endeavor that you lean upon to remind you that you too can reach “The End”? Please share!
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Kathryn Craft is the award-winning author of two novels from Sourcebooks, The Art of Falling and The Far End of Happy, and a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, specializing in storytelling structure and writing craft. Her chapter “A Drop of Imitation: Learn from the Masters” was included in the writing guide Author in Progress, from Writers Digest Books. Janice Gable Bashman’s interview with her, “How Structure Supports Meaning,” originally published in the 2017 Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market, has been reprinted in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing, both from Writer’s Digest Books.