About Me, The Writer's Life

The Buoyancy of Words

Fair warning: I’m going to stretch a swimming metaphor well beyond my non-metaphorical comfort level. Feel free to believe that this discomfort serves some greater meta-metaphorical purpose. Then let me know what it is so I can say “yeah, I meant to do that.”

Writers spend a lot of time going nowhere.

We start out strong enough, with a perfect swan dive into the ocean of ideas. [Already the metaphor is causing me gastric distress.] But after a few weeks or days or hours of swimming in a Direction We’re Absolutely Sure Of (Until Suddenly We’re Not), we find ourselves far from the dock and nowhere near the distant shore. Our confidence falters and our Olympic-qualifying freestyle pace devolves into draggy doggy paddle.

And then we’re just treading water.

I’m not a very strong swimmer. I’m also pretty bad at treading water, or as I call it, “pausing briefly before drowning.” You may be great at treading water. But even if you are, eventually you have to start swimming again or drown.

Did you know that drowning doesn’t look like drowning? I’m talking about actual drowning now, not the metaphoric kind. There’s rarely any thrashing, handwaving or cries of “Help! I’m drowning!” A drowning person can’t call out because it takes every bit of respiratory energy just to keep breathing. [The preceding message was brought to you by the American Lifeguard Association. And now, back to the metaphor.]

Two truths:

  • Writing, like swimming, is a solitary act.
  • Writing a novel is like swimming across the Atlantic.

Do you see a problem here? I’ll paint the picture for you: You know that scene from Titanic where the lifeboat returns to look for survivors? Remember all those floating frozen bodies? Novelists. Every last one of them.

We can’t swim across the Atlantic on our own. We need a little help along the way. Encouragement to keep swimming. Direction to send us toward the right shore. This can come from a spouse, a friend, a writing group peer, a mentor. It can come from a tweet or a blogpost. Or…from another novel.

Sometimes the best motivation to keep swimming is evidence that someone else made it to the other side.

I read The Fault In Our Stars, by John Green last week. It’s a heartbreaking, edgy, funny, beautiful novel – the kind that implores you by its brilliance to become a better writer. I grabbed onto it just in time. The novel I’m writing (ten words at a time between editing projects) had been dragging me under. But thanks to John Green’s words, I’m swimming again. I can almost see the shore.

And I can see something else. That familiar look of quiet panic in your eyes. I don’t want you to drown. I want you to finish your novel. Do whatever it takes. Call a member of your writing group and plead for help. Ask your spouse to toss a few kind words your way. Read an encouraging blog post. (You’re welcome.) Read a great novel. Just find a way to get to the other side.

Not just because doing this will make you feel good. (It will.) And not just because it’s an incredible accomplishment. (It is.)

But also because I’m still not a very good swimmer. Someday I’m going to need another great novel to grab onto.

I’d like it to be yours.


8 thoughts on “The Buoyancy of Words

  1. This. Was. Exactly what I needed to read. Because I just did that thing you suggested, I pleaded for help from my beta readers who have been ignoring me lately. And one of them said he didn’t want to read anymore, and I feel guilty now for being so needy and demanding, and I’m wondering what’s wrong with me that I can’t do this on my own.

    But I can’t. No one can. We can make it pretty far, but there comes a point when you need something from someone.

    The Titanic image made me laugh out loud.

  2. After laughing out loud at the novelists from the Titanic, I went to the mirror and saw it… Yes, I have the look of quiet panic in my eyes, along with the thought bubbles above my head…Too far from any shore. Stupid idea. Not a writer. Don’t know how to do this. (And the irony is, I have actually been published!)

    I went to the 6-month memorial/scholarship launch of a drowning victim yesterday. Like you said, nobody saw him go under. Your words are spot-on (as usual).

    I would really like it if our little therapy sessions here could occur more often!

  3. There’s just something about another’s use of words that pushes us to create. Or drown. Quietly.

    Did you know yours are inspiring, Stephen? To write. Not to drown.

  4. You can almost see the shore?? Time to start channeling your inner Michael Phelps, Dr. Novel…!

    (And, though this isn’t a book review, your compelling characterization of The Fault in Our Stars twirled me in the direction of a book store.)

  5. A swimmer keeps swimming so they can keep breathing. Isn’t that the same reason we keep writing?

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