Hurt, Pain, and Agony (swimming and writing)

At the end of a day at work, I had a low grade fever on Monday, and so I had a choice to make—go home or go to the gym.

When I was in high school and college, I swam competitively. I was a good swimmer, not a great one, but I had made myself a better one and took pride in the effort. I enjoyed practice, in spite of the fact that practice hurt. The predominant swim coach of my youth was James “Doc” Counsilman. He prescribed—preached, really—the progression of hurt, pain, and agony as the single lane toward improvement. I gobbled up his Science of Swimming, and pushed myself into agony and better results. I never became an elite swimmer. I came to the sport too late and without the technical proficiency needed to excel beyond my willingness to work to the point of physical failure, but I did become a much better swimmer.

I hated to miss practice. I went when I had a fever. I went my my shoulders felt shredded. I went if I had the flu. I pushed my body hard enough to compromise my immune system, and plunged my body into a staph infection that ravaged me for a month. I kept at it.

I briefly considered quitting when I was in college. While Swarthmore was a place to be committed to study, most of the swimmers on the team joined to be fit, or to explore the sport. I was maniacal, and therefore, felt more often than not alone on the team. I missed the hard driven team of my high school. Also, I was not used to being out ahead of everyone else. This is not a boast, just the nature of the circumstance. There were other teams on which I would have not made the cut. I knew that.

I rejoined the team, refocused my effort, and pushed on.

So, I felt under the weather on a Monday. Let me put this into context. Nearly every day at my job, someone calls out sick; I have enough free time in my schedule that I am able to cover other people’s classes. I do not understand being sick and missing work. I know it happens—I have had migraines, back spasms, and bronchitis in the past fifteen years. I had knee surgery fifteen years ago (torn meniscus). I get it. Illness happens. I admit to being stupidly judgmental about this.

For many recent years, I worked seven day weeks. If I got sick, my body, as if on cue, waited until I had a break in the school year. And then, I somehow avoided being ill on Sunday; I worked for a church. It just happened that way. The little stuff—a headache, some intestinal discomfort, a low fever—was just part of the day. Buddha might have said that desire causes suffering, but it seemed to me that a small amount of suffering was simply part of life. Swimming had taught me that.

I claim that swimming taught me that lesson, but I am not so sure, because there were—are—aspects of my life that suffering has upended. While I could fight through a workout, or endure lengthy stretches of difficulty in a relationship or job (perhaps endure too willingly and for too long), when it came to my writing, I backed away from the agony. Agony for writers, I think, is a bit different from agony for swimmers. Muscle pain and, what? brain pain—I hesitate to call it heart pain—are different creatures. Physical pain ends—for most. Certainly the kind of agony I courted in the pool stayed mainly in the pool, at least until my knees needed surgery. Mental pain permeates the day—you can stop writing and still feel the agony of an unsuccessful scene—anything less than glowing prose. And when even the good writing does not find a reader, then the agony feels for naught.

Writing does not quantify the same way swimming does. More writing does not necessarily guarantee better writing (There is a correlation, but it’s more slippery) the way that more (more yards, more effort) swimming leads to faster times. Nor does it compare well with work, where improvement and accomplishment have monetary results. Does a higher salary indicate a job better done—or for that matter a more valuable job? I guess that depends on how you ascribe value.

Maybe because good writing—whatever that means—is dependent on the reader, if one seeks to write well, one either needs a fairly reliable ability to dissociate from the absolute creative process and read one’s own work as a stranger might, or have a reliable enough reader to sort through her—or his—work. But more than that, one has to engage the work almost without a thought for oneself. There is a second dissociation—and this is like swimming: one must be attuned to the pain and the pain cannot matter.

For instance—and this is an insight into my judgmental brain—I described a character whose skin turned browner while he worked for weeks and months outside as “brown as a berry.” This is an old cliche, and one that I first overheard in the British Virgin Islands while sitting at dinner. Some old man—I was 12 or 13, everyone was “old”—described me in his British accent as “brown as a berry.” I did not know then that it was a cliche, and the phrase stuck, because my experience of berries tended to berries of red and blue and possibly black—the blackberries that grew wild on bushes near my home. It felt foreign and I enjoyed that the phrase had some unexplained—for then—British origins. The phrase dropped into my work, and I knew it was hackneyed when I wrote it—a minor disaster, I suck as a writer—and when I revised, I took it out. I knew that I would. But I had to move on while I was writing, I could not spend five minutes, let alone twenty-five, figuring out some turn of phrase. In the end, I let it be simple: “his arms turned brown by the sun.”

Does that sound like agony? Sucking as a writer is agony. The realization that my work would not please everyone—and that I still had to do the work—was not easy to accept; secretly, I believe that the whole point of writing workshops is to learn to ignore critiques as much as to learn from them. How does one know when the work is “not good”? Or, for that matter, “good”? Rickie Nelson sang, “You can’t please everyone, so you’ve got to please yourself” (more hackneyed advice from my childhood). There is agony in those questions.

And so, on Monday, I headed to the gym. I shortened my workout, burning down 500 calories in 23 minutes. It was shorter, not less arduous. I was in various forms of discomfort through the first half of the week—my insides disagreed with something I ate. I kept at the gym anyway. And then—always and then—I read the first chapter of my novel out loud at an open reading on Friday, and sent off the first set of query letters to agents on Saturday. The book, for now, is done. I wrote this. And I started the next book.

I am prepared for the work, even if it hurts, even if I am in agony. I have trained for this all my life.