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.

The Writer’s Character (and work)

I began graduate school in the fall of 1988. Writing was still new to me. I had written in high school then in college, but the daily life of writing was only a shadowy presence. I had begun a novel, and tended it during the free time of my six day weeks managing a small Italian restaurant in the Manayunk neighborhood of Philadelphia. Which is to say, that I had written enough to gain admission to a program, but not enough in any real kind of way.

Graduate school was a relief and a release—it was the thing all my friends and customers were hinting at when they asked, “What are you going to do?”—recognizing long before I did that there was something specific that I was going to do.

I had drifted after college. It was as if I wore an anti-gravity suit that kept me from becoming grounded. There were reasons. I had encountered “purpose” as a rationale for selfishness and intentional moral blindness. The latter I found incredibly troubling. I believed in an inherent goodness—found in man or god—in spite of my experiences in the world. And when I wrote, I explored that possibility.

When I arrived at Binghamton, I poured myself into the work, writing with avaricious fervor, and studying gleefully. I learned quickly that a “B” was an “F,” and after one failing grade on an essay, turned to successful outcomes. I earned a scholarship after my first year, and with it, the right to teach, which I welcomed with the zeal of the recently converted. I was hooked.

One of the hooks at Binghamton was the presence of John Gardner, the author of The Art of Fiction and several novels I had not yet read. I had read Grendel when I was much younger, drawn by the monster after my mother had read us some version of Beowulf as our bedtime entertainment. What attracted us, some of us at least, was the myth of John—driven, irascible, generous, and demanding. As often as not, when describing ourselves as writers, we focused on our characters-not the characters in what we wrote, but out own personal strengths and foibles, and how we matched up against this fabled presence. He had been dead for 6 years, but he hung around the program (his ex-wife became my dissertation director).

One of my teachers, I think it was Liz Rosenberg, introduced me to On Becoming a Novelist, in which Gardner laid out some characteristics of the novelist:

Like other kinds of intelligence, the storyteller’s is partly natural, partly trained. It is composed of several qualities, most of which, in normal people, are signs of either immaturity or incivility: wit (a tendency to make irreverent connections); obstinacy and a tendency towards churlishness (a refusal to believe what all sensible people know is true); childishness (an apparent lack of mental focus and serious life purpose, a fondness for daydreaming and telling pointless lies, a lack of proper respect, mischievousness, an unseemly propensity for crying over nothing); a marked tendency toward oral or anal fixation or both (the oral manifested by excessive eating, drinking, smoking, and chattering; the anal by nervous cleanliness and neatness coupled with a weird fascination with dirty jokes); remarkable powers of eidetic recall, or visual memory (a usual feature of early adolescence and mental retardation); a strange admixture of shameless playfulness and embarrassing earnestness, the latter often heightened by irrationally intense feelings for or against religion; patience like a cat’s; a criminal streak of cunning; psychological instability; recklessness, impulsiveness, and improvidence; and finally an inexplicable and incurable addiction to stories, written or oral, bad or good. Not all riders have exactly the same virtues, of course. Occasionally one finds someone who is not abnormally improvident.

We looked inside ourselves to see whether we met the unholy criteria that John threw down—gauntlet-like—for us to match. It became a weird check list. There were dozens of weird checklists that we tested ourselves against: pre-work habits and rituals, kinds of writing implements, time that we wrote. I think that many of us were hoping to awaken a writing practice that could sustain us, and so looked for that one thing, the one trick that would allow the words to tumble out as effortlessly as possible.

Of course, we focused on how damnably hard writing was—and is. The metaphors we used to describe writing—like Virgilio Pinera’s man who decides to eat a mountain, one rocky mouthful after another—emphasized the difficulty, futility, and irreverent commitment. Perhaps the real solution was a correction to our character—some unbridling of our sinful writer manqué natures, and a resurrection into some more saintly (or demonic) deranger of the senses. If only we could rid ourselves of our flaws, and get to work.

I came to grad school, and to writing, after years of 60+ hour weeks. I rose early enough to get to the pool and down 3000 meters, then head across town to the restaurant. When I arrived in grad school, I found a job, and worked 3-4 nights a week in a high end restaurant. After I started teaching, I took a job in a bookstore ran by the husband of my mentor (he had been a student of Gardner’s as well). I swam, and then started running several days a week (I could listen to music while I ran!). Some of my classmates complained about the workload. I did not. Work was in me. Writing was not.

But it was. I wrote some inspired pieces, and won praise from mentors and classmates for my work. I didn’t know what to do with it—I had some things published, but what do a few stories and prose poems amount to in a world driven by novels? Besides, I confused inspiration with work. Work, that simple, boring, daily activity, with simple, boring, daily and measurable rewards. I was seeking star fire, supernovae, and earth-shaking prose. In order to do that I had to remake myself in the image of whom? John Gardner? Stephen King? Virginia Woolf? Some Norse God?

And what is the measure of good (let alone brilliant) writing? A great sentence doesn’t blaze as distinctly as the time on the clock when you touch the wall after one of ten 200 yard swims (That’s good; keep going). You write without a clear standard, and a novelist bangs out 60,000 to 100,000 words into the blind space of “who knows what will happen to all this?”.

So we focused on character, the one thing we could control or change. This, of course, is poppycock. There are good and bad people who write. Character is no Holy Grail, and no simple gateway or guarantee to writing. Work is. I wish we had simply talked more about work and habit and word count in grad school. How do you sneak in an extra 200 words? Have you done your work for today? Do you need a new pen? God only knows, make it work, let it be work, and demystify the process. It’s just work. It’s not about whether the muse is singing to you, or the dread siren, or anything or anyone. It’s just work, a job, a practice, and all you need to do, is to do it.

In the long run, Gardner’s description of the writer, and, once again, that sense that a purpose that led to blindness to everything other than IT, drove me away. After all, what was the lesson of nearly every novel, short story, or poem we read? Connect. Connect. And for the sake of everything that’s holy, or valuable, or worth saving: connect. The pursuit of art never matched the message. Picasso was a sonofabitch, but Guernica. Dickens philandered. Woolf suffered from limiting snobbery and mental illness. Joyce? Don’t even. Our contemporaries wandered into the forest of “immaturity and incivility” with a stridency that was matched only by ignorant blowhards and professional athletes.

I recognize that now, all of it, as a kind of armor. I know what it allowed, and what costs they incurred for strapping it on with such easy regularity. I saw it for a kind of blindness, and doubted. And in that doubt, returned to the anti-gravity armor that had supported me years before.

I turned, for years, to teaching and a kind of preaching. I tried to reach out, to convert the sensible—and others—to deeper understanding (reading) and brighter thought (writing). These are not fool’s errands, to be sure. But once you have tasted brilliance—and writing done well is brilliance—every other work other than the work that is the most brilliant, makes your tongue recoil. Even your dog would turn away from that feast. Not me. Not for years. And though I still fight with gravity, I feel the pull, and this is what binds us together—separate planets careening into each other with cataclysmic potential. I tried to resist, but, really, why?

So I’m left with these questions: How does one balance the work and the meaning of the work? How does one have purpose and character? Ah, as always, the trick of balance, and not in Gardner’s list of a writer’s characteristics. We will have to figure this out ourselves.

Of course, equanimity (balance) is not Gardner’s list, but the safety net is the work—stupid, dull-witted, and quotidian. Be an angel or a devil, but get to work. It comes back, and, if done well, connects us, once more, to the world, to each other, and to the gravity that holds us all.

Lessons from Sailing: Patience and Course

We gathered a twice a day to listen to the nautical forecast, usually in the cockpit, but when the weather was execrable, in the cabin. For days on the ocean it was the only external information we had, and the computerized voice that intoned the zones and conditions annoyed and entranced us. My father never explained which particular slice of the forecast we should heed. If there was one, it was his secret. We did get a general sense: the information could reveal a significant change from the forecast with which we headed onto the ocean. For the most part, the weather we encountered was weather we could see.

Besides, what did the weather matter? We were going into it one way or the other. If something sudden arose—and in a storm, wind and rain could change direction in a moment—we had one rule: change course. At 3 a.m. on a Monday morning, Saturday afternoon’s destination could wait. That lesson only took one stern delivery.

I think I became an atheist on the ocean, or at least a pragmatist. If there is a god, it answered my prayers for relief with a simple, “You put yourself out here, jackass. You are going to have to get through it on your own.” At the same time I learned to believe in and respect a power much larger than my desire. Only a fool raises a fist against the weather or the ocean and then dares an impossible course. We had our foolish moments. On particularly bad days, my father would simply decree, “This is shitty.” If it was, we sailed through it.

In this way, we learned a sensible passivity on the ocean. Our single dare was the initial impulse: sail. After that we trimmed sails, corrected course, vomited, slept poorly, ran the engine through flat days, cursed the diesel odor, and gloried. We were sailors.

Every so often, the moment called for essential courage: tying down loose sheets at the bow while the boat bucked through night storm. I could hold onto nothing while grabbing the clew of the working jib and the sheet (line) that whipped back and forth, having worked itself loose. “You get that,” my father said, in a tacit admission that his Parkinson’s Disease would prevent him from ever again wandering forward in less than pleasant conditions. “It’s shitty, but we have to get that.” He didn’t even need to add that proviso. I had hooked my tether to the line that ran from bow to stern and was scrambling ahead—cursing, as is one’s right, and scrambling.

One learns not to wish for courageous opportunities. Danger is not a reward, even if it frees the soul from, what? complacency? On the ocean, complacency is death.

I knew about my father’s illness because, on the ocean, every limit will be tested, but it is essential to acknowledge those limits. You do not ask a first time sailor to take the helm in a gale, nor do you ask uncertain hands to tie a bowline. Few are those who ask for something hot to eat and a place at the helm in any weather. And my father’s illness was a limit–he wanted, desperately, to be the one who managed every danger; after all, he was our father. When he could not, we had to know it, and keep him safe.

Even while waiting on the ocean, one never stops being on alert, ready to absorb the next challenge—and boredom (bored in a week? Bah!) must be one of those challenges. But, who gets bored between the sun, the sky, and the endless blue?

Still, I wonder about the lesson—prepare and wait. It is easy to forget that while I waited, I was on board a 36’ sailboat that made steady and infernal forward motion—through all kinds of placid and idiotic weather. Yes, wait, be patient, but for the love of all that’s right, keep going. Even if the pace is a mere 6 knots, keep going. Even if a storm causes a momentary reversal, there is a destination, perhaps on the other side of the world. Keep going. And be prepared for what comes. It is, it will.

Heeding the Call

Some of my students are aghast at the idea of reading a book a second time, let alone a third or forth, or fifteenth time. The life of a teacher means revisiting books again and again. They become habits. The past dozen years brought steady stops in S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Homer’s Odyssey, and maybe Shakespeare’s Macbeth. All became exceedingly familiar territory—terra too cognito—and I welcomed the changes that a change of job and change of curriculum brought this year. I taught half a dozen book I had not read in years. The freshness helped revive my vision.

Of course, repetition is the backbone of study. There isn’t a piece, whether film, book, or painting, that I have not poured over. And over. Some works hold up to repeated visits—this is especially of true of paintings and sculptures. I have sat in front of some paintings for hours, and then gone back a year later to do more. The ability to give concentrated attention to something is a rare quality. And yet, I find myself loosing the fire for return visits and viewings, even for old favorites. How many times can I return to Hamlet, or It’s a Wonderful Life, or Wings of Desire? I know there are things I have not seen, and they call to me.

With spring, my attention is pulled back to baseball, and a group of friends with whom I have played rotisserie baseball for nearly thirty years. I have risen at odd hours when the season began in Japan, as it did again this season. I did not wake to watch early in the morning, but acknowledged the game at arm’s length. I almost did not play our little game this season, almost tired of keeping track of scores and statistics. 162 games and fifteen teams works out to nearly 2500 events to be aware of in some nagging fashion. Enough already.

How much has repetition and routine play a part in life? Too much. At times it seemed that I flew on autopilot, barely aware of the ground beneath me or the time that slipped past, never to return. Sometimes the routine is good—I don’t give more than passing thought to breakfast and lunch when I am busy. I eat the same thing, more or less, day after day. Perhaps my life would be better if I added variations here, but I have had other pressing concerns, like a Stephen Greenblatt essay about Hamlet. There are ways to keep the standards fresh. Still, there must be more.

I changed large parts of my life this past year—there were many reasons, but one was to interrupt the flow that had become too familiar, too easy. I wanted to drive up to a different door—my door. It did not have to be more beautiful—and it wasn’t—it just had to be different. My work as a teacher, although familiar enough, had to take me to different books an different students. And I needed to extricate myself from a years long creative drought. I needed to write to be alive.

This past December, I traveled to a new place, London, to which I had meant to travel almost thirty years ago. I traveled after I did a series of new things, each one satisfying, but each fueling a desire for more. Almost everything that has been part of the solid ritual of my daily routine tastes bland. I don’t hanker for extremes—a solo sailing venture around the world, or an ascent up some foreboding mountain, or a year in a seraglio—I yearn to encounter something as if for the first time. I wish to be a beginner again, with a clean slate ahead of me.

It will not be. There is much that I cannot jettison (Overboard! Overboard!), and some of which has been central to my life. But to bring my daughter along for the ride. To carry my brave and loving heart into boundless possibility. To write without care for sharp tongued critique. To go, and keep going.

I recognize that when I felt at my best, I was a student, learning, reading, discovering with a vigor that few matched. Right now my writing carries me vigorously to some new place—an undiscovered country that is beyond death—the little death of stagnation and routine, the larger death of a withered soul. I need to find a way to return this more adventurous, more daring, more profound sense of discovery to the rest of my life, to every aspect of my life. To become a masterful student again. Even while I wear the mantle of expert, I am an expert explorer. It is time to honor that. And go.

Perhaps my writing will be enough to answer that call during the long school year. My work feels, for the first time in longer than I care to admit, durable and ecstatic. However, I cannot let anything—or anyone, even myself—keep me from discovery. There must be time for new thoughts, new places, and a new world that will animate my work and revive my old heart. Here—there, and everywhere—I go.

Summer Time

Summer unsettles me. For the last three weeks I walked through my days drunk with free time, having gone from the manic pace of the end of the school year (exams and graduation) and the beginning of the summer Sunday School program, to a single (part time) job. The manic pace is the pace of the week from September through June. I put in six and seven day work weeks as a matter of course. I am fortunate that some of those days last only a few hours, but there is always something work-related on my schedule. That is the wonder of working what amounts to three part-time jobs, none of which is really part-time. When I add my daughter, who stays with me three days out of seven, into the mix, I really have no trouble getting from waking up to falling asleep with more than an hour here or there to sit idle.

As busy as I am, my schedule gives the day a durable structure. It does not feel so much like a limit on my time, as much as something that opens specific spaces that are “not work” in each day. During the school year, I sip my idle time, and cherish it as something special. I fit in an hour of writing, and it serves as a counterweight to the all the rest of the day’s efforts.

Then comes summer. My schedule opens up, and idle time drinks me down in one single swallow. I can watch six hours of news at the drop of a hat, or nap while old, favorite movies play on Turner Classic Movies, or stand in the kitchen and pet the cat who likes to eat on the windowsill while being petted. The three hours it takes for the dishwasher to sanitize bottles passes while I walk for gelato; I could eat gelato for days. Work, work of any sort, gets in the way of lazy naps. Licking a postage stamp would take too much effort. Small balls of cat fur collect on the carpet; I give them names.

What happened to the grand plans? Wasn’t there a romance I was going to undertake? Don’t I have the outline of a novel festering somewhere? When will I install a properly working garbage disposal? I have scads of miles built up on Southwest, aren’t there friends I haven’t visited in years?

Nothing. Inertia wraps its warm comfortable fingers around my wrists, and holds me tight with the insistence of a dirty secret: I love to be idle. Nothing to do is my idea of heaven, and I can do it with sluggish zeal. Do less! Do less! Forsake your obligations and practice closing your eyes! This is not “genius at work” time, unless I am the genius of laggardly living.

But then I do this, I write about it, and the spell is broken. How did I forget words, the deeper determined secret that I tried to deny, and which surface from even this short (and all too long) dormant time and claim me? I may not be the self-ascribed martinet of the school year and yet I feel compelled by word and dream to get back to it. And so I do.