Sink or Swim, Why Drowning Could Improve Your Writing

I’ve been reading more of The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls.  Her book is positively moving.  Growing up in a home with an alcoholic father and unruly mother, Walls captures the spirit of childhood and adventure.  I’m continually amazed with how candid she writes and the amazing imagery to all the senses.  Recently a passage about her experience learning to swim struck a chord with me:

“Dad picked me up and heaved me back into the middle of the Hot Pot.  ‘Sink or Swim!’ he called out.  For the second time, I sank.  The water once more filled my nose and lungs.  I kicked and flailed and thrashed my way to the surface, gasping for air, and reached out to Dad.  But he pulled back, and I didn’t feel his hands around me until I’d sunk one more time.

He did it again and again, until the realization that he was rescuing me only to throw me back into the water took hold, and so, rather than reaching for Dad’s hands, I tried to get away from them.  I kicked at him and pushed away through the water with my arms, and finally, I was able to propel myself beyond his grasp.

‘You’re doing it, baby!’ Dad shouted.  ‘You’re swimming!’

I staggered out of the water and sat on the calcified rocks, my chest heaving.  Dad came out of the water, too, and tried to hug me, but I wouldn’t have anything to do with him, or with Mom, who’d been floating on her back as if nothing were happening, or with Brian and Lori, who gathered around and were congratulating me.  Dad kept telling me that he loved me, that he never would have let me drown, but you can’t cling to the side your whole life, that one lesson every parent needs to teach a child is ‘If you don’t want to sink, you better figure out how to swim.’  What other reason, he asked, would possibly make him do this?

Once I got my breath back, I figured he must be right.  There was no other way to explain it.”

Right here, in this passage, I feel a kinship to the author.  Just here.  I can’t say, and am fortunate to not have to, that my childhood was full of stories like Walls.  I wasn’t cooking my own food at age 3, I was never thrown from a moving vehicle rolling across a train track, I have never slept in a cardboard box, or had to pack up and move everything in the middle of the night.  I am grateful for that.  I know I am privileged coming from the working family I grew up in.  But that notion, “Sink or Swim,” now that I remember.

That is exactly how my dad said he and all his brothers learned how to swim.  And I can recall, with vivid fear, being tossed into the pool and flopping in the water until I could paddle my way to the edge and get the burning out of my nose and throat.  Once, my duck shaped waist floaty escaped my grasp while I was on the ladder and I jumped to grab it, missed, and sank right to the bottom.  Thank god my brother was there and dove in to rescue me.  Eventually, my mom insisted on signing me up for swim lessons.  I went one summer for like 2 or 3 weeks.  We practiced blowing bubbles underwater, but I don’t recall learning to swim.  Honestly, I think I just finally figured it out.  I stayed in shallow waters long enough to learn how to tread on my own and just get by.  Still, water isn’t my favorite element to be in.  I like air.  I’ll jump out of a plane no problem, in fact I have! But water still makes me a little nervous sometimes.

Then there was learning to ride a bike.  My dad also refused to put training wheels on.  We had them, he just refused to put them on.  Endless trips around the block involving me crashing into trees.  I had a record at school for number of bloody lips and bruises!  My siblings tried to help me out once by putting the training wheels on for me.  They had just tightened up the screws and told me to hop on.  I jumped on the bike, and started pedaling expectantly.  Nothing happened.  The training wheels didn’t work right and my bike became a stationary bike, good only for short term moderate exercise complete with unicorn banana seat and streamers on the handlebars.  I’ll admit a secret to you.  I didn’t learn how to ride a bike until 5th grade.  Go ahead, laugh, it’s embarrassing!  My sister, bless her heart, finally took the patience to spend all afternoon in a parking lot with me doing wavy circles.  I was getting the hang of it and feeling pretty confident so I looked across the street and yelled “Dad, look at me!”  As I was waving, and he was looking up, I biffed it in some sand and gravel and wiped out with the bike falling on top of me.

The point?  You’ve got to work at it.  In life.  In swimming “lessons” and in bike riding lessons and in writing.  I’ll admit I can be a slow learner when something scares me, hell, I’ve been known to occasionally still crash into people’s houses while on a bike.  But, I’ve persevered.  And I’ve overcome embarrassing setbacks and social timelines that prevented me from achieving my goals.  And right now, I’m starting all over again, with writing.  And let me tell you folks, I’ll win this bloody lip contest too!

What about you?  What scares you?  What have you survived and learned from?

12 responses

  1. What a great post, and excerpt! Only lately have I begun to realise that sometimes we HAVE to learn to swim – the short-term panic is usually far outweight by the long-term feeling of having overcome something tough, and learned to survive.

    I’m really excited to read more of your blog!

    1. Well I’ll be the first to say it’s not easy, but nothing worthwhile ever is, right?

  2. “The Glass Castle” made me angry…I was angry at the author for the first scene in the book (not wanting to elaborate and spoil it for other people)…how could she react that way? I was also angry that the author and her siblings obviously fell through the very large cracks in the American system set up to protect kids in that kind of situation. I was angry at the author’s parents, who, although they both had significant mental health issues, were intelligent people…how could they not realize that the lives they were living were not appropriate for anyone to live, let alone children!

    I also grew up in a low-income household (although nothing close to that described in this book). I have a fear of running out of things…I purposely buy two of things that are on sale, so that I’ll have another one when the first one runs out.

    My mom taught me growing up never to depend on somebody else for money…I’ve always remembered that lesson! I had my first job at age 10, and have made my own money ever since!

    After my marriage broke up, I was a single mom with 3 kids for 11 years…that was hard! I used to fall asleep on the bus coming home from work…I was exhausted!

    I’m a firm believer in the “what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger” adage…I’m living proof of that!


    1. Thank you for sharing so many honest viewpoints, Wendy, I appreciate your passionate response. I agree that the first scene in the book is harsh, but it definitely demonstrates how she looked back on her childhood. There is resentment, shame, fantasy worlds, good lord the list could go on and on. But I’m really loving this book. It’s so different to me and poetic, I think. Like you said, it wasn’t a safe childhood, but she comes out like such a bull, so strong and determined and ready to face the world.

      I’m curious what was your first job? I knew I needed to work at a young age too, my dad has one of the strongest work ethics I know. He is just a service individual. But I think I take after him a lot in that respect. Your children should be proud to have such a hardworking, talented and self aware role model for a mother. Thanks for sharing, Wendy!

  3. What scares me? That’s simple: your dad!! Oh, you think I’m kidding, but I recall your other posts…getting buried in the snow and whatnot…and, yeah. The man flat out frightens me. 😉

    Hey, if you’re ever interested in reviewing books, let me know. The pay is low (okay, nonexistent) but you do get a free book out of the deal!

    1. Nah, my dad’s harmless, really. Besides I also wrote that I’m the most like him, and I’m pretty sure if we met in a dark alley, you wouldn’t run for cover. He’s a funny guy, check out an early post about him called Audio Tracked Peacock Noises

      I’m interested in learning more about your book review idea. What do you know that I should know?

  4. You already know my stories of learning to swim (or not) and bike with dad. 🙂

    What scares me? Anything that doesn’t allow me a bit of control. Like if we’re sharing buttered popcorn in the movies, I need to be holding the tub. 😉

    1. I have weird quirks like that too. It’s cool. You can hold the popcorn so long as you share. I’ll bring the parmesan!

  5. This is a wonderful post, Jess. I like the excerpt a lot, but love what you did with it even more. The best thing a parent can give a child is that feeling of being strong and self-sufficient. At first, the approach may seem harsh or insensitive, but the results last forever.

    Keep up the great work!

    1. You know, Sylvia Browne (a world renowned psychic, take it or leave it I’m just sayin what she does) says everyone has a life map, and in that map are drawn several instances where we could “get out” meaning we’d die. And based on whether or not we learned the lesson we wanted to in life, we move on to the other side or we return to the world. I guess I have a lot more to learn cause with my track record I’ve already used up several of my “outs.” LOL.

      Seriously, though, I’m earning my new title of perseverance expert. 🙂

      1. How strange that you should say that, Jess. My post from today was co-written with fellow blogger, Priya, and is largely about reincarnation.

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