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?