- Alice Stephens
- May 21, 2015
Mining the water for words
Fiction writers rarely put in an eight-hour workday. The physical act of writing is a grueling and lonely experience that does not benefit from putting in overtime for overtime’s sake. Authors like Anthony Trollope and Ernest Hemingway rose early to write, leaving the rest of the day to work a day job, as was the case with Trollope, or cavort, as Hemingway famously did.
It is not that Trollope and Hemingway were lazy (they were both very prolific). Rather, the physical act of transferring a story from the brain to the written word is wearisome. After a while, the mind hits a wall, and it’s time to move onto other things.
But being away from your desk does not mean that you are not working. Your mind is constantly teasing out the knots of a storyline, framing the next scene, testing dialogue, building a backstory for a minor character, pondering the best way to re-word an awkward phrasing, brainstorming how to get out of a corner that you’ve written yourself into.
At the end of my writing day, I like to hit the swimming pool. Immersed in water, I am effectively deaf, dumb, and blind. The water seals my ears from sound. The only thing that leaves my mouth is breath. Without my glasses and wearing goggles whited with fog, I can see only the bottom of the pool. The world is reduced to kicking, pulling, breathing, and counting laps. It’s a sensory deprivation tank, economy class.
As I cut through the water, my mind is free to wander. Sometimes I review items on my to-do list or wonder what I’ll make for dinner, but usually my thoughts turn to writing.
What exactly does that guy who is the main character’s bodyguard look like? How many tattoos does he have, and what are they? Will he turn out to be her love interest or her separated-at-birth brother? How about both?
Naahh. That’s not marketable. But it is intriguing. How would it affect the ending? What is the ending, anyway?
If people live underground for generations, would there be evolutionary adaptations?
Flashbacks or linear plot?
Truculent rhymes with succulent.
Does a character named Felix Sprizzil sound too J. K. Rowling?
What the hell am I going to write about in my next column?
I know I’m making progress when I lose count of how many laps I’ve swum.
My watery refuge is as important to my writing as my computer and my supportive husband (though you always comes first, honey). While I gather material, insight, and inspiration from books, plays, movies, art exhibitions, music, travel, people-watching, eavesdropping, world history, and my own past, it is in the pool where I can sift through the haystack for the needle and choose the silken strand with which to thread it, stitch the ideas together, and embroider them with words.
Plunging into the pool, I am testing the waters of my own mind.
I love the smell of chlorine in the afternoon.