The Art of Going the Distance
On Writing, 'The Swimmer', and Getting to the Other Side
I always begin a semester by asking my students to read Cheever’s “The Swimmer.” I like hearing what they have to say about Ned Merrill, about the ways in which he is lying to himself and about the ways in which Cheever chooses to reveal this to the reader, or keep it from the reader—to keep the reader rolling along, for a while, like one of Neddy’s gin-sozzled buddies—and it’s a good story, too, through which to talk about allegory, ambiguity, the stuff of readerly sympathy and the place of social bugbears (all these snobs and their pool parties!) in a narrative’s worldview.
Plus, at the beginning of the Fall semester, we’re in denial about the end of summer, and by the time January comes around we feel like we’re standing weary, bone-chilled, in the middle of a highway, so the imagery of the story always lands well in a basement classroom—but that’s not the main reason I like to teach it. I like to teach it because it’s a piece of fiction which seems to enact—to make starkly tangible—the fundamental problem out of which fiction is made. That problem is distance. The distance to be attempted, the distance to be crossed; the many, many pools—each of a different depth and shape and temperature, each possessing its own particular murk and feel—through which a story must pass on its way to being a story. Facing into the writing of a piece of fiction, I always feel a lot like Cheever’s Neddy: at once hungover and amped up on a self-congratulatory buzz, at once sure of the strokes I need to make and slowed down by the residue of all the messes I have made before. There is a story, I know; there is a story I can write, a story I want and maybe even need to write, but it is so far away. It is months away, thousands of scribbled and discarded words away; it is way, way over there, on the other side of a dozen, two dozen Word files given names like New Story and New Story 2 and Cut from New Story 5 and STORY START AGAIN and all sorts of other initially hopeful, and then despairing (THIS THING WHATEVER THE %$& IT IS) monikers.
There is such a way to go, setting out on a new piece of writing. Anything could happen. Anything could show up, and need to be dealt with, and then very possibly need to be given up on, and by the time you finish, you will be a different person to the person you were when you began; maybe not quite as bruised as Cheever, who felt “dark and cold” for a long time after finishing “The Swimmer,” but a little wrung out, a little winded, and certainly changed. Think of Zadie Smith’s image of so many hopeful writers “standing on the shoreline while their perfect novels pile up, over on the opposite coast, out of reach.” Or, as Neddy Merrill himself puts it: “At what point had this prank, this joke, this piece of horseplay become serious? He could not go back…”
* * * *
But then, don’t listen to me: I can barely swim. Or, I can swim—as a child I had lessons, and did my time in the orange inflatable armbands, and pretty regularly now, I drag myself back and forth across the pool in my gym’s basement: but I know I’m not doing it properly. I’m a control freak; I’m not letting go. I swim with my muscles tensed, the way they might be if I were inching along a cliff-face, looking down to the waves, and I hold my breath; I’ll exhale when I get to the other side, I tell myself; when I’m absolutely sure that I haven’t drowned.
* * * *
This week I am cat-sitting for two friends who are out of town. In their apartment, they have a lot of beautiful art, including a piece by the land artist Richard Long; one of his stone lines, although it is made of stones which look more like hard gray shells, laid out in the middle of their loft in the middle of Manhattan. The stones are from far away, from the bed of some body of water, and it is a long time since they were taken, by the artist, from that water; here, in the open space, the piece look almost like a freshly-made grave, although that is surely just the workings of my morbid Irish imagination. One of my jobs as a cat-sitter, I suspect, is to make sure that the cat, who is actually just a kitten, does not play with the Richard Long; does not pounce up on it, in pursuit of some dust-mite or shadow, and send its ancient pieces skittering all over the floor. My other job, by arrangement with my friends, is just to write; to sit at the wide table by the high windows, and enjoy the absence of the WiFi for which I have insisted that they do not give me the password, and to work on a new story which I am trying to–
To reach; to close in on; to catch up to; to cross. Don’t cross me, the story warns as I try to persuade it to come towards me, or as I try to make my way to it; don’t fuck me around, it’s saying, don’t vex me or I’ll never let you get as far as me, I’ll never let you at me. “You have to be patient and keep going,” says Deborah Eisenberg of the process of writing something, “and then, one day, you can feel something signaling to you from the innermost recesses. Like a little person trapped under the rubble of an earthquake. And very, very, very slowly, you find your way toward the little bit of living impulse.”
(“Of course,” Eisenberg adds then, perhaps knowing that people will scoff at this insistence on slowness, “many writers manage to condense that process, but things accrue reality through all the millions of unconscious operations that go into writing”)
I like to get up, at intervals, and walk the length of the piece; to walk along it, one side and then the other. It takes five footsteps on each side. At first it feels ridiculous. At first it is not walking, but pacing, on a tiny perimeter, again and again and again; and then slowly (“very, very, very slowly”), it stops being ridiculous and starts being, just, rhythm. Around and around and around. Half a mile, say, walked around; is that distance?
Richard Long, on his Walk pieces: “the viewer activated the walk by walking on the path.”
* * * *
The beginning of a story is never far away: that’s the problem. The beginning, the possibility of a story, is always tauntingly near at hand. Every writer knows the feeling: the twitch of the usable. Of the apparently usable. It’s the sense that a thing just seen, or remembered, or seized upon and yanked out of interior monologue, could give you a story. It’s there. It’s already a story, actually; all you need to do is write it down.
And then, so often, you get to the page, and the thing just sits there, like an oddly-shaped stone you found on the road. (Long: “stones as stones, for what they are.”) What is wrong with it? It is the moment from the train, or the Proustian flash from memory, or the droll observation you made to yourself in your head and—well—it is nothing else. It is in words—you have put it into words—but it seems, somehow, resistant to language; refusing to melt into language, or to give rise to more of it. You prod it. You sulk at it. Because how could the space turn out to be a chasm, between the spark of something—the hope of something—and the something you are willing it to become?
“During lunch with an editor,” says the narrator of Chloe Caldwell’s Women, “He tells me that to write fiction, I should just make the situation go the way I want it to go.” The editor, needless to say, is not the one doing the writing. The editor is not the one sitting down to the page.
* * * *
But then, the anxiety: if you don’t use something, you lose it. It recedes, grows distant, in the other direction; the direction of the things that are gone. “Left alone in time,” Sarah Manguso writes in Ongoingness, “memories harden into summaries.”
* * * *
Or to corrode the stuff of a story, by hewing too close to it? By obsessing over it, by failing to stay at a distance from it? Lydia Davis’s narrator, in The End of the Story, on writing about an ex-lover; there have been days, she says, “when I wrote about him so much that he was no longer quite real; I had managed to drain him of his substance, and fill my notebook with it, which would mean that in some sense I had killed him.”
* * * *
But maybe this is too much melodrama. Distance as the writer’s privilege, their fantasy-world; oh, the places you’ll go! Deep into the world of imagining, deep into countries never visited, but possible to see—and for the reader, a gift. So much of the time, fiction is offered to readers as a chance to escape, as a portal, a $25 vacation; where else would you get this opportunity? To voyage so far, to come up so close?
(To be “broken,” as so many readers seem to want to be by fiction now. To be brought up to the border, not of a country, but of an experience too dreadful, too enormous, too terrible to ever want in reality—yet, encountered in fiction, an experience to be raced at ravenously, eating pages, wretched with empathy for the characters —Broken! Devastated! Sobbing!—and then, to close the pages and return to the safety of the day. As though it had been ventured from. As though it had been left behind.)
(Ali Smith, on “a truth about the place where aesthetic form meets the human mind”: even “to find ourselves homeless, in a strange land, with nothing of ourselves left—say we lost everything—we’d still have another kind of home, in aesthetic form itself, in the familiarity, the unchanging assurance that a known rhythm, a recognized line, the familiar shape of a story, a tune, a line or phrase or sentence gives us every time, even long after we’ve forgotten we know it.”)
(I used to believe that too.)
(Now, how not to ask: how can we stay so far away? And how can we write in the face of that, make things up and think them real?)
Neddy: Was it so late that they had all gone to bed?
* * * *
Walk your stones. Type your sentences. Grope for your compass. Look for your star. Stare at your pages. Blink at your cursor. Curse at your failures. Pray for your trance. Listen for your signal. Trek across your mountain. Throw away your dead weight. Hold onto your nerve.
Swim your miles. They are only metaphorical miles. Swim your metaphorical miles.
Belinda McKeon is the editor of A Kind of Compass: Stories on Distance, published by Tramp Press (Dublin) and features 17 stories on the idea of distance by writers from around the world, including Sam Lipsyte, Francesca Marciano, Yoko Ogawa, Kevin Barry, Ross Raisin and Maria Takolander.
Featured image, Circle in Africa (1978), by Richard Long.