“All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” F. Scott Fitzgerald
My public writing life began in June 2013 by the side of Pells Pool, here in my hometown of Lewes. To become its writer-in-residence just three years later was a heady thing.
This is how it went. I was forty, and half a year in to long sick leave from the University of Sussex job I’d held happily since graduating from there in my early twenties. Out of doors and out of work in summer — and I didn’t even know how to swim properly. What to do with myself?
My situation was so strange and precarious that my long block over writing-for-readers worked loose. Fear of not-writing finally pushed out that of trying and failing. I decided to be an Absolute Beginner. In public. At swimming and writing both.
The swimming was easy. A passionate local coach from a long line of competitive swimmers had me doing a beautifully-balanced front crawl with rhythmic bilateral-breathing in just three lessons. The length would come, she said, over time and with muscles I didn’t have yet but would get if I just kept swimming.
It was a Disney line neither she nor I recognised at the time. Instead it went straight in, like an arrow, pointed with truth. What if writing-for-readers was just a matter of diving in, doing whatever doggy paddle kept me up, and long enough for the muscles to come?
I bought myself the cheapest, smallest notepad I could find and began. No more of the arch and literary entries I’d been making for years in a series of expensive journals: I wasn’t aiming for a perfectly-executed butterfly; I would do the trudgen or whatever other clumsy, outdated stroke would get me to the end of each page.
And so it began. The season in which my life became a movie sequence. I had a soundtrack (Bowie of course, and Alt-J, some Johnny Cash). I was Rocky on the library steps, Forrest Gump with the table-tennis bat, the Karate Kid painting Miyagi’s fence (and I did actually paint a whole street of railings in town that same season, which is a different story).
I was at once ridiculous – another middle-aged woman in constant pain from a bad back post-birth – and magnificent. In the five free hours of each school day with my young children away I became all my own heroes from childhood on in one. Huckleberry Finn. Tom Sawyer. Heidi. Thoreau. Walt Whitman. Kerouac.
And of course, it was these things — written down in waterlogged reporter pads as I recovered from laps of our town’s long, cold pool — which became the subjects of my first published pieces.
I read one of them to a lecture theatre filled with colleagues from my old workplace and familiar faces from town — on my birthday of all days — and realised they were laughing, in a good way.
I want to say it felt like magic. But it was, of course, just muscles.
The central project of my residency is called A Wild Patience: Laps in Longhand. This is a performative and collaborative piece – spanning two years – in which I’m writing a poolside mile on lido-length scrolls, while inviting visitors to share their stories: When did they feel most wild and free? In body? Their mind? To what have they ever given their whole, wild patience?