On Writing, 'The Swimmer', and Getting to the Other Side | Daily News
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 what?

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.