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Swimming alone

February 9, 2012

Recently, our family and some friends went to North Carolina for a few days. It’s a tradition that we’ve done for years and something we look forward to the other fifty-one weeks of the year. After all these years of staying at the same place, I discovered they have an indoor pool. And even though it was below freezing outside, it was just right at the pool so I decided to get in some exercise.

The first time I went, it was right about dinner time and other than the friendly girl who checked me in, the place was vacant. The water was perfect so I plunged in and, after acclimation, began to swim laps. On the second lap, I noticed a rather conspicuous sign posted that read, “Adults Should Not Swim Alone.” Well, my first thought was a wonder as to what I was supposed to do, being that I really was all alone. Should I leave the pool? No, I thought, it doesn’t say, “Adults Are Not Permitted to Swim Alone.” The sign was more wise advice than directive. So I continued my laps, with the understanding that I had been warned much like I had many times growing up. “Remember,” my mother would say, “you shouldn’t go out without a t-shirt” (advised between Labor Day and Memorial Day) or “you shouldn’t sit so close to the television” (advised on a daily basis.)

Of course the advice is designed to keep me safe by having a friend who can make sure I stay out of trouble and vice versa. When the waters are calm and I’m not having any physical issues, it may not be critical, but it’s still reassuring to look over and know that some has my back. And when something does happen, it can literally be a lifesaver.

I know that I am not meant to swim alone in life.

Although I’m perfectly comfortable being alone, I don’t want to be alone all of the time. There are times when I’m buoyed by the knowledge of the others, known and unknown, who are also swimming in this metaphorical pool. Recently, I was restless and uneasy about social and world conditions and I decided to go for a bike ride. Although I was on the ride by myself, I rode through neighborhood after neighborhood, full of strangers. But seeing a woman driving her children, likely to a practice or a game, someone working outside in his flowerbed, another sitting in her sun porch reading somehow comforted me. They were going about their lives, oblivious to each other’s existence. But I knew we were all in this pool together.

In some Eastern cultures people greet each other with their hands together much as people do when they pray. This is a recognition of the divinity in the person they are greeting. When one is a house guest, he is treated as if he were a divine visitor with no holds barred. The belief is that there is a divine spark that exists within each of us, regardless of differences, cultures and borders, regardless of beliefs or preferences. In a sense it is a belief that we are all connected, that we are not swimming alone.

If we see the divinity in each other, then we develop a greater sense of empathy with those whom we are connected. And the greater the sense of empathy and connection the less “us and them” we have and more specifically the less “us against them.” We are all here to take care of each other, to have each other’s backs.

How does this apply to writing?

Well first, writing, and other forms of art, is typically done alone and we can become isolated. We spend a great deal of time thinking and pondering, wondering and creating. And if not careful, we can lose touch with our world, we can also lose touch with other creatives and lose energy. We begin to feel like that proverbial tree falling in the forest with no one around. I just returned from lunch with another writer and there’s very little in life that can match a conversation, a sharing with another creative, to generate energy and to create a craving to get back to the page. Find a writing community, regardless of size. It can be in person or online. But find a group of other creatives with whom you can connect and share.

Second, the more empathy we have for others, the more empathy we have for our characters. And the more empathy we have for our characters, the more rounded they become, the more real they feel to the readers. Flat characters are all evil or all pure. Humans are not flat and neither should our characters be rendered. Resist those who try to influence you to see others as all evil or all pure. Even more, resist creating flat characters.

Tip for the week – Carry a small notepad around with you at all times, a small Moleskine is ideal, and observe people in a restaurant, a hotel lobby, a mall, wherever you can. Notice how people interact, their mannerisms and gestures. In particular, notice how similar some people relate to each other and then notice peculiarities that some have. Make notes and use them to give your characters specific traits or mannerisms to help them come alive.

Quote of the week – “At it’s best, the sensation of writing is that of any unmerited grace. It is handed to you, but only if you look for it. You search, you break your heart, your back, your brain, and then – and only then – is it handed to you. From the corner of your eye, you see motion. Something is moving through the air and headed your way. It is parcel bound in ribbons and bows; it has two white wings. It flies directly at you; you can read your name on it. If it were a baseball, you would hit it out of the park. It is that one pitch in a thousand you can see in slow motion; its wings beat slowly as a hawk’s.” Annie Dillard, as quoted in “Writing Fiction,” 6th Ed. by Janet Burroway.

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