A few weeks ago, I fell down my sister’s stairs and sprained my ankle. I usually walk my dog to the beach for an hour, but for the last month, I’ve shortened my walks to 15 minutes.
This was a blow. My morning walks are an essential piece of my wellness routine. Fortunately, my apartment complex has a pool. At first, I thought, Great! I’ll replace my long walk with a morning swim. My love for water runs deep, so this was an attractive option.
The catch: the pool is not heated. San Diego is a warm, sunny place, but the desert air gets chilly at night––around 55 degrees in the spring. The pool stays brisk, even in the hot midday sun.
Have you ever jumped into a cold pool at seven AM? It’s not easy. And I can’t exactly cannonball into the water with a sprained ankle. I wade in one step at a time, breathing deep and gasping and yes, woo!-ing like I’m having my bikini line waxed. If I try to be quiet, it’s worse.
The pool temperature is around 73 degrees. This sounds warm, but water temperature does not feel the same as air temperature.
To put this into perspective, temperatures below 60 degrees Fahrenheit activate the body’s “cold shock response.” Lungs gasp involuntarily. Blood vessels constrict, causing a rapid increase in blood pressure and heart rate. The thermoreceptors in your skin tell the brain you’re in pain. You become dizzy and disoriented. Because of the involuntary gasp reflex, water below 60 degrees can be fatal.
Of course, wading into 73-degree water does not trigger this dramatic response. But, the same body systems are affected. Blood vessels constrict; the heart races; there are rapid changes in breathing. Your thermoreceptors tell the brain something’s up, sending sensations similar to pain, but not quite painful.
When I hobble down to the pool, my body knows what’s coming. I either have to get in or waste precious minutes of my morning sitting on the pool deck clinging to a towel.
I put my feet in first. After a few minutes, they feel numb and hard, like they might break off my body. I inspect my feet, thinking about how strange and pale and corpse-like they look under water. I see every brown hair on my toes, every imperfection in my toenails. I look up and stare into the crystal blue of the pool. It’s too damn cold. The self-deprecation begins.
Do you know how LUCKY you are to have access to a pool?
Go back upstairs and take a hot shower. You’re a failure anyway.
Then, I remember a concept that keeps popping up for me. It’s always some version of, “Step out of your comfort zone.” The words that come to mind are from a Halloween episode of The Side Hustle Show, a podcast by Nick Loper: “Do the scary thing.”
I tell myself, “Do the scary thing, Renee.”
I take six deep breaths, hoping the fresh oxygen to my blood will offer me some last minute warmth. I take another step into the pool. My breath quickens. I take another step. The water is above my kneecaps. Things are getting real. The cold will be at its most extreme with my next step.
I wade in to my waist. I lift off the stairs and let my entire body slip under. I’m submerged, and I let out a yell under water, releasing the shock from the temperature change. It’s uncomfortable. My whole body is tense. My heart pumps hard. Every nerve from the tips of my toes to the roots of my hair is alight. It’s exhilarating.
I’m not sure I’ll ever warm up. I flop around a bit, dunking my head and ruffling my hair. I practice dancer’s pose––a yoga pose I can’t hold for long on solid ground. I begin a gentle breaststroke. On these morning swims, I don’t stick to one stroke. I dive and dolphin kick under water; I flip over and backstroke. Anything that gets me from one end of the pool to the other ten times in a row.
I don’t need an intense workout. I’m happy to be in water, to move my body for 20 minutes. This is playtime. This is my body’s reward for “doing the scary thing.” After two laps, the shivering stops, and I’m comfortable in the water.
I sat on the steps yesterday, arguing with myself to get in the damn pool. In that moment, I realized that getting into cold water feels a lot like the writing process.
There are plenty of metaphors for the process. Vonnegut said, “We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.” We use these because writing is a painful, mentally uncomfortable creative act. We need the metaphors so non-writers understand, This is harder than it looks! More often, we use the metaphors to foster solidarity between fellow writers. Does it feel like you open a vein open every time you sit down to write? Yeah, me too.
In my non-scientific opinion, writing is hard because it requires both the right and left sides of the brain. Writing activates the “Executive Attention Network”––the left parietal lobe, which controls speech, reading, writing, and math. Writing also needs the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for memory.
For creative writers, we also engage the “Imagination Network.” This is the network responsible for creativity and play. There’s also the “Salience Network,” which lets the brain switch between networks. For writers (and all creatives, really), we must soothe the Executive part of the brain in the beginning stages of writing. The playtime.
And that’s the challenge. Your Executive Network is like an intimidating Editor-in-Chief of a major magazine. How many Editors-in-Chief take kindly to, “Sit in the back and listen, Diane. We can steer this important project. We’ll call on you if we have questions.” Exactly.
The writing process requires many parts of the brain to work together in harmony. This is why it’s laborious to simply begin. Creativity and imagination are goofy, immature, unrefined. Your creative mind loves adverbs and melodrama. But beneath that, it’s got the goods. It surprises you. When it’s time for the Editor-in-Chief to sift through the wildness and edit, there will be gold.
This is why writers are always spouting off metaphors on why writing is so damn hard.
Joyce Carol Oates: “Getting the first draft finished is like pushing a peanut with your nose across a very dirty floor.”
Hemingway is often mis-quoted as saying, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” Yes. Writing is bleeding; a daily bloodletting. We know Hemingway didn’t say this, and we’re not sure who did, but the meme is a writerly darling nonetheless.
And of course, there’s Vonnegut’s “jumping off cliffs” metaphor. Yup. Sitting down to a blank page feels eerily like falling.
The magic of these metaphors is in their intensity. Bleeding and jumping off a cliff are real-life flight-or-fight situations. The heart races. The brain goes fuzzy. You’ll do anything, anything to distract yourself from the pivotal moment: beginning.
This is why cold water is like the beginning stages of the writing process to me. Cold water triggers a flight-or-fight response. My body thinks it’s in danger. It knows the first few minutes in water are uncomfortable. My body wants to flee and go take a hot shower instead.
Wrangling all the parts of the brain necessary for writing triggers the same panic. My creative brain produces shitty sentences that lead to a shitty first draft (thank you, Anne Lamott). My Executive Brain grumbles the whole time about how shitty it is. Ugh. Can’t I take a hot shower instead?
But I get in the pool because I love water. I love the feeling of it on my skin. I love the relief from gravity. I love that when I swim and my blood starts flowing, the cool water feels orgasmic. I love that my body can do things in water that it can’t on land––yoga poses, dance moves, gymnastic tumbles. The pleasure is greater than the initial pain.
This is flow. This is the moment you write the perfect sentence: the right words in the right order.
On days when it’s really cold, I never get warm. I swim the laps and shiver the entire time. The goal is to get in, swim, get out. Hot shower. Most writing days are like this. There are more “flow” days in the pool than there are “flow” days of writing, so my metaphor is not perfect. It’s even harder to begin writing than it is to jump into a cold pool.
Sometimes I sink down to the deep end of the pool and sit on the bottom. I look up at the rippling surface, and it’s quiet. I can see the blurry edges of the palm trees, the yellow and orange colors on my building. There are only a few seconds, maybe minutes, of peace until I surface again.
This is the moment I swim for. This is the moment I write for. I write for the two minutes of quiet. I write for the moment when all the important parts work in synergy: the heart beats to keep me alive, lungs hold precious air, every muscle is active. I write for the two minutes of seeing the world through a shimmering lens.
All I know about how to be a writer is this: Write. Get in the pool.
It requires the “Executive Attention Network,” … Kaufman, Scott Barry. “The Real Neuroscience of Creativity.” Scientific American, 19 Aug. 2013, https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/beautiful-minds/the-real-neuroscience-of-creativity/
the body’s “cold shock response.” … “What is Cold Water?” National Center for Cold Water Safety. http://www.coldwatersafety.org/WhatIsCold.html
lungs gasp involuntarily … “Stage 1: Cold Shock.” National Center for Cold Water Safety. http://www.coldwatersafety.org/ColdShock.html
“We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.” … Vonnegut, Kurt. If This Isn't Nice, What Is?: Advice for the Young. New York: Rosetta Books, 2013.
Hemingway is often mis-quoted as saying … https://www.hemingwaysociety.org/quotation-controversy-writing-and-bleeding