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Swimming Through Doubt

by Susan Campbell Bartoletti

Spalding MFA Faculty, Writing for Children and Young Adults

As a teenager I had a recurring dream that I was drowning. After one particularly frightening nightmare, I told my mother. She immediately worried that the dream was prophetic and signed me up for a life-saving class at the YMCA. The class met four nights a week for two months.

We began by swimming sixteen laps: four crawl, four breaststroke, four sidestroke, four backstroke, up and back. At fourteen I was the youngest – and smallest – in the class. I wasn’t the strongest swimmer and I wasn’t the fastest swimmer, but I held my own and always finished the laps.

After our laps, we learned to identify distressed swimmers. We learned to use rescue aids and various rescue holds to tow a drowning victim to safety. We learned to administer CPR

As the weeks passed, I grew stronger and faster – simply by showing up each night, getting in the water, and doing the hard work.

Then the final test came. The night before, I couldn’t sleep. The self-doubt! I wasn’t worried about the written exam – I knew the material and could save anyone on paper – but the actual-save-the-drowning-victim test terrified me. The victim would be an adult. What if I wasn’t fast enough or strong enough, compared to my older classmates?

That night, my classmates and I huddled at the deep end of the pool. My jaw dropped as our volunteer victim – a very, very large man – emerged from the locker room. (Did I mention I was five feet, two inches tall? One hundred and five pounds?)

My classmates knew him. He was the largest man in Dunmore. He could hold his breath for an inhuman amount of time. He was a sado-masochist who lunged at his teenage rescuers and fought them off. He looked forward to this test all year.

Our victim slipped into the water and swam to the center of the deep end. He turned and stared at us, unblinking. Then he sank like a depth charge to the bottom of the pool, thirteen feet below.

Our job was to bring him to the surface, using a proper hold, and tow him to safety.

Time after time, the whistle blew. From above, I watched as each classmate approached the victim beneath the water. Then it became a blur of shapes. The shimmering blue water churned to a frothy white. Eventually, either my classmate succeeded and towed the victim to the side, or gave up and surfaced, shrieking and gasping for air.

And then it was my turn. “Campbell, you’re up,” said our instructor.

The whistle shrieked. I sucked air and dove in. Squinting, I made out the victim’s hulking form, waiting for me. He looked like a boulder.

I swam around him, gauging the best approach. As I circled, he pivoted, watching me through unblinking eyes. I had no choice but to go in.

As I swam closer, he stopped moving. His meaty arms just floated. I grew hopeful. Perhaps he was taking it easy on me. Perhaps he was tired out. Maybe he was dead. I decided to use the simple cross-chest hold.

I crooked my arm around his neck and across his chest, hooking him under his armpit. I scissor-kicked to lift him. He broke loose. He grabbed my arm and pulled me down, just as a drowning person is known to do.

With both feet, I launched myself off his chest. Now it was a fight for survival. I kicked. I punched. I clawed. I grabbed a fistful of hair, determined to use the hair-tow. He grabbed my foot. I kicked loose and fought some more.

In the end, I don’t remember what tow I used. I remember that I wrangled him and I towed him to the surface. I remember how my lungs burned. At the surface, he tried to break my hold again, but I dug in and got him to the side of the pool.

When he climbed out of the water, he bore long red scratch marks down his back.

Self-doubt again. I thought for sure that I failed, but a week later, my life saving badge arrived in the mail. I don’t remember ever having a drowning nightmare again.

Today I swim in words and ideas more often than in water. You won’t see me dive into the water – unless you need me to rescue you. I tend to tiptoe around the shallow end, getting wet gradually, before I move into the deep end. I know writers who plunge headfirst – and I admire their spirit and style – but you know what? We both make it to the finish line.

I still do laps. I set a kitchen timer for 45 minutes and write nonstop. When the timer rings, I stop – even if it’s midsentence. I take a 15-minute break. I try not to make phone calls or check email during my break. I stretch my troublesome shoulder. I do small, rote chores such as laundry. I walk the dog. I trust that my subconscious keeps swimming, even while my conscious mind is doing something else.

At the end of the 15 minutes, I return to the water. I do several sessions like this throughout the day. In the early stages of a work, I might do as few as two or three. As I move deeper into the work – and especially if I‘m revising – I do more.

At the end of the writing day, I try to take notes for the writing I intend to do the next day, to avoid starting with a blank page.

Over the years, I’ve learned to lower my standards. Most of my rough draft writing is ordinary at best. At its worst, it’s the sort of writing that makes me plug my nose. But you know what happens when you lower your standards? You doggy-paddle your way through sentences. Paragraphs. Eventually a page. More pages. And one day, a rough draft.

In life-saving class, we learned to rescue others. We also learned to rescue ourselves. We learned to tread water. We learned to bob. Most importantly, we learned to relax, because fear kills. It kills the physical body and it kills the spirit.

What kind of swimmer are you?


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