07.17.09

No More Lousy Poetry

Nicola Keegan wrote one horrid poem after another in her writing workshop. But she realized one thing: Water played a role in all of them. Soon after, the main character for her debut novel was born.

Writing a novel is like standing on the bottom of a steep mountain that shoots up to God knows where, with a bunch of matchsticks in your pocket, determined to build something interesting out of them as you prepare to climb cursing and sweating because you’re out of shape, not used to mountains, wearing the wrong shoes, completely unprepared. But I think one of the loveliest things in life is when a human being tries to navigate within the realm of the impossible, so I just figured if I grit my teeth and kept writing day after day as the months grew into years, then maybe I’d be able to make something that looked like the something I felt strongly in my mind.

Click Here to Read an Excerpt from Swimming

Patience and discipline and thoughtfulness wrestled with doubt and fatigue and fear. Most of the people around me were horrified; they thought that writers were born with a fully formed matchstick chateau complete with action figurines and a moat and that I was just going to get myself caught in a messy mudslide and be sad and dirty until the day that I died. They said: “Statistics prove that publishing a first novel is as likely as riding a whale over the moon and back again wearing a magic rainbow hat and an electric jumpsuit.”

swimming-book-cover
Swimming. By Nicola Keegan. 320 pages. Knopf. $25.95. ()

But I was psychologically prepared for adversity. When I was 13 I told my father that I wanted to become a psychiatrist because I felt I already was a sort of junior-level psychiatrist, and he said: “You’d take it to heart and end up dead,” and I honestly couldn’t think of anything else to be for the longest time, so for the next 20 years, I was an unofficial junior-level psychiatrist with a liberal arts degree who took things to heart but didn’t die, until I wandered into the brilliant Alice Notley’s writing workshop and discovered the goodness that is writing and glimpsed for the first time the big mountain that represents deep contemplation upon the human condition and the dedication of massive amounts of time.

I said something like “lo and behold; that’s a rather large mountain to have missed all this time.” But I had a couple of matchsticks in my pocket and the conviction that if the stupid things I’d done in my life hadn’t killed me by now, then bad writing wouldn’t, either, so onward I went.

In my writing workshop I learned many things about the literary life, painstakingly writing one hideous poem after another that I lost later, thank God. The poems had one thing in common: Other than their collective lumpiness, all of them contained water. I started reading stuff about water, then stuff about swimming, then stuff about swimmers. Swimming issues were raised, swimming controversies contemplated, swimming echelons broken into swimming subgroups starting with the aqua babies and working up to the elite.

The poems had one thing in common: Other than their collective lumpiness, all of them contained water.

I found myself daydreaming about swim coaches and swim parents, swim boyfriends and swim enemies, swim joys and swim calamities. How well does a swimmer swim when they are irritated, I wondered, and how differently does one swim when one is in love? And then one day, or maybe it was night, this naturally talented tall chick with crazy feet living in the middle of a family with a challenging destiny in the middle of Kansas in the middle of universe, in the middle of the world appeared. Pip! Pip in Catholic school swimming with pseudo swimmers and a priest disguised as a coach who is in fact a big Bjorn Borg fan. Pip walking down the hallway of her adolescence sporting unromantic hair. There’s Pip stealing raspberry lip gloss from Woolworths. There’s Pip crouching on a starting block getting ready to demolish the world. I don’t know where she came from, but it all seemed real to me, and I knew that if I did my job right, that if I was generous and open and noble and true like a weird person who probably only exists in books, and I listened very, very carefully to all that was going on around her, then I would eventually come as close to the people in her life as to know them because through my years as an unofficial psychiatrist, I’d learned that the more people are understood, the better they shall be loved, even the fake ones.

So that was the goal: to make it as real as I saw it.

And to be fair, here are the obstacles: everything. Plus the fact I’d never won a medal for anything or written anything longer than a good letter. Plus the fact that I’m a mediocre recreational swimmer. Plus the fact that I have three children and they make a lot of noise. Plus everything again.

Five years passed. I worked so hard as to become crazy. I considered seeking professional help until one day my husband looked at me and said: “If you don’t do something with that manuscript right now, I’m going to throw your computer out the window.” We live on the top floor, so I said “OK” and what happened next was the surprise of my life.

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Nicola Keegan lives in Paris with her husband and three children. Swimming is her debut novel.