On Floating

Here are a number of indecisions—if they can be called that—that have plagued me lately. Whether I felt like typing or writing by hand. Whether I needed noise or silence. Whether I should revise an old story or start something new. Whether I should be writing in first person or third. Whether a character, who is still a new acquaintance, used to be a dancer or a piano teacher, and whether she is in fact vegan. Or a sleepwalker. Or seeing ghosts. A week ago, greedy, I borrowed five books from the library, thinking that if I spent some time with each, the Right Next Book would reveal itself to me. I am still bouncing between them, still uncertain which to read.

Photo Credit: Debka Colson

Photo Credit: Debka Colson

I think about this while I swim in Walden Pond, lake swimming being one of my very favorite things. I wonder, as I float, why I cannot seem to move forward with my writing or reading, when I think I can see so clearly what I’d like to do. It seems like it should be as easy as sitting down and deciding to write something new. It seems like something I should be able to do by now.

A couple of things have come to a close recently: I completed my thesis manuscript and received my MFA from Warren Wilson early last month, and an important project at work wrapped up shortly after that. I am in the wake of all that, and the normal breakneck pace of my life has slowed temporarily. At first the prospect of a leisurely weekend, something I can’t remember since last winter, was almost too wonderful to bear. I’m going grocery shopping, I found myself exulting to friends I hadn’t spoken with in months. And I’m going to walk! I looked forward to diving back into my writing and reading, at my own pace now, not according to a semester schedule.

Of course, it wasn’t long before I realized it would not be so simple. Without the pressures of school, the structured study plan and reading list that I had grown so accustomed to–without the knowledge that I might disappoint my professor in a short three weeks, if I didn’t pull something together–I was lost. Some people dislike schedules and structure, but I took comfort in the external framework of school, the concrete goals to work towards. Having these things during my time at Warren Wilson allowed me to quiet the part of my mind that clamors with anxiety over what to do next.

The water around me is clear and cold and dark, and this is the closest to meditation or prayer that I ever get. Solo swimmers make their way deliberately across the pond. We are beyond the confines of the roped-off shallow areas; it is understood that we’re all out here alone, at our own risk. I imagine the others as swimmers who have been coming here for years; perhaps they come every day, perhaps this keeps them young. One woman does an elegant breaststroke, her head and shoulders bobbing as she glides by me. At some point she stops and turns over to float, stretching her arms out to either side.

As a child my parents signed me up for swim team, which I did not like at all, despite my love of being in the water. The slow lanes and fast lanes, the endless back-and-forth, the maniacal frothing of the water as we completed our 100-meter crawls. If that is swimming, we need another word for what happens in a lake, where one can simply turn over to lie between water and sky whenever one tires of the breaststroke. I don’t know why in the water, I’m able to simply be, when in other parts of my life, I seek goals and structure.

Photo Credit: Debka Colson

Photo Credit: Debka Colson

“There were times when I could not afford to sacrifice the bloom of the present moment to any work, whether of the head or hands. I love a broad margin to my life,” wrote Thoreau, from his one-room house at Walden. I think he would tell me to embrace this moment of change in my writing life. Perhaps I am not so much lost as I am drifting in a present moment. I was counseled recently, by a very wise mentor, to spend some time creating without the expectation of meeting a larger goal. She said, I think sometimes when we’ve been making work more and more perfect, it can be tricky to go back to just inventing loosely. I had expressed my anxiety around returning to new work, after a half year spent refining a thesis manuscript. I think about this advice now, as I write without lanes. I remind myself these days, as I float, to savor the feeling of suspension, of being, of not knowing when or where I’m going to land, but trusting all the same that I will.

-Cynthia Gunadi, Ivan Gold Fiction Fellow

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