Sinking, Swimming & Staying Afloat: On Writing & Other Near Death Experiences

August 12, 2011

When I was kid, I almost drowned.

Yeah, like, to death.

(If you want to take a moment right now to contemplate what your life would be like without me and to cry inconsolably, I’ll understand. Feel free to pull out your hair a bit if that makes you feel any better. I’ll wait.)


Back to the story.

I was probably about eight or nine years old at the time. My family had a small pond behind our house where we used to go swimming. The pond was really deep and murky and, most likely, full of monsters. As you can imagine, I wasn’t particularly crazy about swimming in it because even back then I was a big fat scaredy cat. But, my parents refused to buy a swimming pool when we had a perfectly good, murky, monster-infested pond to swim in, so what was a girl supposed to do?

Because I hadn’t learned how to swim in deep water on my own yet, I would just doggy paddle around the dock in my water wings. I didn’t care that I was well past the age when water wings were acceptable swimming attire.

I also didn’t care that most of my friends could swim in deep water already, and some of them could even do fancy tricks – like swim underwater with their eyes closed and stuff. This frankly seemed like an overrated skill to me. Who needed to know how to swim underwater with your eyes closed? That was just like asking to be eaten alive by pond monsters, in my book.

Meanwhile, my brother, who was the same age as me, would be out in the middle of the pond acting like Jacques Freaking Cousteau but without the wetsuit and submarine and other cool stuff. I just figured he’d be the first to go when the monsters made an appearance.

One day, my dad decided that I really should learn how to swim in deep water already. Unfortunately, my dad had a lot more faith in me than I did. While he was convinced that I would remain afloat when given the choice between sinking or swimming, I wasn’t so sure. My fears were confirmed when he threw me into the water without my water wings on and I did, in fact, sink.

As I watched the murky green pond water close in above me, I thought to myself, “Right. Well, I guess this is how things are going to end for me. I just hope they find my body before the pond monsters do so there can be an open casket at the funeral. And I really hope they bury me in my First Communion dress because I think that will give me some mad points in Heaven.”

Shortly after my near-death experience, I bobbed back to the surface right into the middle of the inner tube that my father had thrown me into. So, yeah, before you all accuse my dad of attempted daughter-slaughter and start marching in angry mobs to my parent’s house, I should probably mention that he didn’t exactly throw me into the deep end of the pond unaided. He had thrown me into the center of an inner tube. And maybe he didn’t exactly “throw” me in; he just kind of “plonked” me there. And, maybe I wasn’t really underwater long enough to lose any oxygen or brain cells or hear the choirs of angels singing to me. Frankly, I probably wasn’t even underwater long enough for anyone to notice but myself.

Yeah, so, maybe I didn’t almost drown. (So, umm, if you could hold off on the accusations against my dad, I’d really appreciate it. Attempted murder charges always make for awkward visits home, you know.)

Despite not actually being close to death, those few seconds underwater were just  enough for me to think that I was near death. I came up spluttering and crying and ran out of the water in hysterics. I swore off swimming that day. I also became wary of sprinklers and Slip ‘n Slides and really anything that forced me into a swimming suit. (A wariness that holds to this day.)

My parents claimed I was blowing things out of proportion. What can I say? One person’s “near death experience”, is another person’s “over-reaction.” Potato, potahto, tomato, tomahto, if you ask me.

While I didn’t learn how to swim in deep water that day, I did learn one important lesson: I’m a sinker.

Some people can be thrown into the deep end of life and come up doing the breaststroke, but I just sink.

Not that sinking is entirely a bad thing. Sinking gives you time to think – about how you got to where you are and how you can go about getting to where you need to be (and, you know, what picture they’ll use of you for the obituary and how you really hope it’s not your school picture from last year when your hair kind of looked like a mullet).

If you always come up swimming, you don’t have time to think about these things because you’re too busy thinking about what an awesome swimmer you are, right? (Well, to be honest, I don’t really know what swimmer people think about. I imagine they think about their awesome swimming skills and how cute they look in Lycra. Obviously, swimmers and I don’t have a whole lot in common.)

Years later, I would finally learn how to swim in deep water. (Which is a good thing because you just can’t find water wings to fit a sixteen-year-old. Trust me on this. And, apparently, swimming is, in fact, a handy life skill. Who knew?)

I was spending a week with my friend and her family in Rochester, NY, when my friend decided to appoint herself my very own personal swimming coach. She was an avid swimmer herself and the type who looked endlessly adorable in Lycra. She was also the type who didn’t take no for an answer – I was going to learn how to swim in deep water whether I liked it or not. And, well, I can’t say I was a big fan of this plan.

Every day for the entire week she would force me to go to her neighborhood pool with her. Each day she would make me go a little bit closer to the deep end. I would spend the whole time whining and begging her to just leave me alone already and go let me hang out in the shallow end with the six-year-olds. I would angrily grumble to myself that I didn’t need her and her stupid friendship and her stupid deep end of the pool.

And then I would slowly doggy paddle my way a little bit farther into the deep end if only because I wanted her to get off my case already.

Eventually, I did make it to the deep end of the pool.

I didn’t swim there, mind you.

But I did do a pretty mean doggy paddle to get myself there.

My imaginary near-drowning experience was not the first or last time I would be thrown into something that would simply be over my head. It also wouldn’t be the first or last time that I would react to an overwhelming experience by sinking.

I sank when I moved to Japan the first time thirteen years ago. I was overwhelmed at being stared at all the time in the tiny fishing village where I lived. I was frustrated that I couldn’t understand what was going on around me, but I still didn’t bother to learn Japanese. I spent a great deal of time in my apartment, eating cookies and watching movies. Then I quit after one year.

I sank after I moved to Brazil and realized that maybe moving to middle of South America wasn’t going to instantly cure me of my depression no matter what the music videos had told me.

I sank after three years of working at my university job in Japan. I left a year earlier than I expected – burnt out and unsure if I ever really wanted to teach again.

After sinking, you have two choices: keep on going down or bob back to the surface.

Luckily, I’ve managed to come afloat every time.

Not, like, Michael Phelps afloat.

But afloat nonetheless.

A couple months ago, I decided to use my two-month summer vacation to work on my book. This was, again, me throwing myself into the proverbial deep end of the pool. While I’d toyed with the idea of writing a book before, I’d never seriously attempted to write one. Aside from a few blog posts I’d read about the topic, I knew very little about how one goes about writing a book.

But, hey, how hard could it be? It’s not like I hadn’t written stuff before — a lot of stuff.

I figured all I’d have to do is sit down and write some more stuff.  For like seven to eight hours a day. And then, magically at the end of the two-month mark, all that stuff would become a book.

I’d heard stories of other writers doing the same thing. I figured I could do it, too.

What I didn’t realize, though, was that those other writers – the writers who crank out a book in less time than it takes me to decide on breakfast — are swimmers.

I, on the other hand, spent six weeks doing a lot of sinking.

I spent one week working on a plan, another week ditching the plan and creating a new plan, and the four weeks after that doing, well, I don’t quite remember what.

But, the sinking hasn’t been all bad. It’s given me a lot of time to think – about what should go in my book and how I should go about writing my book and, admittedly, how I should not go about writing a book.  (Hint: watching reality television shows for “inspiration” is really not as helpful as you might think. Especially when the premise of the show goes something like this: “Eight hot men, eight gorgeous ladies, a second chance at love, a quarter of a million dollars at stake… and a lovable zombie!” Okay, so maybe that’s not exactly the premise of The Bachelor Pad, but if you’ve seen that show you know that the addition of a zombie could really make the show worth watching.)

I’m glad to say that things have started changing for the better over the past week and a half, though. Last week, I decided my original plan of just sitting at my computer for seven or eight hours a day so I could crank out stuff wasn’t exactly working for me. Rather than resulting in my producing page after page of literary genius, it had resulted in a stiff neck, a few good blog posts and a long list of potential future blog posts, which included such riveting titles as “Top Ten Things I Made in my Toaster Oven this Week” and “Signs My Apartment is Possessed by the Devil.”

So I lowered my expectations and came up with a more reasonable daily goal — one that I can stick to even after I go back to work. Now, I try to write at least a thousand words a day. Sometimes I write more, but I try not to write less. I don’t go back and edit myself. I don’t worry that the stuff I write might be crap. Heck, I don’t even worry about writing complete sentences. I try not to think about whether or not anyone will actually want to read what I’ve written. I just write until I hit my goal. And admittedly, there have been a few times that I’ve thrown in way too many adjectives and adverbs and conjunctions just so I can reach my thousand words and get back to watching reality TV already.

I haven’t made as much progress as I would have liked, but I have made some progress. I’ve edited and revised one chapter, finished the rough draft of another chapter, and started the notes for a few more.

As far as writing goes, I may not be swimming yet.

But I’d like to think I’m doing a pretty mean doggy paddle.


I've blathered on long enough! Now it's your turn!

  1. On August 12, 2011 at 4:06 pm Liv said:

    You’re a few thousand words ahead of me by the sound of it Sally! Keep up the good work (& I’ll head back to the Friday night telly..!)

    • On August 12, 2011 at 10:12 pm Sally said:

      Thanks, Liv. I really do recommend the 1,000-words-a-day-without-caring-if-it’s-crap method for writing the book. I don’t know if I’ll have anything worth publishing in the end, but at least it makes me feel semi-accomplished!

  2. On August 12, 2011 at 4:31 pm Jenna said:

    Oh, excellent! You’ll be fine… just keep chucking yourself into that proverbial deep end 🙂 That’s my mantra, too, because I’m definitely a sinker as well: whatever happens, just KEEP DOING STUFF.

  3. On August 13, 2011 at 1:20 am TravelMaus said:

    That will be one book I can’t wait to read! *runs to check if it’s on Amazon yet*

  4. On August 13, 2011 at 1:49 am Lois said:

    You go Sally! A lot of us are waiting to read that book.

    • On August 13, 2011 at 12:29 pm Sally said:

      Aww, thanks, Lois. Having the support of my readers has really made me push through. After all, I promised you people! I got to have something to show you!

  5. On August 13, 2011 at 1:58 am MaryAnne said:

    Awesome thar you are writing- remember I calculated that even 750 wordsa day will get you a book’s worth of words by January. Seven hours of writing will just make you hate writing. I’m hoping your bobbing to the surface will inspire me to get my act together when I get back in a week- ive written almost nothing this summer (mind you I’m doing all this on an iPod touch so not bad for an ergonomically improbable keyboard and screen!). Shall I come see the Wuxi Writers Circle?

  6. On August 13, 2011 at 2:59 am Fiona at Life on Nanchang LU said:

    They definitely should take you up on that zombie idea for Bachelor Pad. I’m sure missing all that crappy TV here in Australia where they only have high quality content like ‘Home and Away’ and ‘The Renovators’.

    Good work on the writing!! Look forward to seeing you when I finally drag myself back to Shanghai……

  7. On August 13, 2011 at 6:40 am Sarah said:

    Dude, you should totally include a tutorial on doggy-paddling in your book. Maybe a prologue of sorts?

    Not only would you be a popular read for the travel-blogging community, but you also seize that under-6 crowd that is so often ignored when it comes to things like books…and words.

    On a side-note: I also made reference to Jacques Cousteau in a post I did earlier this week. Um, what are the chances?!

    Synchronized blogging I’d say. (You know, like swimming. But without the Lycra).

  8. On August 13, 2011 at 8:39 am Ceri said:

    I know you were using swimming as a metaphor but, yeah, all this talk of being in pools and deep ends and swimming freaked me out. 😛

    I’m a little bit scared of water. Not so much if I can stand in it and it comes to no higher up than my shoulders. But going underwater, holding my breath and swimming is something that freaks me out. I can’t hold my breath for very long (I’m Asthmatic) so the idea of losing oxygen or even treading water really scares me and I don’t want to be anywhere near situations that bring that about. 😛

    But, yeah, moving off that and onto the actual point of your post. Hehe.

    I’m glad you’re making progress on your book. Don’t let anyone tell you that there’s a certain time limit when it comes to writing. Every writer writes at their own pace. And I’m definitely going to be one of the first to buy your book after it’s done. 😀

    • On August 13, 2011 at 12:25 pm Sally said:

      Thanks, Ceri. I was feeling a bit bummed with myself for being so slow on the thinking process and not really making much progress with the writing bit, but I actually just read a really good article about how different writers write at different paces. It was comforting to know I’m not the only one doggy paddling my way to a book!
      I hear you on the fear of water thing, too, lady. I still am not a strong swimmer and don’t like to be in open water at all. We should really take a vacation together and hang out in the shallow end eating cheese! 🙂

  9. On August 14, 2011 at 8:47 pm Andi of My Beautiful Adventures said:

    What a fantastically written post! I can’t freaking wait to read your book!!! I’ve been having the SAME problem with mine and you’ve made a hell of a lot more progress than I.

  10. On August 14, 2011 at 11:09 pm Faith said:

    A thousand words a day is an excellent goal! And those writers aren’t necessarily just swimmers, most often they’ve been writing a long time and taught themselves to do that. Cutting out your inner editor is a HUGE part of that! A lot of novelists have a certain word count to hit everyday, and once they hit it they’re done. You’re making good progress, whether it feels like it or not 🙂

    • On August 14, 2011 at 11:53 pm Sally said:

      Thanks, Faith. Yeah, the not caring what I was writing thing was hard for me. I edit while I write my blog posts & they take me forever to write because of that. And, of course, I actually care what I say on my blog because people will read it. Because I had gotten so used to writing like that it took me a while to adjust… but, I love how quick the words come out when you write like that. Some times I get my 1,000 words out in less than an hour. Granted, I’m a bit scared to go back and look at those words!

  11. On August 14, 2011 at 11:58 pm ehalvey said:

    HA, so I think I had a moment of PTSD while reading your drowning/near death experience. I nearly drowned (by my recollection) in a hotel pool as a 3 year old. I thought I could climb off my kick-board and onto the edge of the pool. Fail.

    I can relate to the sinking feeling (besides, you know, the whole almost drowning thing). I’m an introvert so moving somewhere where I don’t know anyone is not exactly an easy situation for me. I’m pretty sure the idea of staying in my apartment and eating cookies would be my first inclination as well. That may have played a part in my SAD in Ireland when I studied abroad.

    GREAT post 🙂

    • On August 15, 2011 at 12:08 am Sally said:

      Thanks, Erin. Sorry to bring back the bad memories, but glad you could relate. Sometimes the sinking is necessary just so you can appreciate the times you are afloat… that, and so you have an excuse to eat cookies. (Not like you NEED one. Because, hey, they’re cookies & you should just be able to eat them without justifying it to anyone.)

  12. On August 15, 2011 at 2:54 pm choi kum fook said:

    Miss Sally, keep on writing, keep on swimming, do them respectively. Swimming usually could refresh the mind and given out more inspiration after a long period of writing. So that, your book or novel can be done faster. As the result, I can read it earlier! Ha! Ha!.

  13. On August 15, 2011 at 9:03 pm Phil said:

    Love that opening story 🙂 Glad to hear that things are looking up. What you really need to do is convince yourself that something terrible will happen if you don’t write 1000 words each day. For example, a unicorn will lose its horn or its glitter. If you want, I could make this a reality 😉

  14. On August 16, 2011 at 1:01 am The Travel Chica said:

    The doggy paddle is my favorite stroke.

  15. On August 18, 2011 at 10:05 pm cvaguy said:

    Excellent article. From experience of learning swimming to learning in life.

    My drowning experience is out of accident, luckily the water is relatively shallow and I could doggy paddle a bit at the time. Eventually, I figure out that life is all about laying out a progression plan. Bit by bit, you can get where you want. Now I can swim all four strokes faster than 99% of people in the pool, and I never had any swimming lesson.

    Keep writing and you will achieve your goal. All it takes is just a progression plan and persistent.

  16. On August 19, 2011 at 9:08 am Jen said:

    LOL I love this, I still try to avoid pond monsters at all costs x

  17. On August 20, 2011 at 4:00 pm Mary Jo Manzanares said:

    I don’t understand why other people think they know best about when it’s time to throw us in the deep end of the pool – whether literally or figuratively. How much better and smoother it is when we can get there on our schedule – which I think you’ve discovered in setting your own “deep end” time frame for your book.

    • On August 21, 2011 at 2:16 pm Sally said:

      Although I think if I started swimming on my own schedule, I’d probably still be hanging out in the shallow end! Ha! (I tend to be something of a slow learner.) Sometimes it helps to have a pushy friend… 🙂

  18. On August 20, 2011 at 9:04 pm Uncle Ed said:

    Box car modifiers, the editor’s curse, this was always what I was warned about and loved most highly truly wonderfully beastly wickedly swell. And then there is swimming on your back with your face up, pushing the water against yourself not only propels you but helps keep your face out of the water. And, this is also helped by cookies and fried stuff for reasons that are only appreciated by the buoyancy gods. But you still shouldn’t fall asleep at sea, given the sea monsters I’m told.

  19. On August 21, 2011 at 2:50 am Sasha said:

    What a great story besides the whole drowning thing! I swear so many writers make writing sound so easy and it’s damn well not easy at all. I always struggle when I try to write something specific, when I say “Ok today I must write about this…” and when I do that I always end up writing sucky crap! It’s so much better just to write organically, I figure surely somewhere in there amongst the mess of words is something useful!

    I say start a new writing trend, be un-conventional and throw the plan out the window, we all know either way at least something you write we will laugh at! 😀

  20. On August 22, 2011 at 10:10 am James in Phnom Penh said:

    Phew. A third way down this entry, I thought you were ditching the book idea and replacing it with the e-book of your best posts. Now THAT would be classic sinking! I’m quitting work next month to travel around the world before coming back to SE Asia and then after that, taking off a few months to just “be”. Can’t wait to read the book. Any chance it’ll be done before September so I can take it with me to read on my endless list of flights? (I’m offering my editing services in exchange for an advance copy!)

    • On August 23, 2011 at 11:42 am Sally said:

      Done before SEPTEMBER? Umm, THIS SEPTEMBER? That would require some super-sonic swimming skills that I really don’t have! 🙂 Sorry, dude. But I may take you up on your editing services one of these days (like, umm, probably NEXT September. 🙂 )

  21. On August 22, 2011 at 10:43 pm Anne McKinnell said:

    I love your writing Sally! Your blog posts are always so entertaining and I find myself wondering how you get all the humour into your words and complete a story at the same time. I will wait as long as it takes for your book and will buy it as soon as it’s out!

  22. On August 23, 2011 at 6:37 am Barbara - The Dropout Diaries said:

    Like Uncle Ed, I’m wondering if more cookies would help. Swimming is just floating with propulsion, so perhaps you should work on floating before you can swim.
    Good luck with the writing. I’m sure 1,000 words-a-day will from a book-worthy puddle of words.

    • On August 23, 2011 at 11:40 am Sally said:

      Ha ha! Funny you should mention the cookies. I just inherited a toaster oven & have been using it to bake cookies. I think after the last couple batches, I’m definitely ready to float!


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