No David Sedaris


This essay was a creative-writing assignment in the last week of ENGL S247: Travel Writing.

It feels like dying. It always does.

On an intellectual level, I know that there is next to no danger of drowning — but tell my lungs that. Before too long, my strokes in the pool grow short and limp, my breath becomes shallow, and I struggle to the edge.

Sometimes, I can keep my head above water, and then swimming almost feels like something I can do. But as soon as I lapse and my nose falls under the surface, or I try to “do as real swimmers do” and submerge my face, I start panicking. My breath shortens; I try to hold as much in as possible. I emerge from the water, eyes still closed to protect them from chlorinated water, and I’m too disoriented to draw a full breath. Am I going to die? Let’s not find out. I stop after six pool lengths.

• • •

I didn’t pack swim trunks for the trip to Auvillar. I figured that any time others spent swimming, I could spend reading on the shore. I’d also avoid criticizing my body in a losing game of compare-and-contrast. It would be a win-win.

But arriving to a small pool next to our house ate at my reservations. After all, I could pick times when nobody would be around; I could cool myself down after a hot day and manage some physical self-improvement. Seduced by convenience, I bought the swim trunks the next day.

I forgot that swimming feels like dying.

• • •

After trying and failing for the first time, I asked for help. Katey played water polo on club level— water was her second home. I listen to her advice, then try to follow it.

“You just blatantly disregarded what I just told you,” Katey shakes her head. What she just told me is to keep breathing out while my head is underwater, then take a big gulp of air when I surface, then delve underwater again.  In some sense, my request was like asking for an explanation of walking, if I were terrified of losing balance and splitting my skull open on impact —and her advice was like suggesting to just extend my leg by a step. It’s not that swimmers never breathe water in or get too much chlorine in their eyes, she explains. It’s that they don’t worry about it.

Doesn’t sound like something I can do.

• • •

For any respectable author, this would be a road to self-discovery. There would be baby steps, then larger leaps: by the end, they would compete with Katey and lose, but by a respectably small margin. Or, barring that, self-actualization would occur: maybe they can’t swim without freaking out, but that places their other anxieties into perspective, so they can stop worrying about those and move towards higher, more creative pursuits. Or, perhaps, something would shift in their outlook on the world: swimming would forever remain outside their reach, and that’s okay, and all other things outside their reach are okay as well. Good authors find a saving grace in all things — when life gave David Sedaris lemons, he made a living out of describing what his thoughts are when his sister squeezes them over his head.

But I’m no David Sedaris.

Is an experience useless if we can’t write about it productively, grow from it, make fun of ourselves, surprise our audience? Is a life?

At least swimming has a beautiful constancy throughout levels of description: writing about it feels like dying, too.