1 Settling the Heart:
What cold-water swimming taught me about creativity
The spectre of time and space
Two years ago I started cold water swimming – something that has really helped my mental health, sense of wellbeing and, I believe, has alleviated the worst effects of my chronic migraine condition. But it was only when I found myself unable to channel my creativity in the time and space that Lockdown V1 offered that I realised how getting into the cold English Channel on a freezing November day could teach me so much about my writing process.
Like so many of us, once the shock and horror of the pandemic had hit and the reality of Lockdown was absorbed, I started to think about how I would spend my time. White space in the diary – what a dream! This would be the ideal opportunity, I thought, to write and then write some more. This is my holy grail: time and space to write another blog post and to get on with the book (known in my own head as ‘The Book’ and said in an echo-y, horror film voice) I’ve been trying to write for…well, forever. No excuse. This is it!
Except, the days went on and I found myself unable to write. I read about other people starting their ‘Lockdown Projects’ – starting novels, writing a poem a day, sharing their ‘Lockdown Diaries’, baking blinking banana bread! But for me my hitherto much coveted ‘space and time’ weighed down on me like the vacuuming I should have been doing or the tax return I should have been filing.
‘Not doing it’ becomes a thing
The more I pushed myself to write, the more it felt like I was grasping at sunbeams. Self-loathing and self-reproach set in. Then, a gift from the universe – well, from the wonderful Anne Enright:
Honestly, there is a lot to be said for tooling about all day, looking up recipes and not making them, not bothering to paint the living room and failing to write a novel. In the middle of the messy non-event called your mid-afternoon, you might get something – a thought to jot down, a good paragraph, a piece of gossip to text a pal. Boredom is a productive state so long as you don’t let it go sour on you… Try not to confuse the urge to contact someone with the thought that you are unloved. Do the thing or don’t do it. Either is fine.https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/apr/03/corona-crisis-tiger-king-lockdown-life-hilary-mantel-simon-armitage-julian-barnes-anne-enright-jeannette-winterson-diane-evans
‘Do the thing or don’t do it. Either is fine’. Were there ever wiser, more comforting words written? Suddenly ‘not doing it’ became a thing to do – maybe even an achievement in itself. That’s when it struck me how the process of letting go – of settling – is so bound up with creativity.
Which brings me back to the cold-water swimming.
Once immersed you do nothing. You don’t immediately start swimming or your instinct to gasp will only end up with you breathing in water. You let your heart settle and allow your body to give itself to the cold, rather than fight it. Only once you reach a new state of equilibrium do you take those first few, amazing strokes and start to move through the water. And that’s how it has felt with my writing (or non-writing!) these past few weeks. I’ve had to reach a new stage of equilibrium and have listened not only to my mind but also to my body (a subject I’ll explore in a future post). Sparks of ideas are beginning to emerge. Experiences I can draw on are coming to mind. I observe and absorb more. While The Book (big, echo-y voice!) is still a bit of a chaotic mix of notes and thoughts, I feel more able to write into and within that chaos, rather than against it…or avoiding it completely!
Permission to not go in
As we enter Lockdown V2, things seem gentler, calmer. I’ve stopped using other people’s goals and achievements as benchmarks for my own sense of purpose. I still refuse to bake banana bread! But I’ve signed up to NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month – nanowrimo.org) and set myself a goal of writing at least 1000 words per day. But just like with my swimming, when I give myself permission to not go in to the water, so I let myself off the hook if I haven’t written a word in a day. For me, inspiration often lies away from the keyboard or the notebook and can be stifled by forcing myself to become immersed in the words. Sometimes just getting to the beach for a paddle at the shoreline is good enough!