The first essay in my book, Mothers of Sparta, is called "Night Swim." It's short. 1275 words. It was one of those magical essays that took about two days to write. Fellow writers know what a gift this is. Most essays take much longer than two days to write. In fact, my essay "Keeping the Faith," (it was first published in Chautauqua Magazine and became a 2017 Best American Essay notable) took me ten years to get it to behave. You heard correctly: I worked on "Keeping the Faith" for ten years.
But "Night Swim" happened fast, like having a baby in the car on the way to the hospital.
I get a surprising amount of feedback on this essay. I've had many people tell me that they teach the essay to their MFA students. I am a superfan of some of these people. To know they like my work enough to teach it makes me feel good.
Quick aside: When the book first came out, I got a funny negative review that was worth saving. It quotes the first sentence from "Night Swim" as a demonstration of my problematic writing style.
I shared the line, "I cannot figure out how this book got by an editor" with my editor, Amy Einhorn, who is no slouch. We had a laugh, but the review simply illustrates that you can't please everybody. And that's okay.
Fellow creative writers trying to figure out how to think about your audience:
Don't worry about pleasing everyone who might read your work. It's not healthy to write that way and in fact, contrary to what they tell you about making rhetorical decisions when writing (audience, audience, audience!), I believe thinking about the audience when you are at the beginning stages of an experimental or truly creative piece can stunt the flow of the piece. Every once in a while, when I have a firecracker of an essay in the works, the audience, at least for a little while, doesn't exist. My concern for audience reemerges during the editing phase. It's okay, despite everything they tell you in school, to think about the art before you think about the audience. Writing creative nonfiction is not like writing other types of nonfiction (writing blog posts, on the other hand, is all about audience...I think lovingly about my audience with every sentence I write).
I don't fault this reader for hating my writing style, and I doubt that she made it through 119 pages she claimed to have read, because if she had, she would see that the style of "Night Swim" was unique to that essay. I was playing with a particular technique, which I'll explain in a bit.
Sometimes I read "Night Swim" at readings, because it's the shortest essay in the book, and I will be guaranteed to "not go over," which is a dreaded literary reading faux pas. Sometimes I'll pass the photographs that inspired the essay around while I'm reading, and people say they like it, so I thought I would share the photographs with you here.
The "Night Swim" essay is about watching my daughters during a night swim when they were about 9 and 11 years old, but really it's about the brief splash of time we have together with our children before they grow up and take their own places in the world. I wrote it in a way that blends past, present, and future in one scene. So, the present tense part of the essay--during the night swim-- was a real life past-tense, since I wrote the essay ten years after the real night swim. The true present tense, the vantage point from which I wrote, is represented as future tense in the essay. This probably makes no sense unless you read the essay, but the point of it was to allow time to flow in a sort of Tralfamadorian multi-dimensional way, with the past and the present and the future co-existing at once.
I love the idea of Kurt Vonnegut's Tralfamadore. Tralfamadorians are able to see past, present, and future simultaneously; they are able to perceive any point in time at will. I think a lot about that when writing memoir and sometimes I play with the concept in my work, as you can see. I like using future tense in essays. In fact, future perfect tense has the ability to give a retrospective feel when you use it. I'll talk about that more in a future blog post, since it is a particular interest.
About four years ago, my husband and I were temporarily living away from each other so we could support my son's educational needs at the time. My stepsons and daughters were living far away from either of us and I missed everybody and the life we had when we were together. In my melancholy, I started looking through some old photos. I came across the two photos I took from that magical night swim, and the essay was born about two days later. Here they are:
Most of you don't know my daughters, but please know that there is something about the essence of each of them that ended up being captured in these photographs that night. I still struggle to hold back tears when I read this essay at readings, and I'm not much of a crier. Our children, and the time we have them, are a gift. The slow metamorphosis they go through to assert themselves in the world as individuals is profound to witness and worth writing about.
That's the story of "Night Swim."