I’m writing a book. It’s been a long haul. So far it’s taken about five years of writing-time-slivers Macgyvered out of a busy life, about five different drafts. Why do I keep going? Or maybe I mean: How?
When I get frustrated with my book, I think of the long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad . In 2013, Nyad swam without stopping across 103 miles, from Cuba to Florida. Through shark- and jellyfish-infested waters, and, most significantly in my mind, over the course of fifty-three hours without rest, she swam. T he sixty-four-year-old athlete had made five prior attempts, the first of which was back in 1978 .
In the best case, long-distance ocean swimming involves an element of agony: The frigid water leads to hypothermia; the salt begins to choke; seasickness is the norm. Before she finally succeeded, Nyad had that to contend with and more. Strong winds and unruly currents pushed her off course, and an inexperienced navigator (or really, one experienced in the wrong kind of navigation) wasn’t able to parse the open seas. Bad weather stalled other attempts; an asthma attack flatlined another; shoulder pain made each stroke torture. Then there were the jellyfish and Portuguese man-of-war stings that nearly killed her. (She wanted to go on but her medical team pulled her out.)
But what actually made her able to keep swimming? What occupied her as she swam for days and nights without stopping? According to Nyad’s book Find a Way: One Wild and Precious Life, while swimming she sang to herself, counted strokes in every language she knew (which is many), remembered books she had read. I’m fascinated by this meticulous counting of strokes, the obsessive subdividing of songs. The marathon swim was made possible by minutes. I would have assumed that throughout the whole swim she was imagining the shore, telling herself, Almost there, almost there, like I do when I’m forcing myself to clumsily jog one more block. But as it turns out, the way to reach the other shore is to stop thinking about the other shore.
Strange, isn’t it, that reciting Beatles songs to oneself with OCD-esque repetition can lead to what Nyad calls “a moment of immortality”? It reminds me of nothing so much as, oddly enough, being in labor, the way each moment, each breath, felt three-dimensional, like a small room with round walls. The feelings are so intense that they demand your full attention. You don’t get through an arduous process by imagining how good it will feel to cross it off the list; rather, you focus on each instant, counting breaths.
As Nyad told The Guardian , men will easily outcompete women in most sports—except when it comes to a feat of endurance like an ultra-marathon. “But it’s only if we’re going to go a hundred miles that brute strength and brute speed is not the issue. It becomes much more about who can resist pain, who can manage their energy, who has a steel-trap mind to be able to withstand it.” The sprint is about strength, about focusing on the finish line, but the marathon? It’s about mental control.
Nyad has said , of long swims and long bicycle rides alike, “Part of the pleasure of these endurance activities is to be so engaged in your mind and in nature and just get away from the monkey chatter.” Each stroke isn’t something to endure. Each stroke is the whole point.
Rock climber Tommy Caldwell made headlines in early 2015 when he and a partner free-climbed the Dawn Wall, a near-perpendicular expanse of the mountain El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. It took them nineteen days, during which they slept on the side of the mountain. This was after seven years of training and stymied attempts. Know that t his particular climb had been deemed impossible; know that free-climbing involves using only fingertips and feet, and Caldwell is missing part of one of his fingers.
So, again: How? Caldwell told me: “ I love exploring myself through climbing these big projects . . . When I say the process of exploring myself, I’m talking more about the preparation and the training—formatting my life to become a better climber to get to the point where I could do it.” Training to do this climb in Yosemite and taking care of the logistics took over, and gave shape to Caldwell’s days. This mattered to Caldwell in particular; right before he took up his quest he had gone through a divorce and was feeling somewhat shiftless.
He told me that trying and failing reshaped not just his climbing muscles but also his brain in ways he would need to be able to endure those nineteen days on the rock. Over the course of training, he said, “I became subtly more and more optimistic and able to live in the moment. I never knew whether I’d be able to complete the climb, but I loved the way it made me live. It put me in this heightened state of being.”
I talked to him a month after he’d completed the climb, when you’d think he’d be flying high (he was on Ellen !). Instead h e felt almost as if he were in mourning. “ It was like my Moby Dick,” he said. “The pursuit was the beauty of it.”
Frigate birds fly hundreds of miles without landing for up to two months at a time, sleeping with half a brain at a time as they soar. Scientists have found that on these long journeys, the birds’ organs actually change shape, becoming more aerodynamic and better suited for the soar. The process is called “catabolism” and research on migratory birds has shown that “apart from the brains and lungs no organs are homeostatic during long-distance flight. Such organ reductions may be a crucial adaptation for long-distance flight.”
The birds have to change their physical selves and needs in order to survive flights over, say, the South China seas. Nyad and Caldwell had to do this too. Can writing endless drafts of a novel change the shape of a writer’s organs, catabolize a writer’s brain? Does our brain warp into book-making shape? I think it does. The “long haul” changes your brain into the kind of brain that can complete the long haul.
I was on a family vacation recently in Los Angeles and stopped with my husband and children at Canter’s Deli. (My husband’s favorite cookie in the world is Canter’s coconut rugelach, which he gets to have about once every eight years, give or take.) My daughter was peering in a refrigerated case that had fogged, and began clearing it with her sleeve in order to see inside. The woman in front of us in line smiled at her. It was Diana Nyad.
I recognized her immediately, and she recognized the recognition, in that way that famous people do when they can tell you aren’t sure how you know them. She flashed a brilliant smile and joked to my daughter, “I have some windows at home that could use that kind of cleaning!” I opened and closed my mouth like a fish.
It was funny to run into Diana Nyad at a deli, getting cookies. It was funny to remember that she’s still here in the world doing ordinary things. After obtaining her extraordinary goal, what was next? Ordinary things. The extraordinary, ordinary long haul that is our everyday lives, filled with the silly little things like cookies and coffee from a delicatessen.
One of Nyad’s friends said of her that “she is on some level crazy.” I think that might be important for long haulers, too. You might just have to be a little bit crazy. Of course you are. Otherwise life would feel totally normal with out a long haul in it.
So I write every morning, even if only a tiny bit, while my husband and children sleep. Before I go to work, come home, nag the kids to do their homework and eat their vegetables. That early morning time is the only moment of the day when it is possible to shrug off the mundane, to tap into the infinite, to quiet the monkey chatter, like a cross between prayer and exercise. It’s the infinite encapsulated.
While I do this, I can’t think about the other shore. I can’t write three sloppy paragraphs with a finished book in mind. I would feel pre-defeated, awash in futility. So I reshape my goal-oriented, to-do-list-addicted brain. I remember, like Tommy Caldwell, that the beauty is in the pursuit, that it’s really never going to get any better than that jolt of pure joy when a great sentence spills from your fingertips. I focus, like Diana Nyad, on the work of each stroke, the pain/pleasure of watching words appear, the friendly clacking sound of the keyboard, or scritch of the pen on paper. Like a frigate bird, I subtly change shape inside as I go. I might look like an ordinary bird, but I’m striving for something more.