Writing requires a certain fearlessness in the face of past failures, and sometimes the most frightening challenge involves returning the page once more.
“Give me the courage to show up and be seen.” — Brene Brown.
Today, I arrived at the pool ready to complete a few sprints before ambling along on my kickboard. The California summer is in full swing around here, and so the June gloom sits along the Santa Ynez Mountains, and the sun arrives well past midday for a quick hello before retreating behind the clouds. At the campus pool, students make way for summer camp kids; belly flops, splashes and laughter bounce off the tiles and a miasma of sunscreen floats through the air.
The children usually arrive while I’m in the middle of my workout. It’s jarring when I bob up from my latest lap to and am greeted by wild herd of 50-odd 11-12-year-olds barreling around the pool deck and taking turns on the high dive.
But today the air felt different as I paused between sets. Everyone seemed frozen, all eyes turned towards the tallest of the high dives. Everyone watching a young boy in striped swim trunks teeter nervously on the rough lip of the diving board. A long line of children filed out on the stairs behind him, but he would not move.
Some of his friends coaxed him from below. “Come on Marcus,” they called, “you can do it!”
I noticed the other swimmers in the pool with me were treading water in their lanes, all waiting to see what Marcus would do. A couple of college students sprawled on chaise lounges surveyed the scene, one snapping photos and the other occasionally calling out to poor, petrified Marcus.
“You can do it, buddy!”
Marcus trembled, frozen 20 feet or so above the turquoise canvas spread out below. A slight breeze ruffled the hem of his shorts, and he ran a nervous hand through his closely cropped hair. Still, he did not move.
“Marcus! Marcus!” The crowd at the foot of the diving board began to chant. It was too much. Marcus surrendered to fear and made a sad, embarrassed retreat. Undaunted, the rest of the children in his group bounced up the ladder, jumping high and wide above the water and splashing joyfully as Marcus slunk into the shadows along the fence line.
I refocused on the last portion of my swim, gasping through laps but always taking a moment to glance back at the high dive to see if Marcus would give it another go. He did, this time under even more scrutiny. Even the lifeguards, complacent and vigilant – they’ve seen it all – darted their eyes over to that lonely figure swaying in the midday sun. He tried to give it a running start, but skidded to a stop, provoking a gasp from the group and prompting the college guys to ramp up their encouragement.
“Don’t think about it,” they yelled. “Just do it!”
Marcus tried bending his knees, perhaps hoping he could fool himself by bringing his head closer to the ground. At one point, he sidled up to the plank’s rim, as if he was trying to catch it off guard. After a few more tense minutes, he again retreated, and the collective disappointment was palpable.
I gathered my kickboard and began to make my way towards the shallow end. Every day I tell myself I’ll exit the water from the end of my lane, and every day my nerve fails me, and I end up using the ladder instead.
Taking Marcus as inspiration, today I tried to pull myself up out of the water – thinking perhaps his failure was a message I should face my own terrors. Unfortunately, I floundered and splashed, bruising a shin and scraping a toe before admitting defeat in the face of the harsh, cruel concrete of the pool’s edge. I felt ashamed and defeated, and while I wallowed in my own ineptitude, I heard a splash and a cheer from the other side of the pool as spectators erupted in applause and cries of excitement.
While I’d been dealing with my own little drama, that bold, plucky twelve year old made his way up the ladder once more – but this time he didn’t hesitate, instead leaping towards victory amidst joyful claps and enthusiastic cheers.
“Courage is found in unlikely places.” ― J.R.R. Tolkien
When we think of fearlessness or bravery, we often imagine the hero with the sword or cape defeating the bad guys and saving the day. Sometimes, we’ll hear about an act of heroism or mercy and decide those actions, too, are courageous. I think what gets less attention is the audacity it takes to try again after a failure. To show up again, when you’ve been bested before and the odds are against you…well, that requires a hefty dose of gumption and a humble sort of valor.
I’d venture to say that just about everyone who identifies as a writer or a creative demonstrates this particular kind of courage whenever embarking on a new project or revisiting an old work. As writers, we fail more often than not, and even those on the bestseller list are propped up on the ashes of past disappointments.
“I believe that the most important single thing, beyond discipline and creativity, is daring to dare.” ― Maya Angelou
We start, we fail, and then we start again. The important thing is to show up and keep trying. Sure, the edge is a bit slippery and yes, everyone IS watching. It doesn’t matter. Take a running start or creep up quietly from the corner, either way; it’s the momentum of initiative that will push you over the edge and into success.
I went to the pool today for my usual workout. I didn’t expect to see a child experience a life-changing event. I feel like I owe it to valiant little Marcus to face my own high dives and take my own leap of faith.
Let’s hold hands together and dive right in!
“Until you’re ready to look foolish, you’ll never have the possibility of being great. ― Cher