It’s suddenly fall. I’m not sure why this surprises me so much. Perhaps because summer never truly seemed to arrive, unseasonably cool and moving at a different rhythm and pace this year. Swimming pools have been closed up and readied for winter nearly a month now, at least in the parts of the country that have true seasons.
Summers seem shorter and shorter, and I long for one of those long, slow summers of my youth – the ones where I used to complain about being bored and begged my parents to take us somewhere we could go swimming for an afternoon. I rarely succeeded in finding my way to a pool, but I did manage to spend hours upon hours on summer days immersed in books, experiencing worlds beyond mine through the written word. I lived far from the privileged suburban lifestyle of the characters in John Cheever’s stories, where it seemed every backyard had a pool and cocktails were served promptly on the patio at the end of the work day, yet his story “The Swimmer” was a favorite. On those rare occasions when I got to go swimming, it was usually at a state park or at a community pool in the town where my cousins lived. One summer I was lucky enough to swim at the local country club for a few days while I was the houseguest of a friend who was a member. It gave me just a glimpse of how some of my classmates got to while away their summers.
In 1980 while living in San Francisco, I saw the biggest swimming pool I could’ve ever imagined when my husband and I wandered onto the grounds of the abandoned Fleishhacker pool. I don’t remember exactly how we ended up there, but I do vaguely remember that we had followed a path overgrown with shrubbery. What was this place? What happened to it? Knowing nothing then about the pool’s existence or history, we were completely amazed by its size and were a bit puzzled by its location since it was directly across the Great Highway from the ocean. The pool property was also adjacent to the zoo on its opposite side, which was the side we had approached it from, so it’s possible we had discovered the path to it on our way out of the zoo. It was like finding a secret.
The act of discovery is my favorite part of the writing process. It’s in those moments of clarity, of seeing how all the seemingly disconnected fragments of a developing story actually fit together with finding the missing piece, that the writing is truly joyful. Aha. So THIS is it. Of course! Why couldn’t I see it before? Sometimes the missing piece is an object. Sometimes it’s something a character says in a key piece of dialogue. I know I am not alone in this experience of typing away at the keyboard, or moving the pen across paper, to see what was hiding there all along just below the surface suddenly emerge.
Occasionally writers find themselves working at stories that just seem to go nowhere. We’re moving the characters around but nothing much is really happening. We try putting them in places and situations where that will change. And still, nothing happens. We’re stuck. There is no discovery. If we’re wise we put those stories away for a while and work on a different story. Sometimes these story fragments are forgotten and abandoned. Other times the characters nag at us until we pull the old draft out of the file drawer and give it another try, a fresh start after a break, or after a sudden insight that seems to come out of nowhere – usually when we are away from our desk, away from our computer, away from pen and paper. We find a new path, a different way into the story. We see a gate we hadn’t noticed before – and sometimes that gate is not only unlocked, it is standing wide open.
For me, the idea for a story often starts as an image. And where that image comes from, I have no idea. It’s just suddenly there, in front of me – whether it’s as a real object I’m actually looking at, or as an idea or scene I’m daydreaming about. It’s the same with stories I’ve put away thinking I’m done with them and that they’ll never be finished. I’m not sure why writing is such a visual process for me. I suspect that for some writers it’s more auditory – certainly it must be so for poets.
I wonder at what moment John Cheever realized his character Neddy Merrill in “The Swimmer” was going to swim across his suburban neighborhood, from backyard pool to backyard pool. What would Neddy Merrill have thought had he come upon a pool the size of Fleishhacker pool?
I like to imagine what it must’ve been like to swim at Fleishhacker pool, in a man-made pool filled with seawater that was so huge it was patrolled by lifeguards in small rowboats. Surely there is at least one story there. I’d often wondered over the years what had happened to the Fleishhacker pool site. Expecting to find that a condo had been built on that valuable property so close to the ocean, I was surprised to learn that the pool had been filled in and paved over for the purpose of additional parking for the zoo and that despite being condemned, the bathhouse still stands.
Photo credits: All photographs of Fleishhacker pool are copyrighted by Kevin Scanlon, used by permission.