Three and a half years ago, I stopped swimming.
Before the abrupt drop-off, I’d go to the local rec center and swim a few miles’ worth of laps five times a week. I loved the practice itself: the smell of chlorine, the pleasant burn of worn-out muscles.
But then something shifted, and swimming became less about the practice and more about the end result. If I don’t swim at least two miles this afternoon, my depression won’t be manageable. If I don’t stay in the water for 45 minutes even though I’m cold and tired and hungry, everything will fall apart.
I wore myself out, mentally, physically, emotionally. By the time I realized I’d stopped going to the pool every day, I didn’t feel the sudden pang of losing something I loved. I only felt relieved.
A year or two later, something similar happened with my writing. I was working on a novel and having the time of my life. I liked being hit with inspiration, frantically scribbling down a rough draft of a chapter, ripping it apart, and piecing it into something better—the process was even more fun for me than the finished product.
So once I was done and there was no more puzzling left to do, all I had was a new goal: do the same thing again, but better.
Only I couldn’t. Every word I wrote after finishing my book felt wrong. Sometimes I’d write a few pages, but they were full of dead ends, completely lifeless. I wasn’t getting anywhere, and it was making me—this will sound familiar—miserable.
With the new year on the horizon, I wanted to rescue the things I loved the most from the ways I’d ruined them for myself. But how do I go about setting goals when obsessive goal-setting was what wrecked me in the first place?
Luckily, other writers have answered this question much earlier and much better than I have, and I stumbled upon two excellent answers at the end of the year.
The first comes from Jenny Odell in her book How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. She writes that for “any person who perceives life to be more than an instrument and therefore something that cannot be optimized,” the point of “doing nothing [ . . . ] isn’t to return to work refreshed and ready to be more productive, but rather to question what we currently perceive as productive” (xi-xii).
The second is from writer-turned-therapist Dennis Palumbo in Writing from the Inside Out. He says, “[The] peaks of achievement, whether in the arts, sports, or any area of endeavor, come from a love of the day-to-day practice of the thing” (24).
Taken together, these two paragraphs hammered home what I’d been missing: the love of the practice itself, of time spent not working toward a goal but simply doing something I loved for its own sake.
In other words, my writing and swimming had both become a means to an end—one to create a publishable product, the other to get in shape. Neither goal is a bad one (quite the opposite!), but with my practice geared entirely towards the expected payoff, it’s no wonder I wore myself out and shut down entirely.
Making the Next Move
So what could Odell and Palumbo’s thoughts on practice look like, well, in practice? I’m far from an expert, but this is what I’ve been trying.
1. Practice Letting Go
Actively practice not worrying about the end result. Remember that the activity (swimming, writing, anything else you deem creative) is valuable in itself simply because you enjoy it. It doesn’t have to get you anywhere to be meaningful or for you to consider it time well spent.
If “let go” sounds too much like a concrete goal, try thinking of it like meditation, where you’re instructed to let your thoughts drift away without judging the thoughts that inevitably occur to you. Remind yourself to let go, but don’t chastise yourself for the times you can’t. Just keep working on it.
2. Check Your Focus
What are you hoping to get out of your current practice? Is it to publish something, make money, or lose weight? Or is it to spend your time in a way that makes you a more happy, content, and thoughtful person?
It’s okay if the answer is a bit of both, but if you’re getting too focused on the future, ground yourself in the present. Maxine Kumin’s poem “Morning Swim” is both an excellent example of how to do this and what focusing on the present can bring to your practice:
[ . . . ] in the rhythm of the swim
I hummed a two-four-time slow hymn.
I hummed “Abide With Me.” The beat
rose in the fine thrash of my feet,
rose in the bubbles I put out
slantwise, trailing through my mouth.
My bones drank water; water fell
through all my doors. I was the well
that fed the lake that met my sea
in which I sang “Abide With Me.”
Kumin’s focus on “abiding” in her practice is what sticks with me, as is the entrancing cadence of the poem itself, which syncs perfectly with freestyle laps (read it out loud and you’ll see what I mean).
3. Find the Time
Any enjoyable, meaningful activity deserves the space and time to flourish. If you want to write, set aside the time for it; if you want to swim, go swimming! You don’t necessarily have to set any goals or outcomes for your writing or swimming session—the only thing you have to do is set aside the time. See what happens. No pressure. No word count. No mile tracking. Just the practice itself.
Practicing to Practice, Not to Make Perfect
And so, yesterday, I went swimming.
I hit the water and I couldn’t stop smiling. I pushed off from the wall and my body immediately reminded me that I haven’t done this in years; muscles I forgot I had woke up, and they were not happy. But the rest of me was thrilled. Why did I give this up? I love this.
Writing that night was harder. I sat at Starbucks and watched everyone around me and I wrote down the occasional word or phrase and none of it led anywhere. It’ll never end up in a novel or a poem or even a blog post like this one. But I left the shop with Maxine Kumin humming in my head, shaking out my wet hair behind me.
All in all, it wasn’t such a bad way to start the year.