On Writing as Dating
I believe that stories and their writers have a way of finding each other; it’s as if in the world they’re part of some kind of enormous “dating” pool a veritable literary match.com, and that finding the right “partner” is a matter of time, fate, circumstance, and I have discovered making good choices.
Writers and stories don’t marry. They just date for a long time. And they get engaged. Writers and stories are essentially serial monogamists: after a mutually beneficial relationship, they break up amicably or not and move on to the next one.
I’ve had satisfying “friends with benefits” hook-ups with a number of “pieces,” public radio stories I’ve written or produced, newspaper and magazine articles. And I’ve also fallen in decent love a couple of times, most notably, with two long-form projects – – a memoir about Chinese women, for example; a book of essays on teaching writing.
I’ve also been cursed, however and scarred by one pretty messy affair from which it took me a long time to recover. The project was a documentary film, (it’s called Waiting for Hockney) and however positive the outcome was for the audience people liked it, the film got great reviews in both the U.S. and the U.K., and it premiered at Tribeca and was broadcast on the Sundance channel and lots of other places, too, I was mostly a wreck during it. My relationship with the film was a torrid “affair.” It involved, for example, among other things, bitter disagreements about money and money is the death knell about any relationship.
Indeed, the bell tolled for me and my film, and when it did, I lost tons of weight and sleep, I was depressed, I was mostly broke, and I was entirely disheartened, frankly, about morality and potential of the human race. When I finally got better and the lights came back on, I began to think of “dating” again, but this time I had a whole new approach.
I decided that I needed to change the way that I would engage in narrative relationships from then on. No longer would I see myself as a passive participant in the process of finding a “mate.” No longer would I see writing/story relationships as inevitable or passive. In other words, after an ugly breakup, it I knew both that it was going to take a heck of a lot of “dating” (i.e., spending a lot of time with a story), before I’d allow myself to jump into something new, let alone allow myself to become “engaged,” with it. And I knew for the first time that I had agency in choosing who or what to spend (part of) my life with.
I sat down and literally made a list of the qualities I was looking for in a future story/”mate.” It goes without saying that the first criterion was about money. I wasn’t going to engage with any story that would get me in trouble. The second requirement was that the story had to be pleasant enough for me to want to spend time with it for half a decade; I wasn’t expecting perfection nor did I have a Pollyanna-ish view of what was possible, but I knew that the good had to outweigh the bad on a daily basis. To that end, the third thing for which I was looking was subject matter about something of significant historical importance; I’d come to the conclusion that it was a waste of my time to be engaged with projects that had nothing much to say about the world at large. And not only that, the fifth and final requirement was that the people in the story had to have made a positive difference in the lives of others and to have set a good example for future generations. A tall order I know.
My agent and I batted around a couple of projects. For a while she set me up on “dates” with a story about a woman who lived in a rural town in a basement apartment and who singlehandedly and without authority monitored the online activities of and brought to justice members of Al Qaeda. Then I find another potential mate in a story about a group of antiquities thieves in the American southwest and a group of FBI and BLM agents who’d sought long and hard to bring them to justice. But neither story was a “keeper.” The woman in the basement had some unexpected legal problems I decided I didn’t want to take on, and the antiquity thieves were mean and had guns.
When I finally “met” the story of The Three-Year Swim Club, to my delight, one encounter after another was positive, enjoyable. The story met all of my “dating” criteria (see above); we were emotionally compatible; and the more time we spent together, the more and more I found myself falling truly and deeply in love.
What wasn’t to love? The story is about a ragtag group of Japanese-American kids who, in 1937, on the island of Maui, band together, and with the inspiration of an intrepid teacher and coach, vow to make it to the Olympics in 1940. The odds are completely against the kids. The individuals were endearing and sympathetic, and in the end, the group achieved the improbable and even went on to change the course of history.
I spent five years happily involved with The Three-Year Swim Club. I loved the research the most delving deeply into the soul of the thing and knowing it as intimately as I could and I enjoyed the writing part, too, although it harder for me and sometimes getting the sentences and sections right and thinking about the audience, it felt a little bit like the pressure of taking your newly beloved beau home to meet your parents: you hope, in other words, everybody’s going to be reasonably well dressed and also on their best behavior.
When people have ask me what project I plan to take on next, I admit to both appearing to be and being largely shocked and appalled. I know in my heart that some day I’ll have to move on all writers have to accept that but in the meantime, I’m so madly in love with all the goodness that is The Three-Year Swim Club that I’m going to keep shouting its name from the mountaintops for as long as people will let me. Julie Checkoway