Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Swimming to The End: A (Plot) Twist in the River

One Labor Day Weekend a couple years ago some friends and I decided to swim across the Hudson River. We rode across the river in a Zodiac piloted by Peter, our tidal expert. According to Peter slack tide would start at three thirty, meaning the river’s southward current would balance with the incoming estuary tide, and we would avoid being pulled up or downstream.

Once across there was some confusion getting underway. Steve forgot his goggles; Susan suddenly confessed to having next to no experience in open water, let alone water with currents, tides, barges and freighters. Two of the three kayakers that were supposed to escort us never showed up, and since the exhaust fumes from its outboard were sure to asphyxiate anyone swimming less than a dozen feet behind it the Zodiac proved quickly useless as a guide boat.

By the time we got underway it was three thirty: slack tide had peaked. It would take at least thirty minutes to cross. By then the current would be flowing again, or else the tide would be coming in—I wasn’t sure.

The river was gray-green and murky, too murky to see my hand break the water in front of me. I aimed for the yacht club: a tiny white triangle on the distant shore. Every time I looked up, the triangle was further to my left. I was drifting; we all were. The Zodiac came by. Peter shouted, “Oh-point-two-five,” meaning we had three-quarters of the distance yet to go. I felt like I’d been swimming forever. I kept going.

A few days earlier the students in my writing workshop had challenged me to explain plot, to give them some recipe or formula to follow. Like most writing teachers, plot is a subject I approach with dread and loathing. Having invoked Philip Larkin’s recipe (“a beginning, a muddle, and an end,”) I drew two points on the blackboard and connected them with a straight line. Then, using a dotted line, I showed how, two thirds of the way through a typical story, the trajectory symbolized by the straight line is thwarted: something unanticipated occurs, throwing the plot off course, sending it in a whole new direction toward a surprising, yet inevitable, ending.

As I kept swimming, seeing my target veering off further and further to the left in spite of my efforts to compensate for the current, I thought of that illustration I’d used to diagram plot in our class: how the author begins with an inciting incident, Point A, which then leads into the heart of the story—the middle (muddle) of the river—with its complications (barges and freighters churning up wakes); how the plot widens and deepens as it moves toward the distant Point B, the likely or obvious outcome: the tiny white triangle. But then, halfway across, more or less, something totally unexpected happens: the current builds, the tide comes in; a cramp grips the calf of one’s leg. By now I was some two hundred feet downstream of my target. I kept swimming. The plot had shifted, twisted; the element of surprise had come into play. But more surprises were to come.

The current grew stronger and stronger. I tried to fight it, swimming at a sharp angle to it. That’s when my left leg gave out; I couldn’t move it. The cramp seized up my calf and corkscrewed its way up into my thigh. I stopped swimming and treaded water, and told myself to keep calm. When the cramp subsided, I started swimming again, aware that I was now at least three hundred feet downstream. The Zodiac was nowhere in sight.

The image of the plot curve kept recurring to me as I swam on, that simple line on a blackboard delineating drama: incident, event, surprise, the unexpected. Could that simple line with it’s unanticipated twist at the end represent the tragedy of this day? Had I inadvertently followed the rules of plot to a ‘T’—as in Tragedy? Who was it that said that tragedy was all very well when it occurred on a stage, but that in real life it seemed closer to absurdity? If one of us died on this day, on this glorious, cool, sunny day with not a cloud in the sky, would it be tragic, or merely absurd? Or both?

And how fitting that, viewed on a map or from the sky, the course of each of our journeys would correspond exactly to that classic plot curve, bending like a bow from Point A (best laid plans, hopes and aspirations, innocence) to the wholly new and unanticipated Point C (comedy, tragedy, irony—but in any case, The End). Would people trace the last moments of our lives on that graph and say, “They died dramatically, in perfect form, with strict adhesion to the rules of good story telling?” Would they think silently to themselves, “Like all good endings, a surprise but, in retrospect, inevitable”? Or would they simply think, “Unbelievable; highly improbable if not impossible and hence, unsatisfactory. Another draft, please!”

But for me, swimming ahead, with the shore refusing to come any closer no matter how hard or fast I stroked, the plot had begun to seem all too inevitable. The pedant was about to be hoisted on his own petard. Would the others die of my pedagogy? Would we all be the victims of the perfect plot?

It took me another fifteen minutes to reach the rocks. By then I’d suffered a second bad cramp; I was barely able to beach myself.

Twenty minutes later we were all on dry land. The current had carried Steve six hundred feet downstream. Susan was swept halfway to the Spuyten Duyvil railway bridge, another three hundred feet. Had we set off a few minutes later she’d have been swept to Staten Island.

In the end, the plot twisted itself back into a more-or-less straight line, with comedy tempered by only the potential for tragedy. The air was crisp and sunny and dry and so was the champagne that we all drank.

1 comment:

Karin said...

I came across your blog by way of Alimentum (which is being sold at my local grocery store-yes, I live in an exceptional neighborhood). Thank you for this fine example of how plot works, in particular, for explaining the "muddle."