The Lure and the Deep Print E-mail

John_William_Waterhouse_-_Ulysses_and_the_Sirens_1891(San Diego Writers' Monthly April 1992)

Eight floors up in a college dormitory conference room that overlooks the University of California campus and the dark blond beaches of the blue Pacific, I am finishing a long discussion with a writing student. Max. The one who waits. The one who ponders everything I say. Who wants me to tell him more about what’s really wrong with his work, the pained yielding behind those round glasses I can’t help but conjure in a young John Lennon. Behind him, through the sliding glass doors and beyond the railed ledge, is the water.

He waits. His hands do not leave the table as I expect. The skin above his lip is as tender as the hairs of his new mustache. He’s distraught. “What am I missing? Is it something I haven’t lived yet?” he says. That may be it. I’m not sure. He’s written an autobiographical story about seeing his father drunk. I’ve gone over the draft with comments that reflect questions about his self-disclosure and offer suggestions about his focus. These comments have brought him down. But maybe it’s our deeply personal talk that has really unsettled him. I invited the whole class to write about intensely felt experience, which means to open that experience up to feel it again. He’s so talked out and open now that he’s desperate.

His time is up (I’m expecting many more students in half-hour slots today), and I want to say yes, it is something you haven’t yet lived. Go out and live it. But while I stifle the thought Max takes advantage of my silence, doing exactly as I’ve said. Classroom advice it was. Let long silences grow between people, and I guarantee the waiting will produce a response. So he feeds off me, letting himself listen to himself because I abdicate the teacher’s authority.

But my advice is not what he wants, although I always come back to it. I have told him and his classmates that writing is a craft which forces you inward, where the truth of your experience lies. One journey inward, though, is never enough. You must repeat the trip, make it a habit. Writing is rewriting. Writers write. Learn by doing. End of lecture. Let’s read what you’ve written. See what’s there, what’s not there.

If any single technique can get you there, I say, it is narrative. Rewrite with a focus on developing the story, build more of the action. In Max’s story I commented on the scene in which his father was throwing up in the bathroom and he had written: “It seemed like an eternity before he came out of the John. Then, when he did, it was my turn to go . . . .” by writing in green ink in the margin, “Dramatize your waiting. Show us how an eternity seemed.” Generally, his piece got stuck in too much commentary; I have been telling him that more of those moments need scenes, you know, felt action shown to us, so that, what?

“You know Max, the narrative stuff aside, maybe you can’t yet write about this. I don’t want to say you should or you shouldn’t. I want you to hear what the experience is trying to tell you. But the experience may not be saying much of anything. It may be dry.” I stop. More admonishment.

His cheek rests on a fist, his look sullen and downcast. My foot is tapping. I stop that too. I wonder what any advice really achieves. Silence feeds him the questioning muck I want him to try and hold. Isn’t that the truth, or close to it? Yes, as it’s held, and no, as it slips away. His difficulty is one every student goes through: he can’t see that the purpose of writing is to resolve something with a question: Not giving answers, Chekhov says, but posing the question as clear as ice.

“Perhaps,” he says, nodding out there, “the old man of the sea knows.” He gathers his work and leaves the room.

The next student is late. I check the hall, once, twice. I walk around the room, press my palms on the wobbly table. Folders of student writing, which I read and commented on till late last night, are stacked on the table. My free-time book—Tolstoy’s Childhood—seems far off, antique. The rhythm I expected to work in today has changed. I stare out the doors at the ocean, five, maybe ten minutes. Still no knock. From here the water is a blue bowl with a line on top.

On the beach somebody is approaching the water, stopping where the waves crest on the beach. Is it Max? Is it the young man whose father started drinking again just this year after Max left home for college, who had long ago spent five years in AA and completed the ninth step, whose recent breakdown forced him to enter a treatment program—all facts Max discovered by accident on a surprise visit home. Is it Max out there who is obsessed with calling his father’s alcoholism, “the great lie of my life?” I feel sorry for him because he can’t do anything but write about this experience as wrongful to him and his family, who feels it his job to protect his mother and blame his father. “Sober up or get out,” he tells him at the story’s climax.

But Max has no distance from which to understand let alone dramatize his father’s problem. I warned him and the others that if they write about something too emotionally close they will write about feeling more than they narrate the action because the event is unfinished. Story for one writing autobiographically is a selection of events in which someone changes and one can look back and see the change. It may or may not be conclusive, but the story must have an ending. Encouraging him to use narrative, though I know it does force resolution, will not help him because so far he has had little time to recognize what has changed.

How long before that recognition arrives?

It’s been three weeks since I assigned the class to write about a “first time.” First times: When you first became aware of injustice; when you first felt rejected; when you first realized something profound about yourself. To try the idea on I started telling the class a story, one which I thought was finished. “My family was landlocked in the middle-western states all our lives, and one winter we drove all the way to Florida, to summer, to the ocean,” and I told them about a trip we took during which I had a first of great magnitude. Later I began writing it down, acting on my own advice.


Landlocked in the middle-western states all our lives, my parents took my two brothers and me to Florida one spring vacation. We traded winter for summer, staying in Daytona Beach, a town where people drove cars barefoot, on a street with sand-dusted sidewalks, and in a dark home where the windows looked out on giant plants, whose wide fronds slapped against the glass.

I had never seen the ocean before, and I was silently, turbulently, awaiting the spectacle. As we neared the coast I glimpsed only down-street patches of water, a blue deeper than any sky I had ever beheld. When mother finally told Dad to turn left so we could all see the Atlantic, an odd sight gripped us: Right before the shore there was a lot to park the car in, a sidewalk away from the sand, with parking meters standing guard. We had to pay to look.

But we didn’t pay. Dad idled the car, and my brothers and I stretched forward from our long low seat. Mother kept turning around and smiling at us; we’d made it. I vowed secretly to spend time at the shore. By myself.

A few days later, my father took my brothers to play miniature golf, and mother and I went down to the water. She brought along a wooden folding chair with the long cloth seat in which her rump hung low, just above the sand. Mother was all white: suit, skin, glasses, except the eye coverings, movie-star dark. She wore a white golf hat, very unbecoming, I thought. I spread my towel, then stood and squinted all about. We were between groups of people, but not embarrassingly close. Up and down the beach a seated battle-line of pale ten a.m. tourists sat, hatching early wonder, as if the seascape before them was a screen whose feature presentation they awaited. No one had yet ventured to the waves. I supposed they were afraid of the water.

A woman next to us suddenly announced, while her daughter thumbed through Look magazine, “Yes Virginia, there’s only so much snow you can stand.” That was my cue.

I got up and moved heel-hard into the sand drifts, feet falling forward, the sand mushing between my toes, then trailing up behind me in a weak spray. As I heel-toed my way to the water I was aware only in a flash of leaving without saying where I was going. Each step felt like miles of good clear distance. The scent of crab and salt grabbed my nose and throat and opened them wide to taste the pungent brine. I pushed on, remembering a leap I once took into a country club swimming pool—suddenly was my cue then too—away from a mother glued to her seat, her scrutiny of the girls I noticed, her mystery novel. I felt all-accepted when I dove in and the eyeless water surrounded me.

At the ocean’s edge I stopped and began a careful intellectual assault on the waves. I looked at them mid-distant, rolling in with a placid regularity and, when I stared far out, as far as I could see, down the coast, up the coast, out to a line, which had no point and which did not vanish, I saw far to forever. It was all vast and clear, close and distant and unknown. Nothing met my eye—no sail, no ship, no buoy; only water and cloudless sky. I stared long and deep. I gazed and let my gazing run away. My eyes gave in, though my body held still. Eventually, I felt my body soften, the softening of coming into wonder. I had what seemed like a worldwide moment, time enough in which to regard eternity. No interruptions from storm or people. It felt like a clear morning view of the Grand Canyon (which I would hike, part way, later in life), where any frolic or awe would alter nothing in the scene, provide only a meek contrast, the immense dead natural world stoic before the legions of tourists and a few hikers. At the water, though, I felt a human quality in the vastness before me—the water was pushing toward my feet with an eerie desire to be close. The waves, capped with white foam, reminded me of the snowdrifts I knew up north that were buffeted by the wind. Each long broad arcing wave was different, the crests and breaks and pauses unique. I watched their slithering run up the beach and their guilty rush back, sheeting like rain on a roof, spoiled on gravity. It was water’s breath, a sort of in-out in time like that which, asleep, people match. I stepped forward, wanting to meet what was coming to me. The arches of my feet padded into the sand. I dug my heels in as the waves one by one ran liquid shackles around my ankles. Digging in felt effortless because each time the water loosened my weight I sank a little more into the sand. This slow burial motion I felt was warm and caressing, the waves holding me to their larger breathing, the day’s tide. For that long moment I was immeasurably happy with the water in its spit and art at my feet, making me a nest from which to watch the vast scene and the cloying waves. The waves had entranced me with their steady rhythm. Whether in water or at water, I, an I that I seldom was on shore, was calmly excited just to be.

My story was only begun when I realized, while telling it, that this was the first time I had been seduced by the wonder of time. That I was alone made it even more dramatic. The elegant measure of the tide created a time outside the tick of parental time, which at fourteen I knew too well and felt I needed to escape. I loved that tide of the waves and I wanted it to envelope me. And it did, briefly. When I dug in my heels with the rising water the ground I thought safe once the water ebbed and flowed back was made to feel safe. But it was brief. I knew it would pass and leave me with a deeper story, a contrast between the quiet rising of the waves and the eternal presence of the water. I wanted—I still want—that dual perception of eternity and the water’s breathing to inhabit me. It was a way to have a piece of eternity jostle to a stop in my young hand. Emily Dickinson captured the wonder of the held moment in her poem “Because I could not stop for death,” in the final stanza.

Since then—’tis Centuries—and yet

Feels shorter than the Day,

I first surmised the Horses’ Heads

Were toward Eternity.

What fascinated Dickinson about the length of Centuries was their brevity compared to the potentially unending moment in which she “first surmised” what Eternity meant. The contradiction between eternity itself and the moment one realized what eternity was (that moment of realization of course took much longer), was exactly what I felt. Later I would read that the aborigines have a similar sense of timelessness, believing all time to be one single vertical moment. How wonderful! Time is a moment that lasts forever. The ocean had that same vertical dimension, its tides’ quotidian recurrence framing the one moment of time. Every moment was one moment, and the same moment recurred with every run of water up the shore. I knew that day that any abstraction I felt could best be heard in the spiritual presence of the ocean’s silence and grandiosity, heard and understood. It was immensely comforting to have immensity my friend.


Today, above the Pacific shore, a continent and a generation away from the person who had been so enthralled with time and tide, I stare below at the figure on the beach. Max. The one still standing before the waves. Who is there as I was once there, who is alive on the water’s listening heart as I was once pinned and poised.

What was the last exchange I had with Max about his father?

“But I didn’t know he’d been drinking. He sounded sober always on the phone.”

“You weren’t supposed to know, Max.”

“He deceived me.”


“The bastard betrayed me, too.”

“What’s more, he didn’t even trust you to--”

“It was the first time I recognized my father’s drinking, and the first time I knew there was more to it than just that. You liked what I said there. You responded with a star in the margin, something about two firsts in a story. But then, later, what did you mean about me not knowing him?”

What did I mean? I gaze out farther. My fingertips drum on the glass doors. It was the first time perhaps Max had ever heard that he may not know his father. That the man Max thinks he knew was someone else, an image he held or one his father projected. But the man himself no doubt knew very little about who he is. Alcoholics do not scour beaches searching for their souls. How interesting, not knowing him.

But it’s more than his father’s anonymity. It is me, not knowing Max. Since I have been encouraging the young man to examine his father’s lie, saying in effect that his father’s crisis is too hard to write about, then I am intimating that his father is hiding a world of things from him. Max, don’t touch this terrible wound, but notice just how terrible it is! I am telling the boy not only is he lost but he has no idea how truly lost he is. No wonder Max has gone to the water: He has pain and no cure. The water soothes him, something which I wouldn’t do.

I am responsible for this boy, aren’t I? I have brought him to the water and I’m forcing him to get wet. He has listened to my urging that it’s good to be lost. (Just as the tide urged me.) Get lost, get good and lost, I say. You can’t be found, unless first you’re lost. Is it best to say that, to seed not knowing? The experts say students are too impressionable. Your job is to help them mature. Not to overburden them. What do they do with the anguish they gain from being sent away to struggle with themselves? Max may wound himself. That’s true. But I want him to work out his messes alone: I trust that a deeply felt aloneness will help him discover what a dangerous loneliness is. Though I trust narrative as much as I do solitude, I suspect that a writing strategy cannot resolve questions as easily as I wish. We need something else, something that more clearly, more finally, mirrors the meaning of that first encounter with whatever has changed us.

Wondering what that is, I feel secure, for the moment. Most all of knowing is not knowing. I tap it out on the glass door: knowing is not knowing, like a three-beat line of verse. You know what you don’t know. What I don’t know is the lure of the water, which pulls me down to find the rest of my story.


I stood for a long time on the Florida beach that morning, forgot the world and dissociated myself from everyone. Families arrived no doubt behind me, talked and tanned while I stood guard, an admiral on his watch, a Lief Erickson, or Lewis and Clark, taking communion by the sea when their journey ended at the northern Pacific shore. Oceans are for a journey’s end, I thought.

Eventually I awoke. I’m unsure what, but something snapped. I turned my head and saw mother still there, reading a magazine. It had only been thirty minutes, at the most. Unclaying my feet, I trudged back over the hot sand.

“What were you doing out there, Tom, for the last hour?” she said.

“He stands there just as still as a statue,” said the woman who didn’t miss the snow, with the beautiful impassive daughter by her side. “That is quite a talent.”

I stood still--again--and said, “I was just watching.”

“For what?” said mother.

I shrugged—no reply. I reached for my bag and took out my book, but she suddenly sat up and began lecturing. She told me not only could I get burnt badly out there, but I should have excused myself. She was worried about me. She felt abandoned. She didn’t want to sit here by herself all day. This was our vacation, together. I was surprised by that word—together—and by her desire to rein me in. Usually, she kept her distance from my privacy. Which meant in a way she couldn’t acknowledge a great deal in me, certainly not my spiritual need. Had she asked why upon my return did I seem morose or melancholic or smitten (wasn’t it obvious?), I might have said I’m not, and she might have said oh yes you are, no one stands that rigid at the water’s edge without being in some psychic trouble or metaphysical angst or poetic stupor.

Moreover, I thought her reproach then was one more in an string of reproaches against my uniqueness. Appearances mean so much, she would say. Be mindful of them. People judge you even by the slightest things you do. The message was, don’t act too strange. No one will know your common virtues if you so isolate yourself. Yet that is precisely what I wanted, that is what my Emily-Dickinson-aboriginal moment at the shore taught me: The seriousness of the soul was expressed in isolation. She had no idea who I was. And for the rest of the morning I paid close attention to her not knowing who I was by keeping silent.

At the time I felt she was terribly insensitive. Then--years later--it struck me that it was I who was insensitive, not knowing. It never occurred to me that mother herself may have gone down once to the water, got lost, and returned, perhaps to the admonitions of her mother or father. Furthermore, there was a very subtle likeness, which I did not recognize then, between this woman, regaled in white, and the ocean: Both were calling me but for opposite reasons. My mother was drawing me away from the water because she knew just how easily it was drawing me away from her. To the water I was willing, begging, to be taken.

Now I know: My mother’s lecture gave my story an ending: she was the one who took me to the ocean, released me to my first bout with eternal time, and brought me back. Now it’s clear: Her limitation, which I bristled at then, meant eventually I would feel more deeply the deepest conflicts of being alive. One conflict, whose shores I bridged that day at the Atlantic, was between daily and eternal images of time. Another conflict, much harder to bridge, was between acquiring this knowledge free from human interaction and then struggling to hold onto it when I was drawn to people.


So now I know what I want to tell Max. Stay with the distance a while longer and there seek more of what’s unrevealed. Even though you are without me, you carry my influence because I have taken you there, pushed you under, and now insist you come back. I’m worried about you; it’s time you return. I’m not going to sit in this conference room all day by myself. Get your butt back here; you’ve got much more work to do. If anything is true, Max, it is knowing and not knowing this fact: That years of unconscious breathing with your story and its potential meaning must pass before you can understand your father’s hell. It has taken me years—the years of writing-not-knowing—to see that my mother set a limit on my freedom so I’d know the lure from the deep.

Finally I want Max to know, although it’s probably too soon for him to hear it, that every act of writing restages a similar play with its elements. Even though you don’t know where you’re going, the search for anything assumes that the thing you search for is already there, formed in dreams and images, from past and future, that which Marguerite Duras says “you’ve already done in the sleep of your life, in its organic rumination, unbeknown to you.” Water is the place where all life sleeps, where all life is being dreamed. By any means, go to the water. You can linger for a time and be drawn down on the sound of the deep. But you cannot stay. You can only hover and hunt like the sea gull, who hangs hungry in the coastal breezes just above the shore, cawing at human sentinels. Look there--a gull is harassing the boy to get to the water, to find what he dropped on the beach in low tide is washing its way back to him. And there--a gull is barking a warning. Get back, get back, you fool. You need a guide, a guide. Where did you come from? Where? Where?