“I hear the rhythm in my voice, then the pause, the breath, the space that opens up. Listening strains my ears. I wait for the reply; the opportunity to ride the wave, to listen and hear–no feel–what my conversation partner is really trying to say, then to turn and dive again deeper still, but what do you really mean? When it is over, I press the words out flat, poring over them for meaning, patterns, connections. There is power in the spoken words now written down–my task is to harness and direct it. How can I promote empathy for each other and create greater understanding through storytelling?”

I wrote this for an after-work class, recently, to frame a goal of mine — to be a better storyteller. I suppose this blog is part of that goal; it serves as a way for me to externalize thoughts and try out ideas. To publish is to commit, to say it exists.

I’m a lousy swimmer. As a kid, I would sink. I took all of the classes, from Guppie to Shark, at the James and Jane Phillips Rec Center. I was stuck at Minnow for a long time. Without my glasses, I had a hard time gauging distances, since I couldn’t see the markers on the ceiling to indicate distance. I hit my head on the walls pretty much every time I swam face up. I really couldn’t see anything, not underwater, not above water. If I even thought I was close to the edge, I started to cringe, to shrink, to pull my shoulders up and try to pull my arm back slowly, bent, haltingly. I know the wall is coming! I slammed into it hard too many times.

Amazingly, post-pregnancy, I could float. This immediately made me a better swimmer. I could relax and not spend all of my time moving frantically to try to stay up. But, it had been so long since I’d taken swim (30+ years?), I had to turn to my young daughter to ask her to “remind” me what to do. She started swim class at 3-months old and continued with some form of it until she was seven. I had to pull her out when I changed jobs and I could no longer sit and write out game ideas on the pool deck. But in the year right up until then, I started to make real progress! Running had improved my lung capacity, so I could stay under longer. Finding my shoulders, my breath, and my entire body in movement underwater was so exhilarating. I emerged from the pool feeling completely alive, energized, exhausted, and a tad guilty. I was going to miss stand-up again.

Here’s what didn’t change. Before I slowly lower myself down and push-off, I am terrified of the water. My heart races, my hands sweat, my breathing quickens — I don’t want to get in the big lap pool. It’s going to be cold, it’s going to be hard, there is no breathing underwater. What if I can’t do it? That sick feeling of being under and needing air keeps me from being a very good swimmer. I tend to over-breathe and practically hyperventilate in my panicked efforts to continually fill my lungs. I bully and pep myself up, alternately. Get in there! You’ll figure out how to relax once you get going. You’ll find your stride, or is it stroke?

I think interviewing is the same. I have to psyche myself up before it starts, ease in, then push off. It could go badly, I could get stuck under the water, unable to pull the conversation back from the interviewee, lost. I could panic and breathe too much, jumping questions and subject matter, unable to find the right rhythm. Or, with work and steady diligence, I could find an even stroke and push and pull my way across with a clear line of sight to my goal. Through the call and response format — the question and answer — we could swim together and uncover new truths and ways of seeing born of our shared dialogue. It’s not easy, but always exhilarating and energizing. All I have to do is dive in.