When I quit my day job, I knew conceptually that I would have to revise my writing before it would be publishable. I pushed this ugly fact to the back of my thoughts like a midlife crisis victim ignores the warnings that his fancy new car will require $300 oil changes and replacement parts air-mailed on dry ice. Or what’s the adage? The second-best day of your life is the day you buy your boat; the best day is the day you sell it. I have never owned a luxury automobile or any boat that wasn’t inflatable, and perhaps the main reason (besides a persistent absence of wealth) is that I generally heed the warnings. I fear money pits and avoid time sucks—even if the rewards may be partly luxurious. In short, I enjoy having a relatively maintenance-free life.
That’s why I hope to never own a swimming pool.
During the spring of my sophomore year of high school, I was hired by a neighbor to take care of his spectacular in-ground swimming pool—spectacular at least by the standards of a small Oregon logging town. I brought no special expertise to the job, just a need for cash. This neighbor, a doctor—a specialist of some variety that allowed him and his family to be on nearly permanent vacation—was seldom home. I was to check the water quality daily, put in the proper chemicals, clean the filters, skim the leaves and debris off the surface, and in general keep it ready to dive into if anyone ever came home and cared to dive into it. I met this doctor at his pumphouse/cabana one fine spring day, and he explained everything.
(I suppose the lesson I should have taken away from this is that I should have gone to med school. But I digress.)
At first it was a cinch. Each day, the little test vials would turn the exact shades of purple or orange they were supposed to. I’d drop fresh tablets of chemical into the filters as the old ones dissolved. I’d dutifully skim out the dead bugs and untangle the hose of the little vacuum that prowled the bottom. I was Pool Boy: loyal, competent, and trustworthy enough to never invite friends over to swim while the owner was out of town.
Summer came. I began to notice that the pH colors were just a little bit off from where they should have been. So I’d stand in a different light and declare them close enough. The surface skimming was a never-ending and thankless task, as the doctor’s house backed up to a wooded hillside. But worst of all, I noticed a certain green tinge—a layer of algae growing on the walls and floor. The doctor had not explained about algae. So I added more chemicals, and then a little more. This made the pH colors very angry but had no noticeable effect on the algae. This bright green scum was my Kryptonite.
For two weeks I fiddled with the chemical mixture, laboring in vain to banish the scum and to return the water to pristine balance, hoping every day that the doctor would not return. I found a brush attachment for the skimmer pole in the pumphouse and added scrubbing the walls to my daily regimen. But the unwieldy pole provided little leverage against the stuck-on menace and was, at the same time, too short to reach much of the bottom. There was only one thing to do. I donned my swimsuit and lowered myself into the heavily treated, unheated water, brush in hand. I scrubbed the heck out of that pool, coming up every few seconds for air. When I couldn’t stand any more, I shivered on the side and beheld a bizarre patchwork of green—a signed and dated monument to my incompetence.
I was not hired back the next season.
When I decided to write novels, I essentially bought a pool. Sure, I love to swim in my pool on hot days and soak up Vitamin D on the deck. And I’m planning to have people over for a pool party any day now. But there is no such thing as a professional maintenance contract for this pool. I had to hire a 15-year-old kid who’s learning the hard way how to balance the chemicals, how to keep the leaves out, and how to keep the algae from taking over. But he’s starting to get the hang of it.
I’ve found revising to be as satisfying as writing the first draft, if not more so. Sure, it can be difficult and tedious to scrub the scum away, but the luxurious end result makes all the effort worthwhile.
And maybe if I do it well enough, I’ll be able to afford a reallynice car.