Books·How I Wrote It

Why Jessica J. Lee swam 52 of Berlin's lakes in one year and wrote a book about it

The author explores the natural history of Berlin and lakes while reflecting on her own past in her memoir, Turning.
Jessica J. Lee is the author of Turning. (Hamish Hamilton/Paul Capewell)

Jessica J. Lee holds a doctorate in environmental history and aesthetics. While completing her PhD studies in Berlin, she decided to swim 52 local lakes — one for each week of the year. Lee finds the wilderness of Canada as she swims — it's curiously automatic inclusion in what it means to be Canadian and the imprint it has made on her childhood memories and adult emotions — and this experience became the foundation of her memoir, Turning.

In her own words, Lee discusses the creative process that has become her first book.

Accepting the pain

"I went into the swimming project — and the writing of the book — with very particular ideas in mind: that I'd exorcise some kind of pain and heartbreak, that I'd find my own sense of purpose. It was about three-quarters of the way through the lakes and the book when I realized that it was never going to be quite so simple. I could set out to swim, sure, but I couldn't control how it would make me feel. When I visited Zeesener See, a lake I was hoping would eradicate the dregs of my sadness, I realized that releasing myself from these emotions wouldn't be that easy. Once I realized that, I started to accept how I felt and move forward with the writing with more lightness, and with some kindness to myself in the process."

Many homes, many lakes

"A desire for sense of belonging — or a sense of home — was underlying so many of my motivations for writing the book. I'm half-Chinese, half-Welsh, raised in Canada by immigrant parents, so in a way questions about home and belonging were very important to me, but the year I wrote Turning I had moved between Toronto, London, and Berlin and had lived in about five different apartments, all while trying to finish my PhD thesis. I felt really scattered, and writing Turning gave me a way to draw these elements of my life together. And as much as swimming — especially winter swimming — was an obsession, I was roaming the German landscape hoping to find some kind of familiarity in a place haunted by stories, including some of my own."

Writing in emotion

"When I started planning the book, I used an enormous roll of recycled craft paper to plot out the structure, especially the interlinking timelines. I moved things around a bit based on how the text felt, but often I couldn't plan that in advance, as parallel emotional narratives in the past and present would emerge on the page. So in a way, it shaped itself somewhat.

"People often ask if I kept a diary, but I'm not nearly that disciplined. I had tons of notes on my phone with half-finished sentences I'd write while hiking, or lists of plants I'd observed on a shoreline. And I went for lots of late-night walks, headphones in, taking hurried drags from cigarettes on dark Berlin winter nights. Lots of the book came to me in the darkness."

Jessica Lee's comments have been edited and condensed.