Swimming is a form of correspondence - between body and world, self and environment, body and body. “A kind of communication between person and world.” Like drawing (“imagine you are running your hand over the surface…”). Like writing, even, which is a physical as well as an intellectual act. A form of labour: “in the ‘work’ of writing, the page becomes a personally invested space, a site to be both revered and feared, one of daily practice and struggle” (Dydia DeLyser and Harriet Hawkins, 2014, p 2). Here there’s a connection between the “work” of writing and the “work” of swimming, the work done in the pool and the daily practice and struggle there: the pool, like the page, becomes a site to be “both revered and feared”.
Writers often talk, sometimes a little preciously, about their “craft”, and about the individual, entirely necessary and highly variable, components of this craft - a particular chair or time of day, a certain soundtrack, a nap, a drink, a cat, an open window.
Sometimes these things are spoken about in the same tone of reverence that something religious, otherworldly, or uncanny might be: as if there’s an element of witchcraft to writing. The novelist Roxana Robinson, in a piece for the New Yorker, presents her writing routine as something delicate, ritualistic, and not entirely within her control:
In the morning, I don’t talk to anyone, nor do I think about certain things.
I try to stay within certain confines. I imagine this as a narrow, shadowy corridor with dim bare walls. I’m moving down this corridor, getting to the place where I can write. […] I don’t read the paper or listen to the news. One glance at the headlines, the apprehension of the dire straits of the world, and it would all be over. The membrane will be pierced; it will shrivel and turn to damp shreds.
On a good day, I’m caught up by something larger than myself, held in the light by some celestial movement. For a brief charged time I may be irradiated, able to cast a shadow version of something I only imagine. The shadow will never be the bright true self that I know exists, but it will be as precise as I can make it, as real, as sharp, as beautiful. I will cast this shadow into the air, where it may never be seen, or where it may be seen at a great distance, and only by one person, someone I will never know. The point is to cast the shadow out into the air.
In spite of this ethereal inspiration, words are not disembodied. Think of the body writing - whether early in the morning, jolted awake by a cup of instant coffee, as in Robinson’s case, or past midnight, hunched over a laptop, bashing out a frenzied email, as in my case on so many evenings. As Catherine Brace and Adeline Johns-Putra have written: “in the performance and practice of writing, we glimpse a fusion of thought, action, body and text” (Brace and Johns-Putra, 2010, p 403). And this fusion creates space for engagement about not just the place being written about, but the place of the author, and the relationship between the two.
Last year I gave a presentation, alongside two colleagues, about writing and geography. A lot of this post is actually recycled material from my talk- material that’s taken on new meaning as my project has shifted and morphed. At the time the focus of my PhD was very different, and it’s possible, I realize now, that the talk was actually a first tentative step towards making this vital change.
But the point is this: during a frantic bout of email correspondence with my colleagues about how best to structure the two-hour long session, the word “practice” came up a lot. I suggested, for instance, that one of the questions we might want to pose to the audience was about how we “practice” writing, which in turn prompted a great question from one colleague about “the current ubiquitous use of the word ‘practice’. What does this word really mean?” she wrote - “I personally find it very discomfiting to use a word that blurs earlier distinctions between ‘labour’, ‘work’, ‘craft’, ‘artistry’, and ‘rehearsal’?”
These questions made me think then, and continue to make me think, of sport and physical activity. In particular - of course! - I think of swimming, which has become integrally linked to writing for me in recent years, as if one activity offsets or enhances the other, and about the futility of swimming laps, which is akin to the futility of writing words.
Of course neither swimming nor writing is actually futile, but neither action is guaranteed to bring me any result other than the immediate result, which is a kind of satisfaction - and that has to be satisfaction enough, whatever else happens. Even when you feel you’ve made a breakthrough, there’s still someone next to you who’s faster, more efficient, more elegant; there’s still someone else whose words you admire much more than your own.
I’ve quoted this frequently, but it bears repeating: the journalist Mark Rowlands, writing about running and identifying the feeling of “running simply to run” -
This experience is found in other sports too: an absorption in the deed and not the goal; the activity and not the outcome. This is play in its purest form.
Hence practice - that ubiquitous, sometimes discomfiting word - becomes a form of play. Perhaps. And perhaps playfulness with words can liven up text, breathe life into it, give it a kind of agency of its own.