Writing, Swimming and Personal Transformation
by Oprah Book Club novelist, Breena Clarke
Swimming is the thing that has transformed my life and sustains my writing life and has brought me into a community of people within the community I live in. I’m a regular member of a group of mature people called the Aquanuts who practice aqua aerobics together at a municipal pool. I’ve come to believe that this support is as vital for my creative work as a community of writing colleagues.
When you work at home you need an outside social check-in place I’ve learned. My pool buddies are representative of every ethnic constituency in our very diverse city and I love to hear us all laughing and whooping and groaning and trading tips about arthritis, and grieving our friends and loved ones. We’re in a sort of vortex of watery well-being in the pool. When we leave, we are always better. Ask a swimmer. They will always say this.
In River, Cross My Heart, my debut novel and Oprah Book Club pick, I wrote about a young African American girl in the early twentieth century who swims, who recovers her moxie after the drowning death of her younger sister and, though daunted, challenged and manipulated by Jim Crow, survives, triumphs and flourishes. This is, in some measure, my own mother’s story. Though I don’t actually write about myself, my family or my friends, a great many of my characters develop from composites of these peoples’ attributes.
I didn’t swim at all when I wrote River, Cross My Heart. I read about swimming, then I wrote about it. Because of the book’s success I was asked to speak at New York’s Asphalt Green Aquatic Center’s waterproof program and was offered the opportunity to have private swimming lessons there. I was paired with a wonderful teacher.
Exactly because writing is a solitary practice/accomplishment, I relish swimming. I’m amazed at the many complex, exhilarating, deeply pleasurable movements I don't perform on land because of social convention, physics and the tyranny of upright stance. I have a different body in the water. I like it better.
Unfortunately, the thing that works against swimming for a lot of people is fear of exposing themselves to others’ eyes and opinion. I’ve discovered that a fair number of the people who come to my community pool leave their glasses in the locker room, that most people have imperfect bodies, that once you’re in the water no one can actually see how big your thighs are. In the water, my body is a useful body. When swimming, my chest is about more than the measly mammary glands attached to it. It is a wide network of muscles that support me and a bellows that blows air into my lungs. If my chest fails me, becomes flighty and jittery and stupid, I could drown. At the first flutter of panic, my mind tries to take over and pull me out of the water, but the other muscles respond. They say, “Calm down. We’ve got this. We know the technique. We remember water. Are we not in our finest moments when we are horizontal: before being born, sleeping, making sex, dead?”
And so the brain muscle relaxes vigilance, reaches down in its pockets and rummages for bits and baubles of thought. For me, a few laps in the pool, are a tonic, a boon to my writing. I was told that swimming is falling forward. A treacherous behavior on land. In the water, different rules apply. Some weeks after I’d begun my lessons at age 49, my teacher’s gentle critique was that I seemed to be holding myself out of the water, trying to maintain vertical instead of letting myself go horizontal. She said that swimming is best when one is falling forward and surrendering to natural buoyancy.
That I came to swimming relatively late in life is, in some ways, because I had piano lessons instead of swimming lessons and that, as a girl, I had the straightening comb hairstyle of the time. After I got my afro, I thought I was too old to learn.
Is it too neat to say that writing a novel is just such a process: surrendering to the natural buoyancy of the text? Then, as in swimming, the text is visited and revisited and improved with each pass, each lap. For me, swimming develops physical and mental stamina, a deep contemplative engagement of the whole body and mind and spirit.
On the weekend of September 6,7,8, 2013, I will be one of the organizers of the first Festival of Women Writers to be held in the beautiful western Catskills village of Hobart. I’m working with my sister, Cheryl Clarke, a cadre of local residents and the independent owner operators of six book businesses in Hobart, NY, to create an opportunity for women writers to engage with their readers, sell and promote their work and offer workshops.
To learn more & register for the Festival of Women Writers in Hobart Village, NY:
Learn About Festival Writers
Register for the Festival