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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.