Why Swimming Makes Me A Better Writer

Why Swimming Makes Me A Better Writer

I swim regularly.  It used to be just to stay in shape because I enjoy being in the water, especially when it is beastly hot in the summer. There is nothing like walking outside after a swim and feeling cool, no matter what the temperature is.  Plus, it is a lifelong sport I did during all three of my pregnancies. In fact, I am convinced that swimming until I gave birth helped labor go more easily – and research on pregnancy and exercise backs me up.

I like being in the water, just focusing on the feel of my limbs moving, knowing each movement strengthens myself and that activity keeps me sturdy, healthy, ready for whatever is next in life.  I think of it as a sort of inoculation against whatever physical problems may be lurking when I age, that I will know I did my part to exercise and try to stay healthy.  And my fellow swimmers are of all ages, so it seems doable to keep going with it.

But for the past few years, the pool has been the place that I can exist without external stimuli, no screens demanding my attention, or social media making me think I must be aware of whatever is new in the world and react to it so others on my social media feed can see.  In the pool, there is no one telling me what or how to think.  I am, for better or worse, on my own.  That is a state that has become harder and more difficult to attain in the modern world.

As one theorist of the attention economy has put it, “Attention is a resource–a person has only so much of it.” In a world where we are constantly on our screens, emailing and texting others and on social media, we are not always cognizant of the costs of giving our attention to others, or thinking about where it is going.

Matthew Crawford formulated the notion of attention as resource in his 2015 book, The World Beyond Your Head, which is focused on the attention economy, where he also writes, according to Michael S. Roth in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Without the ability to direct our attention where we will, we become more receptive to those who would direct our attention where they will.”  The introduction is called, “Attention as a Cultural Problem” and he notes that “silence is now offered as a luxury good” because of all the ways advertisers make their claims on our attention.  No ads in the pool.

But that ability to get to a point where a person is attentive to his or her own thoughts is harder and harder to achieve in modern life.  I feel that, as a writer, I need the space and time that swimming makes to get me to start paying attention, to think about what it is that is on my writing docket for the day.  Even before I was writing full time, I used my swimming time to just organize what I wanted to teach that day, how I was going to frame my argument, or what I was thinking about. Swimming helps me to focus in a way that I can’t at my desk.  In the pool, I can’t check my email or Twitter or look at my favorite web-based publications.  It is just me and my thoughts, which is where writing is launched.  If I don’t have an idea and a sense of what I am trying to do, I can’t write.

So often we are told that we need to pay attention to and respond to others.  And, this is where taking the time to do a solo activity like swimming can be useful.  It is a form of using that limited commodity, attention, and lavishing it on ourselves, paying attention to our own thoughts, our own limbs moving in the water, our own muscles strengthening themselves as they pull constantly against the water.  This is not about being selfish, but learning that our thoughts and ideas and bodies need to be nourished.

Getting focus is never easy, but making the time to find that focus will enable anyone to function better.  Some start their days with prayer, which also facilitates a specific kind of concentration, an ability to focus on the self, on what is needed and sought from God, and on how to express gratitude.  Some people journal early in the morning, as Julia Cameron of The Artist’s Way suggests with her morning pages.  Cameron says in an interview with Psychology Today about writing as a spiritual path, “Writing is a spiritual practice in that people that have no spiritual path can undertake it and, as they write, they begin to wake up to a larger connection. After a while, people tend to find that there is some muse that they are connecting to.”

The important thing is that each of us needs to find a way to center ourselves and get control of our own attention, for there are always forces outside us ready to grab it and spirit it away if we are not careful.  By being deliberate about cultivating our attention in whatever way makes sense, we can think about our priorities and attempt to align how we spend our time with those resolutions about what is important.

As a parent of teens (one just entering the teen years, one in the midst of them and away from home for the first time, and one who exited that stage in the last few years), I see that they are constantly worrying about what others are doing and looking to others to make decisions about themselves.  When I was a teen, I did this too, but the pressure is more relentless with the constant barrage of social media information kids today face.  Somehow they – like the rest of us – need to remove themselves from it, if only for a small bit of time, by doing some kind of activity that forces them to be alone and aware of their own needs and thoughts, a temporary withdrawal from the world.

Only by spending time away from the demands and needs of others can we learn to be focused so we can make our entrance into the world in the most effective way possible, from a place of deep attention and concentration. The pool is not the only place to do it, but for me it is an effective one.

I find an orientation to paying attention during my laps.  In Hebrew, the word “matzpun” (conscience, in English) is based on the root for “north” tz-p-n. The word “matzpen” for compass is connected.  In order to find our consciences and orient ourselves, we each need time alone to think and create priorities, which can be done in many ways.


Beth Kissileff

Beth Kissileff is the author of the novel Questioning Return and the editor of anthology Reading Genesis. Her writing has appeared in the Michigan Quarterly Review, New York Times, Jewish Week, Slate.com, Tablet, the Forward, Haaretz and elsewhere. Visit her online at www.bethkissileff.com.

Leave a Reply