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On Physical Practice and Water Instincts

By Erin Keane

I could swim before I could walk. On visits to my grandparents’ house in Virginia, Grandmother would carry me into her backyard swimming pool and hold me up in the water by my nightgown until I started kicking. For me, there is no before and after. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t feel utterly unafraid of jumping or falling into deep water. I never took lessons. I was never taught, for example, how to blow bubbles underwater. In the water I mostly do what I’ve always known to do: hold my breath until it feels like my chest might explode. Keep myself moving, above the surface, by any means necessary. It is not unlike how I approach an empty page, an idea, the promise of a first draft. Momentum, not grace, is the goal in those flailing early stages.

I’ve been thinking about water instincts lately as I’ve started getting up before the sun to swim laps for exercise. This is new to me. The pool I belong to is usually, for me, for summer leisure, for lazing in the deep floats-only section, basking on my inflatable chair like a lake turtle posing on driftwood, stretching its neck into the afternoon sun. That is one place I come to think through problems in my writing without so many faux-urgent distractions: texts to answer, emails to delete, breaking news alerts. I am comfortable floating, happy to observe the energetic lane swimmers from afar. It’s a summer pastime I used to put away when the season ended. But facing another long winter of gym cardio in a mask, I decided I could instead try waking up with a swim workout a few times a week in the heated bubble erected over the pools.

It’s turned out to be a serene experience, a quiet gift before the hustle of the day begins. It is cold outside but warm in the water. Giant potted plants are thriving in the humidity. The reflection of the water shimmers on the insulated walls. The steady plish-plosh rising from the far lanes, where the serious swimmers work out, both soothes and energizes me.

In the water, I still move largely by instinct. Once, the idea of anyone witnessing my clumsy form might have kept me on the sidelines, content to observe workouts from the safety of my summertime float where I felt in my element, in control of my experience, the equivalent of a lack of writerly confidence compelling me to keep an experimental piece private. The truth is nobody is watching. And so rather than tell myself I’m not that kind of swimmer, talk myself out of taking the risk of failing in front of others, I found some easy beginner workouts and have adapted them to my skill level. A friend has offered to coach me, and I am optimistic that I can learn over time how to transform an innate need to thrash my way through the water into something resembling a coherent stroke.

I have done the same thing with words, taking the innate storytelling drive passed down through generations in my family and shaping it through craft, which I came to learn when I was ready to leave the safety of my comfort zone and to stretch myself, to figure out what more I was capable of. I do it every time I try a new form, genre, or style on the page. And so the bursts of motion slowly take on a recognizable shape and pattern; the agony of pushing myself to finish one lap becomes, with practice, a flow state, and eventually I lose track of how many times I’ve lumbered up and down the lane. I experiment with tighter kicks, broader shoulders. Already my muscles have a better understanding of what they can do.

In a recent conversation about her new book Orwell’s Roses, Rebecca Solnit and my colleague Amanda Marcotte discuss why so many writers gravitate to physical hobbies—gardening, cooking, running—as respite from their work. Solnit says “the tangible, the direct, the sensory” has appeal for those of us who, for the most part, don’t see immediate results of the impact of our work.

“[Y]ou write a book, you don't know what you did. The only people who will get back to you usually are cranky people who disagree with you, want to pick a fight, and a few reviewers. It will just float out there in the world like a message in the bottle,” Solnit said. “And sometimes, almost by accident or someone will take the effort to communicate with you, you'll find out that it had some wonderful impact, but mostly, you don't.”

Maybe for you it is running, or cooking, or a craft, that helps you break out of your head and into your body. When your writing might not even begin to “float out there” for a year or more, it can feel awfully abstract at times. That’s been true for me over the past year, as I’ve been working on the final major revision—my third in so many years—of my memoir, which will be published in September 2022. And so perhaps it’s no wonder that I’m finding solace in the tangible, direct, sensory rewards of transforming the love of water I was born with into a practice that I can see improving in small ways every day. Like making myself show up to my desk to write, I sometimes must drag myself into the water in the morning. But by the time I finish, I’m always happy to have shown up for myself in this way.


Erin Keane is author of three collections of poetry and editor of The Louisville Anthology. Her memoir-in-essays, Runaway, is forthcoming from Belt Publishing in September. Her writing has appeared in many publications, anthologies, and public radio shows, and she was co-producer and co-host of the limited audio series These Miracles Work: A Hold Steady Podcast. She is editor in chief at and teaches in the Sena Naslund-Karen Mann Graduate School of Writing at Spalding University.


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