"Swimming cultivates imagination," wrote Australian-born champion and movie star Annette Kellerman in her 1918 volume, How To Swim. When we swim we shed our higher consciousness, the complex, reasoning human organism, and remember, deep inside ourselves, the first oceanic living cell; we almost become our origins. Whether in lake, ocean, or pool, there comes that moment when the world of our ordinary preoccupations washes away and we sink into a meditative state where the instinctual, intuitive, subconscious mind can tell us what we need to know.
The question is always the same: Who am I? The answer is in each swimmer's -- and each writer's -- imagination.
The literature of swimming is rich and varied, and like all good literature, it does not confine itself to its primary subject, but delves deep into human experience. In the world of water, we become aware of our skin, of the body's limits and definitions, while we are simultaneously wrapped in an element so familiar, so delightful, so sensual that we feel we have come home. Because life seeks both merger and separation, swimming is a perfect correlative for its mystery.
Reading about swimming makes one particularly aware of the similarities between swimming and the creative process. Both swimming and writing, for instance, engender and allow the trance-like state in which the imagination flourishes without censor or restraint. Water is an ancient metaphor for the subconscious; swimmers choose, as writers do, to immerse themselves in it.
There are physical similarities, too. Swimmers do laps; poets do lines. Both of them count: syllables, lengths, beats, breaths. Swimmers strike out across immeasurable bodies of water, the dangers, frustrations, and ends of which are unknown; novelists do the same. Picking up a pen is like stepping onto a diving board; beginning to write is like jumping into deep, cold water. But, despite ourselves, we hold our breath and dive in.
The experience of swimming is elusive; it cannot be captured by a single voice at any one time because it is always changing. That is one of its allures. The satisfaction of reading and writing about swimming is similarly slippery. It is a lifetime's pleasure to continue seeking out new swimming scenes in novels, stories, and poems not encountered before, and to feel the stirrings of new images, the urge to run back into the water and into the words that name its endless names.