Artistic discipline and athletic discipline


“Artistic discipline and athletic discipline are kissing cousins, they require the same thing, an unspecial practice: tedious and pitch-black invisible, private as guts, but always sacred.”
– from “Practice” in Swimming Studies, by Leanne Shapton

I loved this book. I bought it for my new Kobo, which my two eldest got me for Christmas — their own idea, their own money, their own surprise. I hope to use it to buy more of the books that I might not quite make the leap for in the bookstore. But I’ve now learned that it might inspire me to buy certain books twice, because having read Swimming Studies as an ebook, I long for the actual physical artifact of this particular book, so that I can share it, and so that I can leaf through its pages.

I was sad to reach the end of Swimming Studies. It is a memoir written in a style that I found both affecting and aesthetically serene. Shapton shares a series of moments, linked by their connection to her own life, and to swimming. She resists the impulse to analyze (I admire this, being compulsively analytical myself). She draws scenes that are coloured with very specific detail, that open the possibility of a story the way clues do. It gave me the sensation of looking at old photographs, and wondering about the people captured there. It gave me the sensation of disturbing a private scene, almost, and not fully grasping the significance of everything going on.

I find myself wondering over certain small scenes, like one early on: Why did the women behind the counter at the coffee shop rebuff her mother’s friendliness, in the early dark of morning, and why did her mother keep trying to be friendly? Or even just resonating with a familiar sound I have never paid attention to: the clanging of a frozen rope against a flag pole.

I like that the book seemed to belong to no established genre, nor to care. It didn’t need to fit easily into a category. I did not find myself becoming impatient with some parts that I imagine others might find indulgent: the minute descriptions of pools she remembers swimming in, or her collection of swim suits. I kind of just loved the whole thing.

I can’t imagine growing up with an athletic discipline and routine underpinning my daily life. But I know all about artistic discipline. I find it fascinating to glimpse the mind and experience of someone who has lived both. And I wonder if I could find some lesson, some inspiration here, some ease with the small; the ordinary transformed by attention; the possibility for forward motion within a scene that looks set and still. If ever I were to write a book based on my blog, I think this is where I would begin.

Word of the year, 2013
Problem solving


  1. Elisabeth de Mariaffi

    I find my running practice and writing practice eminently comparable. Both require and both bring a meditative quiet, a brain quiet. Both require constancy. Both require faith. After a couple of years of long-distance racing, I recently rediscovered the pleasure in running for the sake of it, but it was work to find it; much like finding the pleasure in writing with a book just behind me has been a bit of a job. But I’m getting there.

    • Carrie Snyder

      The vague let-down after a goal has been accomplished. The restless sense of wanting to begin a new journey, but not quite knowing what. Constancy and faith. Keep on keeping on!

  2. Carole

    Hi there, the January edition of Books You Loved is open for entries. Here is the link Books You Loved January Edition Please do pop by and link in a post about a book/s you loved. Maybe this post? Cheers and Happy New Year!

  3. Gillian W

    I loved Shapcott’s book, too – the quiet, dark space it made and the revelations into that sport world. I’ve come to sports ability late and, like Elisabeth, like you, I find a lot of comfort and strength in pushing my body hard. In that effort I find a lot of fuel for my art, which never stops feeling like a lucky find. The luckiest find, though, is the other athletic writers I’ve met – the ones who will run the hills with you in Banff and then meet up years later, ostensibly for a conference, but really to run the sea wall in Vancouver. I think we’re all running, soccering, cross-fitting in tandem, even if we’re not physically close to each other, and it makes those dark hours of effort in our runners and at our computers more companionable.

    • Carrie Snyder

      Thanks for the companionship, Gillian!

  4. Kerry

    I have no athletic discipline, unabashedly, but I loved this book even still. And yes, you must have a physical copy, because Shapton *is* a book designer on top of *everything else*. She’s as fantastic as you are.

    • Carrie Snyder

      You love swimming, though, right, Kerry? The book made me wish I’d always loved swimming — and appreciate the pools and bodies of water I’ve been lucky enough to know.

  5. Carole

    Carrie, thanks for linking this in. I have just signed up to follow you on Google Reader. A follow back to Carole’s Chatter would be wonderful – or are you already following? Cheers

  6. Elizabeth

    Great review…thanks. I don’t like swimming. 🙂

    My featured book is SEVEN LOCKS.

    Stopping by from Carole’s January Books I Loved. I am in that list as # 46.

    Silver’s Reviews
    My Blog

  7. saleema

    Carrie, I actually thought of you (or rather, your writing here on the blog about running and soccer and the early morning push to get up and at it) as I read this book, and part of what I liked about Swimming Studies was that it gave me some insight into that healthy competitive, athletic impulse I’ve never been good at understanding. One of my good friends is a marathoner and ex-competitive swimmer (her story of swimming and quitting swimming is much like Shapton’s), and I felt like the memoir helped me access some beautiful part of athleticism that has always been closed to me due to my hopelessness in that area.

    • Carrie Snyder

      It’s really given me a lot to think about. There is so much I don’t understand about the competitive athletic impulse either, especially how to nurture it in ways that are positive and healthy. I think about this a lot. How to encourage a cooperative spirit within a competitive discipline? How to lead a well-rounded life when discipline calls for intense practice? Big questions!


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