Swimming and creativity

I asked artist, college lecturer and marathon swimmer friend Rosin Lewis some months ago to write a guest article for me on a specific subject, that of the link between open water swimming and creativity. it hasn’t arrived yet, I think Roisín will eventually write it, but I’m not sure how long it’ll be, so you are stuck for now with my own roughly formed thoughts on the subject, and I’m indulging myself today, even more than usual, by writing about something odd, but something that I have nonetheless been thinking about. I’ll start with this assertion: I believe, that at least for myself, there is a very definite and specific link between swimming and more specifically open water swimming, and whatever creative aspects I have.

Rather than this being some unwarranted belief, I have my own personal evidence that it is only with the integration of swimming into my life that the creative aspects of my life have started to develop more fully from whatever limited ability I had previously. This creativity is  expressed to whatever minor extent it has been in writing about swimming, and more recently and to a lesser extent, also in photography. I’ve even dabbled every so-lightly in swim poetry! (I used to do a lot of model-making previously but though there can be quite a lot of unrecognised original creation in that, there is still also a derivative aspect to it, and it’s in no way symbiotic with swimming).

Also, the assertion is not a value judgement on whether or not either (my writing or photography) are any good. I guess that’s not for me to say, only that; both now occupy a place that prior to swimming didn’t seem to exist to the same extent, and that both give quite some enjoyment, and of course self-expression. Actually a lifelong inveterate reader, and therefore well familiar with various aspects of the craft from a reader’s point of view, I’d long ago come to the conclusion and was fine with the fact, that writing of any kind wasn’t a drive I possessed. And yet I’m not the first Channel swimmer who has felt afterwards the impulse to share and explain to the world the transcendent nature of the pursuit.

Painted waves

Painted waves

Not only do I believe that swimming has enhanced my own creativity, for which at least I have some tangible evidence, as you can see here, I think there’s another face to the subject, and that is, once again applying this only to myself as I have no way to apply it to others, that the very act of swimming could be (but usually isn’t) an artistic act in itself. And I don’t mean in the elegance of the specific swimmer.

Maybe ten or twelve years ago, I recall reading something by once-famous Australian surfer Nat Young, a controversial and divisive figure himself, that he believed the biggest mistake of modern surfing was that it was treated as a sport and not as an art, something which then resonated very strongly with me and which did fade but never left my consciousness. For someone who was one time was considered the world best surfer there could be an argument that the lines he scribed across the faces of waves were themselves temporary  sketch lines, using the board as his brush and the water as his canvas.

That also reminds me of the short story by “Uncle” Ray Bradbury, In a Season of Calm Weather, (as I once heard Irish Playwright Hugh Leonard call the famous American short-story writer and have thought of him since. A man sees a sketch of a picture on a sandy beach, being an art critic he realises it can only be a work by Picasso. The sketch is a finished product, which is enhanced maybe by the brevity of its existence and its limited or non-existent audience. In the case of the Bradbury story the audience exists only to make the story possible, instead the art.

The classic slit experiment that illustrated the dual nature of waves

The classic slit experiment that illustrated the dual nature of waves

Modern art theory as I ( possibly mis-?) understand it says that something is defined as art if the artist simply makes the assertion. But of course we don’t step into the sea with the aim of claiming the imaginary lines we swim across the surface are art. Not that you couldn’t strap a GPS on and portray the resulting map as art, and indeed, now that is postulated it seems likely someone will so do. But more relevant is the mind of the swimmer/surfer/artist during the event. It seemed impossible for me, considering the marine environment is dominated by transient weather, that the idea of quantum waves wouldn’t metaphorically rear itself, the idea of the quantum nature of reality in which it only the privileged place of the observer that collapses the possibilities into reality.

By swimming/creating we take the possibly of all the things that could happen, and make one thing, one sequence of time-bound events, actually happen. Of course this applies to all life, but something about the considered slow -natured metronomic of swimming in skin, almost your entire surface exposed to the world, that links you more obviously into the world around you makes this a more deeply felt experience. Once again, this isn’t a conscious action, which moves it out of the realm of created art and into the psychological.

This is a difficult subject to write about, and I’m sure, if you’ve made it this far, to read. This is just me thinking through my fingers. I’m not claiming anything I do is specifically artistic but what is important, is that the writing is my own creative expression and that expression derives from the pursuit of swimming. More creative expression in the world can hardly be a bad thing, so maybe that’s another reason for some of us to swim, or for me anyway.



10 thoughts on “Swimming and creativity

  1. Pingback: The Luxury of Open Water Swimming | Open Water Swimming

  2. Great post Donal. I could not agree more with you. I read a couple of years ago a very interesting book called “Where Good Ideas Come From. The Natural History of Innovation”, by Steven Johnson. I highly recommend it. In it, he highlights the important role of serendipity (“Happy Accidents”, as he calls it) in innovation. He writes about how dreams, walks, long showers, can lead to “serendipitous collisions” of ideas that lead to innovation. I would include open water swimming in this realm. When swimming in the ocean, you are in a totally different environment. You are not subject to the constant interruptions that you experience outside of the water, and your mind just roams freely, and this roaming leads to new ideas, projects, potential interests, solutions. And that has a lot to do with creativity.


    • Thanks very much Mauritio, I definitely agree with you, it rarely happens in the constrained environment of the pool, the lane lines the walls all serve to act as boundaries to time and the imagination as well as physical boundaries. As I said to the others, I didn’t think anyone would be interested in this one, but it has been on my mind for a while.
      In my past I did a Design Diploma and one of the key steps was that taking a break from the active subject and letting the subconscious play with it. Then inspiration seems to strike. Of course this step only works once the initial base research/work is done. Sometimes I struggle to write something and the swim is a break which inadvertently provides the answer, but rarely when I want it to.


  3. Brilliant post! How often it is that there is a tendency for people to see ‘sport’ in its broadest sense and ‘creativity’ as incompatible! For me, they complement each other wonderfully and this post makes me feel that all the more. Just love the photo!


  4. Great, I’ll have to read it again to let it sink in. What I have found myself, at the very least is that becoming physical, in my case running -and even walking- or becoming one with the physical world opens up my mind which is not the same as saying the activity is art I guess but I find its really important to get out into the world and move around. It lets the creativity flow, maybe frees up the mind. Sitting at home and try hard to create doesn’t really work. I often write blog posts when I am running. I like the Nat Young quote and must check out that Bradbury story. Love it 🙂


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