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Writing, Swimming & Personal Transformation


Guest Blog

Writing, Swimming and Personal Transformation

by Oprah Book Club novelist, Breena Clarke

Swimming is the thing that has transformed my life and sustains my writing life and has brought me into a community of people within the community I live in. I’m a regular member of a group of mature people called the Aquanuts who practice aqua aerobics together at a municipal pool. I’ve come to believe that this support is as vital for my creative work as a community of writing colleagues.

When you work at home you need an outside social check-in place I’ve learned. My pool buddies are representative of every ethnic constituency in our very diverse city and I love to hear us all laughing and whooping and groaning and trading tips about arthritis, and grieving our friends and loved ones. We’re in a sort of vortex of watery well-being in the pool. When we leave, we are always better. Ask a swimmer. They will always say this.

In River, Cross My Heart, my debut novel and Oprah Book Club pick, I wrote about a young African American girl in the early twentieth century who swims, who recovers her moxie after the drowning death of her younger sister and, though daunted, challenged and manipulated by Jim Crow, survives, triumphs and flourishes. This is, in some measure, my own mother’s story. Though I don’t actually write about myself, my family or my friends, a great many of my characters develop from composites of these peoples’ attributes. 

I didn’t swim at all when I wrote River, Cross My Heart. I read about swimming, then I wrote about it. Because of the book’s success I was asked to speak at New York’s Asphalt Green Aquatic Center’s waterproof program and was offered the opportunity to have private swimming lessons there. I was paired with a wonderful teacher.

Exactly because writing is a solitary practice/accomplishment, I relish swimming. I’m amazed at the many complex, exhilarating, deeply pleasurable movements I don't perform on land because of social convention, physics and the tyranny of upright stance. I have a different body in the water. I like it better.

Unfortunately, the thing that works against swimming for a lot of people is fear of exposing themselves to others’ eyes and opinion. I’ve discovered that a fair number of the people who come to my community pool leave their glasses in the locker room, that most people have imperfect bodies, that once you’re in the water no one can actually see how big your thighs are. In the water, my body is a useful body. When swimming, my chest is about more than the measly mammary glands attached to it. It is a wide network of muscles that support me and a bellows that blows air into my lungs. If my chest fails me, becomes flighty and jittery and stupid, I could drown. At the first flutter of panic, my mind tries to take over and pull me out of the water, but the other muscles respond. They say, “Calm down. We’ve got this. We know the technique. We remember water. Are we not in our finest moments when we are horizontal: before being born, sleeping, making sex, dead?”

And so the brain muscle relaxes vigilance, reaches down in its pockets and rummages for bits and baubles of thought. For me, a few laps in the pool, are a tonic, a boon to my writing. I was told that swimming is falling forward. A treacherous behavior on land. In the water, different rules apply. Some weeks after I’d begun my lessons at age 49, my teacher’s gentle critique was that I seemed to be holding myself out of the water, trying to maintain vertical instead of letting myself go horizontal. She said that swimming is best when one is falling forward and surrendering to natural buoyancy.

That I came to swimming relatively late in life is, in some ways, because I had piano lessons instead of swimming lessons and that, as a girl, I had the straightening comb hairstyle of the time. After I got my afro, I thought I was too old to learn.

Is it too neat to say that writing a novel is just such a process: surrendering to the natural buoyancy of the text? Then, as in swimming, the text is visited and revisited and improved with each pass, each lap. For me, swimming develops physical and mental stamina, a deep contemplative engagement of the whole body and mind and spirit.

On the weekend of September 6,7,8, 2013, I will be one of the organizers of the first Festival of Women Writers to be held in the beautiful western Catskills village of Hobart. I’m working with my sister, Cheryl Clarke, a cadre of local residents and the independent owner operators of six book businesses in Hobart, NY, to create an opportunity for women writers to engage with their readers, sell and promote their work and offer workshops.

To learn more & register for the Festival of Women Writers in Hobart Village, NY:

Learn About Festival Writers

Register for the Festival



Don't Starve for Your Art


By Sonja Hegman

I used to think I had to starve to be a writer. It’s the constant that’s driven into us: artists don’t make money. Artists are always poor. Only the Hemingways of the world make a decent living from their words. Screw that noise.

Being an artist of any kind isn’t an easy path. Competition runs rampant. If you’re a writer, illustrious book deals are few and far between. Making a living as a writer means taking gigs that aren’t necessarily glamorous, but ones that will pay the bills. Being a successful writer is much more than writing powerful prose while drinking $8 espresso in a coffee shop. However, if you’d like to be a poser, by all means go for it.

If you want to succeed as a writer, stop thinking of yourself as “starving.” Easy. Erase the phrase “starving artist” from your vocabulary. Just because others think starving is a part of paying dues, it doesn’t mean you have to think that way. It’s the main reason so many creative types are struggling and poor.

How does one change their mindset? Start thinking of writing as your business. Writing IS your business. You make money at it (or at least try to), and therefore, it should get the same respect as any other business. You must spend time on the business side. This includes marketing, networking and selling yourself. These aren’t things we writers enjoy, but they will move us to the next level. The best thing you can do, next to erasing “starving artist” from your vocabulary, is to stop using the word “freelance.” Start calling yourself a “business owner” because that’s what you are. How did I change my thinking? I had a chance meeting in 2009.

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Guest Blog: Write Now Coach, Rochelle Melander


Tackle Your Memoir, Save your Sanity   By Rochelle Melander

In August 2007, while choosing between several writing projects, I asked myself: if you could only write one more book in your life, what would it be? The answer came swiftly, from deep in my gut: my memoir.

In 2002, I began collecting notes for a story that revolved around two distinct periods in my life: my experience as the pastor of a conflicted two-congregation parish in the mountains of western Pennsylvania and my subsequent battle with anxiety connected to my professional life as a minister. I reviewed my journals from that time. I wrote scenes. But I struggled to organize the story in a way that would be readable to my audience. By 2007, I had a three-ring-binder over flowing with ideas and a folder on my computer filled with failed beginnings. How would I finish this book I’d struggled to write for so long?

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Guest Blog: Author Elizabeth Spradbery on French Fiction


I love everything about France; the people, the towns, the countryside, the food, the sunny climate, the seemingly more leisurely pace of life. And it follows that books in French and about France always come high on my reading lists.

The death of Robert Sabatier recently (in June 2012) reminded me how much I have enjoyed reading French authors over the last 20 years. I scour UK libraries in London, and down on the UK south coast where I live, for European sections in about ten different borough public libraries. I have even been known to buy copies.

Robert Sabatier is probably best known for his novel “Les Noisettes Sauvage” (‘Wild Nuts’) which is a novel in the series “Olivier et ses amis” (‘Olivier and His Friends’). This vividly evokes life in rural France in the 1950s. Bonds of family and friendship are strong, and the French countryside and slower pace of life make for a  calm but joyful read. My own favourite book, though, by Robert Sabatier is “Le Lit de la Merveille”, (‘A Bed of Marvels’) a wonderfully readable book about love, work and life itself. It is set among the intriguing and amusing circles of artists, writers, lecturers, eccentrics and idealists.

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Let Your Verbs Run Wild and Free



I said this recently to a writer in workshop reacting spontaneously to the wonderful story I could see trapped behind the bars of overly condensed description.

This kind of thing happens a lot.  Rushing to make our point, we summarize and condense the life out of our stories.  Instead of allowing our language to expand and transport us somewhere unexpected, we harness it for our predetermined goals. This approach works well for reports, memos and academic papers but not so well for literary writing.

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Why I Write Memoir...For Now


If, as Stephen King says in his memoir, "On Writing," fiction happens when the writer asks herself "What if?" then memoir, I believe, is born when the writer asks herself "What now?"  In other words, how can the writer of memoir understand and illuminate the experiences she or he has lived?

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The Opinionated Writer


A number of years ago, I brought a writer's retreat to the Rainforest in Costa Rica.  I had visited this locale a year earlier and felt that it inspired a wonderfully contemplative state of mind; ideal for a writer's retreat.  My plan was that the group  would meet for a 3 hour workshop in the morning then have the rest of the day open for exploration and writing. What actually happened was quite different.  My group of writers, as the week progressed, became more interested in exploring the lush tropics

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