Writers are so often pigeonholed as alcoholic smokers that I grew up thinking that my passion for words could only be realized with a few too many stiff drinks and an addictive personality. I’ve come to find that there are all kinds of writers with all kinds of coping mechanisms to escape, support, and in special cases, build their work. Images of men and women hunched over desks with cigarettes hanging on their lips permeate book sleeves, websites and biographies, but I’m hoping to make a small dent that says otherwise. A little pockmark on the cliché of what it is to be a writer.
Today I start with Kurt Vonnegut. Which was perhaps a mistake because there really is little said about his exercise habits. It would have probably been easier had I started with a Murakami-type but I didn’t and here we are. During his time teaching, Vonnegut wrote to his wife from the University of Iowa explaining he was swimming and doing so many push-ups and sit-ups that he felt comfortable enough to call himself lean (but didn’t believe it was true.) All three activities were to beat the boredom and loneliness that comes with relocating to a new city, but swimming held a special spot in Vonnegut’s exercise routine.
For Vonnegut, swimming was the only source of happiness during his lonely childhood. He was known to discuss, on many occasions, the coldness of his mother and father whom rarely interacted with their children. It was at their summer homes in Indiana and Cape Cod that his parents showed rare affection. His biographer Charles Shields writes that, “when summer came, everything was always better… The sunlight put a blush on everyone’s face.” The family trips helped thaw the icy relationship between his parents, if even for a moment. Shields explains that in all of the Vonnegut home videos, the only apparent source of fun and laughter for the family is found on beaches.
And later in life, Vonnegut found that same comfort again at the Iowa City Municipal Pool which became a part of his daily routine from his first day there. He enjoyed the hour at which he went, just before lunch, because of its emptiness, and enjoyed that it broke up his working hours. Swimming was a therapeutic part of his writing schedule, a step between writing session A and writing session B; it was a constant reprieve from the anxieties of his life.
Swimming was never about the athleticism or ability for Vonnegut, it was about being consumed by an “enchanted body of water… perfect in every dimension.” It was where he found warmth in a childhood he frequently lamented was cold and he maintained swimming as a way to cope with stress for most of his life. It’s not surprising that a solitary sport like swimming would appeal to him. A team sport for someone like him, who often felt alone and struggled with commitment, could be disastrous.
If you speak to a swimmer, they’ll tell you that they’re an odd sort. “We stare at a painted black line for hours,” I’ve been told. No distractions sounds like the perfect time to escape and dream. We can only wonder what story plotlines were cooked up while Vonnegut opened his wingspan and stared at a solitary black line. Or maybe not. Maybe he thought of nothing more than his breaths and his form—a time for him to forget the rest of it all.
**All references and research comes from And So It Goes, a biography on Vonnegut’s life, written by Charles Shields**