Some years ago, after reviewing the written half of a book on obesity surgery that I had been working on for some time, the reality of the fruits of months of labour was unavoidable: I had produced 50,000 words of insipid, cowardly prose that was riddled with my sense of being trapped between competing constituencies (surgeons, patients, fat activists), each of whom I both respected and disagreed with in various parts and none of whom I wanted to risk offending, however careful my critique. The text was apologetic, punctuated by volleys of qualification: "what I'm not saying is....". My attempts at revision were the writing equivalent of arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic; defeated, I did the only thing possible and deleted the entire thing, including all drafts, from the hard drive, external storage and cloud repositories. It's gone. I wrote a couple of focused journal articles instead then took up swimming.
I'm relieved that I never pushed on with the book as it was, but it still niggles away at me - not so much that I deleted the book but rather that I wrote such a rubbish one in the first place because I was too cowardly to stand by my analysis and speak / write in the way that I wanted to. This is a long-standing problem, and I have always found writing for publication enormously difficult, holding out for (unattainable) perfection and struggling to write drafts until I am 100% certain what it is that I want to say and how I want to say it.
And so it has been with some trepidation that I have embarked on my current book project, Immersion. It is a key output from the swimming project, and one about which I am hugely excited and nervous in fairly equal proportions. Especially in those moments when I find myself writing out of step with the more mainstream thinking within the swimming community - for example, around the issues of authenticity, or about gender - the ghost of the obesity surgery book looms large and my writing threatens to splutter to a tense halt, my finger hovering over the 'delete' button.
So I've taken steps... no deleting this time, just writing. And writing. And writing. I've embraced wholeheartedly the advice of writer Anne Lamott that the key to good writing is the 'shitty first draft' - an unguarded outpouring from which you pick the juiciest, most effective sentences and passages for the later, better versions. It's incredibly liberating once you get over the horror of all those not-very-good pages; I keep them stored in a folder marked 'shitty first drafts' - a resource to be mined as I proceed.
And the good news is that I now have a very shitty first draft of approximately 75% of Immersion, laying out the key structure, and the substantive areas of each of the chapters and the data that I want to include, plus quite a bit of the analysis in rough form and most of the auto-ethnographic excerpts. There is still a huge amount of work to do on it; it is indeed a shitty first draft in the true spirit of the exercise, and it's not something that I would ever want anyone else to read in this state. But there's definitely a book in there somewhere, and my trigger finger is nowhere near the delete button. Progress indeed for this work-in-progress.
And so....in the spirit of sharing, this is what I think Immersion might look like...
Chapter 1: Jumping In
Introductory narratives of different types and stages of 'becoming' within marathon swimming; a working definition ("swimming a long way slowly under tradition-oriented rules as a committed amateur"); a description of the research project; a chapter plan.
Part I: Becoming and Belonging
This section focuses on the social and bodily transformations that occur in the process of becoming a maarathon swimmer.
Chapter 2: Embodied becoming
Becker on becoming a marijuana user - acquiring the techniques, learning to appreciate their effects, learning to find those effects pleasurable; technique training; subculturally appropriate behaviours; learning to be cold; distinguishing different kinds of pain; novel pleasures.
Chapter 3: Sensory transformations
Changes to the body's sensorium: sound, touch, kinaesthesia; swimming's (unexpected) pleasures - flow states, escaping modernity, freedom from social roles etc - and their specific relation to the aquatic environment.
Chapter 4: Authentic swimming
Debates around what 'counts' as authentic swimming: how that definitional work is done; what is at stake in definitional boundary work; the slipperiness of boundaries; the irrationalities of rationalisation; how social world belonging is produced, maintained and resisted; the meaningfulness of belonging.
Chapter 5: Making swimming visible
This chapter is still unwritten - all I have at the moment is a list of things that will probably go in there: the principle of observation and documentation; swim memorialisation (video, blogs, self-published books, media, tattoos, pebbles); asking how a sport that occurs almost by definition out of public view is made visible (and to what ends).
Part II: The 'good' body
This section explores the ways in which marathon swimming both affirms and challenges what 'counts' as the 'good' body in contemporary society.
Chapter 6: Heroic fatness
Body fat as a (qualified) performance necessity in a wider social context which hates fatness; fat as part of the 'suffering' of swimming; fat as not 'real'; community hierarchies of fat; fat swimming as liberation.
Chapter 7: Gendering marathon swimming
Gender in a sport that resists the relevance of gender; gender and the swimming body (pain / fat / emotion); gender and the rhetorics of exceptionalism; domestic and reproductive labour; new modes of gendered embodiment.
Chapter 8: When bodies let you down
This chapter is still unwritten - it will focus on two kinds of embodied failure: unsuccessful swims and injury. This will include how those events change how we see / experience the swimming body, both individually and collectively, and changing definitions of 'health' and the 'good' body.
Chapter 9: Swimming for...
Marathon swimming for charity, where suffering is traded for charitable donations; charitable bodies as 'good' bodies; alliances of suffering between rich / poor, north / south, healthy / sick; outward facing representations of the sport; motivation; opposition to 'swimming for...'.
Ch. 10: Conclusion
Not fully written yet... still haven't got to grips with the over-arching arguments, but this will return to the key themes: immersion (being a body in water / passionate involvement); social / bodily transformation; the social value of suffering; the 'good' body in contemporary society...
So that's it...or at least what it is for now. Did I miss anything?
5 years ago, we were in Barcelona and I found this postcard of the 1971 painting, Bañista, at the Picasso Museum:
The project was in its very earliest stages, but Peter fished it out of the rack and declared: "Here's the cover to your swimming book". I keep it as the icon for the folder where all the book drafts live as a reminder. I doubt I'll ever be able to get (affordable) permissions to use the image but I'll try when the time comes. In the mean time, the picture is a reminder to keep going and to keep my hands firmly off the delete button. And back to the drafts I go.