What I Think About When I Think About Rowing: Mindfulness, Modernism, and the Narrative Mentality

(other articles in this series –  parkour by Lisa Scullard; surfing by Jonny Gibbings; ultramarathon running by Kristyn Bacon; cycling by Kimberly Menozzi)

Bolano, Murakami, and Steve McQueen (the Turner Prize winning artist and film director, not the start of countless iconic action films – though the endless throwing of a baseball against a wall certainly has a place here) each figure fairly regularly in my blatherings. The first and last of them, though, you might be a little surprised to find in blatherings about what is, essentially, sport. Come to that, you might well find it odd to find me writing about sport. Indeed, I pretty much across the board loathe any form of team sport. But I’ve always been a fan of the solitary (no surprise there), and have at various times trained for discus throwing and powerlifting with some considerable degree of seriousness.

The past few months, I’ve been training for endurance indoor rowing. Specifically, with an eye to rowing a 100 kilometre session at the end of next summer to raise money for Apopo Hero Rats, to be followed over the next year by a 24 continuous hour row, and then ultimately a one million metre row, which will consist of rowing almost non stop for about a week (this post is my “coming out” about those plans, occasioned in large part by the fact that I today rowed my first half marathon – just over 21 kilometres, taking a whisker or so over an hour and a half, which means that, about 9 months out from event day, I have reason to believe the goal is highly attainable). 100 kilometres will take a much less taxing 7 and a bit hours, but that still puts it in the category of “ultra” rowing which, like ultra running, represents distances well in excess of marathon distance. At that level of endurance, both the execution and the training are at least as much about the mental as the physical. They are about finding ways to endure something that is utterly repetitive to the extent of whiteout – where exercise becomes the same utterly disorienting experience as saying teh same word again and again and again until the sounds cesase to have any connection with the meaning.

I am, as those of you whose bookshelves overlap with mine, not the first person to be fascinated by the mental state involved in endurance training, specifically in how it can react with and unlock our creative mind. Haruki Murakami’s “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running” is a truly wonderful meditation on the subject, based around the author’s obsession with marathon running. The previous paragraph will have alerted those of you familiar with my theoretical tropes to the ham-handed segue into Bolano and McQueen. McQueen’s Turner Prize winning Deadpan, which features an endlessly looped video that recreates a moment from a Buster Keaton sketch, and “The Part About the Crimes” in Bolano’s 2666, in which the fictionalised killings of women that haunt the Mexican border town of Santa Teresa are described again and again in the same phraseology, bodies stringing themselves out across the desert to a vanishing point at some indeterminate point that never comes but which, we are led to believe, holds all the secrets of the world – these are two of the most brilliant examples of the artistic device of using endless repetition to create at first a sense of unease, then a  sense of disorientation, then a sense of utter dislocation from any kind of meaning, and only then, when we are cast utterly adrift, are we handed the possibility of a truly blank canvas, a screen onto which we can project the deepest fears and hopes that this process of dislocation has unlocked within us. It is a tecnique that offers up the possibility of transcending tradition by deconstructing tradition, of transcending the mundane by burrowing right down into the very essence of mundanity.

And it is precisely this that makes the metronomic ritual of ultra endurance training so beguiling. It is the reason I find it easier to row at the same frequency of stroke and the same pace for an hour than for ten minutes. And it is counter to everything we are told. We are told to visualise the finish, to imagine ourselves crossing the line triumphant. Yet anyone who has ever undergone any form of endurance event – be it a long distance drive or a trek or something more terrifying such as a long stretch in captivity – will tell you that this is the surest way to drive yourself to the edge and over. The only way to handle the immeasurably large is in terms of the measurably small. One step at a time. And repeat. And focus on nothing but the repetition, never looking down, never looking back, and never EVER looking forward.

The way that the repetitive zooms us right in to the level of the atomic, the indivisible mechanical action, brings it into step with the tenets of mindfulness, and it is at this point that we can begin to see two very interesting intersections with the creative life. On the one hand, mindfulness teaches us to focus upon the immediate,and mindful writing teaches us to cherish the small, the mundane, the points so small that we can take in their full sensuality and convey them with a clarity that anything beyond their boundaries will lack. This is the reason why I find writing about life’s minutiae by and large so profound, and writing that grapples with weighty, all-embracing themes by and large so empty. The truly, fully human, the truly universal, can only be found in the tiny – in a single gesture, a single thought, a word or an item or an event, something fleeting and ephemeral. In the same way I can sit and lose all concept of time trying to perfect a rowing stroke at a single pace and a single tempo again and again and again, feeling every twitch of every muscle, noticing the sound of the machine’s wheel, the ease with which teh greased seat slides over the rails, the way the static font of the pace indicator on the monitor screen shrinks and grows as my head moves forward and back – in that way I can learn to see my whole characters, as I write them, in a single one of their actions – the way Milan Kundera so beautifully and perfectly began “Immortality” by noticing a single gesture at a bathing pool and unfolding an entire universe from that point.

On the other hand, we have the hallucinogenic nature of the process itself, the hypnotically receding horizon of the endlessly repetitive, the strange spontaneous syncopations that spring at random from the regularity. These are what makes the training of teh solo endurance athlete so akin to the artistic process. These are the doors of perception, summoned open by the shamanic frenzy of the dance of the repeated drill. This is a truly mind-altering insight that we as writers can take back with us to the page, mining the curvature of our stories’ earth from the perspective of teh truly liminal, from the end point of a rainbow that never reaches the earth. This is the endlessly evasive double helix of Tristan and Isolde, Abelard and Eloise, the fulfilment of the unfulfilled. Mire yourself in the miraginuos maze of the “ultra” and watch the last semiotic traces of the end point, the completed arc, the resolved conflict rake over the sand behind them as they leave.

So what I think about when I think about rowing is this. That the cultural narratives we are handed insist upon a certain perspective. A very limited one. That the notion of narrative itself is limited, and ultimately more confusing, more terrifying, than the notion that narrative direction has been removed. I think about possibilities I would not have thought about had I not physically experienced the endless whir of the wheel, the steady ticking over of figures so large that they lose all meaning, the feeling of muscles that have learned to do but forgotten why they do. I think about the value of the small, and I think about the process of taking the reader across a desert that has no horizon, leading them one step after another until at some point, maybe, the steps just stop.

(edited to add, just because it’s a really good article by a great poet, a link to this article by poet Helen Mort who is a climber as well as a writer)

15 thoughts on “What I Think About When I Think About Rowing: Mindfulness, Modernism, and the Narrative Mentality

  1. Really interesting post. It made me think of Zen meditation, where a focus on breathing achieves a settling and feeling of mindfulness that a rower might experience. Repetition removes distractions while simultaneously bringing perspective, allowing creative thoughts to rise to the surface. Oddly enough, the same thing happens while I’m driving long distances.
    For what it’s worth, extended pieces of repetitive music by artists such as Louigi Verona, Litmus0001 and Grad_U has a very similar effect, in my experience.

    • Definitely a lot in common with Zen – that’s something I’ve thought about a lot, thanks in part to Viv Tuffnell’s great blog Zen and the Art of Tightrope Walking (link on the blogroll), and in part reading about some of the extreme sports I’m fascinated by such as parkour, climbing, and tightrope walking (Philippe Petit’s To Reach the Clouds, the account of his tightrope walk between the Twin Towers is an amazing account of this kind of experience of flow). I can imagine the same thing with long distance driving – I guess that feeling is part of what directors try to convey (in, for example Wild at Heart et al) when they show the endless repetition of the lines in the middle of the road.

  2. That’s really interesting. I absolutely agree that there’s that point where you have to kind of detach yourself from time and reality in order not to notice passing and yes, I absolutely agree that it is into this state of mind that ideas tend to come. I am no endurance athlete but there are multiple demands on my time so everything I try to achieve in life has to be done tiny step by tiny step over a period of years rather than in one fell swoop. Indeed you sum up the my own novel writing process perfectly here:

    “The only way to handle the immeasurably large is in terms of the measurably small. One step at a time. And repeat. And focus on nothing but the repetition, never looking down, never looking back, and never EVER looking forward.”

    As you rightly say, in anything arduous and lengthy this is the only method, otherwise, you’d never start, right? Good luck with the endurance rowing. I’ll look forward to updates on your training! And seeing the ideas it spawns.



    • yes, I think that’s often the biggest barrier to starting major projects – that the end just isn’t in sight and we can’t imagine it ever will be. I think that’s probably what puts so many people off starting to write a novel. When I wrote my first I hadn’t a clue how you’d go about it. I just said, OK I’ll write 1000 words a day, and I made myself do that and 3 months later I had a book. A truly awful book, but a book nonetheless, and more important, I’d learned that what seemed unattainable (a whole book) was perfectly doable in little steps

      • Mwah ha hahrgh! You clearly employ the same learning techniques as me. That’s exactly what I did. It took me 13 years to produce the kind of book I wanted to read as opposed to the kind of book that I wished had been written by someone else but yes, you’re absolutely right. Once you know it’s possible you are on your way….



  3. I can’t comment on the physical aspect of this as I’ve never done anything remotely like that, being a disembodied brain floating in mescal. But the repetition as voiding art thing has been done to death I feel and I’m not even sure the mechanism you describe for the audience to fill in the canvas holds anymore. However, if we are to nominate our favourite repetitive artists (other than Status Quo), I would nominate theatre director Robert Wilson and his staging of work like Hamletmachine.

    • I think as long as the narrative arc holds sway in the court of the novel there’s a need to dismantle it.

      Interesting, I think I was reading about Robert Wilson over the weekend

  4. well now there’s something we can agree on. But bludgeoning it into insensibility & leaving the reader to pick up the pieces does not convince me as the way to go

    • I know we disagree on this 🙂
      I was introduced to Robbe-Grillet by a friend at university. I don’t know if I like him because it was cool to like him or because I really like him – films, though, I know I love – Last Year in Marienbad is spectacularly brilliant, and I was talking about Trans-Europ Express just the other day

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