We may have all heard of the old adage – Mens sana in corpore sano
– A healthy mind in a healthy body. It's been a staple expression of a certain kind of sensibility used widely in a certain kind of institution, from old-fashioned boys' boarding schools to army barracks. But what could such a notion possibly hold for two writers and academics – both women, and a bit 'arty' – in the 21st century?
It's a question we like to put to ourselves, and are now happy to have answered, with Book Week Scotland providing the perfect context for our deliberations. Thanks to that particular week coming up in November, we have an opportunity to champion the activities of the mind and the body, both. For we've decided that there's no reason why the two should not come together: the being-inside-with-a-book part of ourselves, and the other part who wants to be outside, doing something physical even. It's true, we've found a way to show how these two interests might merge.
is a project that involves introducing newcomers of all kinds to the delight of rowing together in a team – skiffing it's called, because of the particular craft we use in the water. And we're doing that along with a special event centred around the pleasures of thinking about reading and writing. So taster rowing sessions are to be offered at participating clubs all over Scotland in association with the Scottish Coastal Rowing Association (SCRA), along with a workshop designed to dissolve the barriers that can sometimes exist between those who don't routinely put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, or aren't especially used to the joys of libraries, writing, reading books and sharing ideas.
So, come November, as part of Book Week Scotland's drive to bring people all over the country closer to the pleasures of a good book, Waterlines
will celebrate rowing, reading and writing. All together! Rowing tasters will be offered throughout November at participating SCRA clubs if you've not rowed before, and on the 20th, you can join us for an online workshop aimed at transforming your experiences on the water into words… into Waterlines
. In addition, there will be a chance to introduce and celebrate some lovely writing about being on the water and the outdoors. For, really, why should physical life and entertainment be seen as the preserve of the 'sporty' and the world of libraries and writing be only for the 'bookish'?
And that question with which we began our considerations has kept us thinking and writing... So that now we've created an essay ourselves, to mark the occasion, that brings together our joint lives as rower and writer: One who uses water as a theme in books and stories, and another who has been in and on it and around it all her life. To 'meld' the two, we've chosen to write in one shared voice – an 'I' who is both reader and rower, both active, both engaged. 'I was born...' the essay opens – and who's to know who is speaking here – is it me... or is it me
A shared 'self': a writer who is both 'out there' on the water and 'in here' writing the essay. This idea seems like a compelling motif for Scotland now. A country capable of defining herself as 'both' at the same time as being 'one'. Healthy in mind... And in body.
You can book tickets to the online workshop, Waterlines
, 20 November, 2-4pm, here
An extract from our essay follows:
I was born on a small island, and that nearness to water has shaped many of the choices I made about where to live. Water, ponds, lakes, lochs, rivers, estuaries, and above all the sea where a far horizon teases me with possibilities – adventures that will carry me from myself, journeys into new ways of being. In books and stories I read and write, water acts to thin the intensities of event and drama so that individual lives and events might be washed through with larger themes and prospects, seas and lakes and rivers bringing volatility and charge and mystery to my pages. I've been in the water as beachcomber, wader, swimmer, and as scuba diver where the watery world beneath the surface reminds me that we are but guests when we enter this shifting, unknowable medium that covers more than two thirds of the world's surface.
No wonder then, with all this thinking and dreaming about water and the places around it, that I should find myself in an essay, trying to figure out how all this may speak to my life as a reader and writer, someone who has spent most of her working hours deep in books. For it's only recently that I've discovered that being on the water has been as important as being in it... And it's because it has taken me to a different place altogether that I find want to reflect upon water in new ways here. I started rowing in a skiff about five years ago and this has changed how I think about the land around me and the body of water that is there beneath me as I go. It reminds me of all the different things about water I love but in different ways – and it has also taught me how to be with others in close proximity in a year that has made strangers of us all.
And, so... How to consider this? This being in a boat, sitting behind and in front of others, part of a larger craft to which we all contribute movement and flexibility? Part of a larger vessel that holds us closely together, separate but as one? Perhaps I can think of what we do on the water as also an act of pooled intelligence, as an extended metaphor for the sort of mutual understanding and pleasure that also comes from reading books. That feeling of loving something and passing it on: a book, a story, a poem. Taking in an idea alone and then wanting to share it with others. Here is this, I've loved it. Now let me pass it on. And yes, I can imagine, in this onward pull of oars and ease of shared motion, a kind of writing that is essaying, a writing that is made up of separate responses, ideas, opinions, and questions as different as the people with me in the skiff… All met together in a connective rapport, here on the water, as on this page.
Forward lean... we say on the boat.
Now, catch and pull.
Kirsty Gunn and Gail Low began their essaying adventure together by introducing students to a way of writing that uncaps their intelligence and their creativity. They created and direct 'Imagined Spaces' – a learning centre and publishing initiative which changes lives and provides various means to learn more about a distinctive and excitng form of writing. More information is available here: www.imaginedspaces.uk