Learning to Row, Learning to Write

by Mary Ann Lee McGarry 01/10/2017

Rower by day, writer by night- Mary Ann Lee McGarry, long-time environmental science educator at Plymouth State University, writes a beautiful piece about her experience with Squam Community Rowing on Squam Lake. 

Despite being dead tired, I drag myself out of bed at 5:45 in the morning to row. Once I am in a boat in the familiar cove, I am glad I have made the effort. Unlike motorized craft, crew boats are very quiet and narrow and one sits very close to the water.  It feels as if you are moving across the lake like a water strider with the long oars providing balance like the insect’s legs and the blades like feet. No matter what the conditions, flat or rough water, being on the lake is magical.

Rowing is compelling for me because it is such an aesthetic experience. I’m surrounded by layers of beautiful hazy ridge lines of surrounding mountains. I know those mountains because I have hiked them and looked down at beautiful Squam Lake with all its islands and coves. And now, I am on the lake looking up at the mountains.  Sometimes the shore is reflected, like a mirror, on the perfectly flat, smooth water. Other times loons pop up close or their signature, unmistakable call travels across the lake from some unknown place, reminding us humans that we share the lake with this incredibly evolutionarily old species- the only bird with solid bones. One evening I saw the colorful sails of small sunfish boats shimmering in the setting sun. On another morning after we’d had rain for two days, I noticed how blue the sky seemed and the way the sun illuminated the billowing clouds. I can see why some painters just focus on clouds; sometimes the light and movement in the sky dominates the landscape. As we returned to shore one morning, a great blue heron’s head loomed large and close.  We glided closer and closer knowing the bird would soon take flight and when it finally did, the call was so startling; I’d never heard it before.

My crewmates are always delighted with wildlife sightings on the lake- like seeing a pair of snapping turtles mate. One turtle seemed to aggressively snap and bite the other on the neck. Then it looked as if one was trying to drown the other, finally they embraced and floated still on their sides in the water.

Rowing appeals to me for multiple reasons. For one, being on the water enables me to make firsthand observations about the natural world and the ecology of the lake.  Rowing also makes me take note of environmental factors as one has to pay attention to the weather, wind direction and speed.  Wind speeds of 10 knots makes rowing difficult.  There is a lot of physics in rowing as well.  The boat moves fastest when the oars are out of the water and the rowers are moving toward the stern of the boat on sliding seats.  I definitely don’t think about physics when I am rowing however.

It was in the rain, in choppy water, in a sweep boat for the first time that I thought of the parallels between learning to row and learning to write.  We had a rowing coach- a prep school English teacher who has led some crews to championships- who motored beside us giving us encouraging tips as if we all expected to become great rowers.  Maybe it was his good natured, literary joking- that had us imagining we were in the rough seas of the North Atlantic about to have an encounter with Moby Dick- that made me think about how rowing is like writing. 

For five weeks in the summer of ‘16, I was enrolled in a Teachers’ Writing Institute. Like dragging myself out of bed in the morning to row, I needed a structured environment to discipline myself to write. Similar to rowing, I looked forward to new friends, new experiences, new protocols, and new learning. Once I was physically present with the other participants, I was engaged.  I explore writing by writing. Similar to rowing, I enjoyed meeting new friends. Like rowing, writing takes practice in both the sense that doing it over and over again makes it more familiar and that it is important to apply what you learn each day to improve.  As I engaged in the task of writing day after day, the activity became more comfortable. I was enthralled by the writing of the other participants- their openness, humor, honesty, and passion for the teaching profession. I was moved by their words and the meanings they conveyed, by the pure humanity expressed.  The experience was academic in nature but that wasn’t what was so meaningful to me.

Like rowing, writing is also an aesthetic experience and richer when shared with others.  The participants of the Writing Institute all learned the power of writing as a social process. I look forward to rowing for the connections I make with others, same as at the Writing Institute.  One morning out on the water, when we took a break, the group of four discussed what drew us to rowing; we agreed it is the camaraderie. When rowing, we each are engaged in mastering the techniques but we take time to share strategies and stories about our lives. Reading our writing aloud to a group and discussing others’ writing made the experience more powerful. In both activities, establishing community is important. Together we are stronger and provide greater insight.  While rowing we must work together and when we are in sync, pulling through the water under our own power, is zen like. Moving down the lake is exhilarating, partly because it is a collective achievement.

I have been in four different kinds of boats – a shell where four of us sweep row with just one oar, with a fifth person serving as a coxswain, in a special seat in the stern, calling out directions to guide us.  I have been in a “four” where we each row with two oars; the person in bow has to turn around to look where we are going.  I have been in a double where we each have two oars which feels much tippier than either of the other two boats.  And I have been in a single one person boat, where I take tentative, not very effective strokes. I prefer to be in a scull with two oars, a single, double or quad. One’s feet are fastened by velcro into shoes that are bolted in the boat.

At the Writing Institute I circulated and tried out different roles as well- sometimes I was focused on writing, sometimes I was analyzing teaching practices of peers- making observations and asking probing questions, sometimes I was researching collaborative writing and sometimes I was reading and discussing what other writers have to say about writing and about teaching writing.

Learning to write is about risk taking. I was initially very cautious and wrote about familiar subjects in a safe way initially. I thought I needed to avoid fiction and poetry, but I became bolder as time progressed and I became more comfortable in the writing culture. Rowing also has risks.  One morning in a quad with three other women, we were shrouded in heavy fog, when suddenly, multiple bass fishing boats seemed to explode from behind a curtain of white as they raced to their destination to begin a tournament. They were moving so fast and were upon us so quickly, I was genuinely fearful they wouldn’t be able to dodge us. We stopped rowing and placed the flat blades of our oars on the water for stability until they all passed. Even though I realized how vulnerable we were, the experience was exhilarating.

There is so much to consider when rowing- posture, position of hands on the oars, sliding on the seat, laying back at the end of a stroke, and following the stern who sets the pace of the stroke. Like writing, practice is needed to put all the components together to be fluid.  At the Writing Institute, we discussed the author’s voice, audience, language, structure, and style. I specifically worked on using narrative effectively to tell my stories and incorporate tension to keep the interest of my readers. Just like in rowing, I learned much from following the lead of my fellow writers.

One major difference between writing and rowing is that in writing you can break rules; in rowing breaking rules can have serious consequences. In writing you can ignore the conventional five paragraph essay, in rowing you need to follow standard practices. In writing, the limitations are in the mind, in rowing physics rule. To improve in both activities, I look for coaching and feedback. As a student I crave positive reinforcement as a writer and a rower.

There is labor in both rowing and writing.  Rowing is physically demanding while writing is mentally challenging. Neither occupations ever reach an endpoint.  I have discovered they are both so much more about the experience rather than any end to a goal.  I am changed by my participation in each.  Engaging in rowing and writing empowers me.  I will continue to do both. There is a kind of unity of process in writing and rowing that extends to my stance on life. 

I would like to thanks Squam Lakes Association for supporting Squam Community Rowing. I encourage anyone to try one of the “Learn To Row” clinics offered in the summers, http://www.squamcommunityrowing.com/.