Our very own Rachel Hurn interviewed the incomparable Leanne Shapton about her most recent book Swimming Studies and other curiosities for the LA Review of Books.
Rachel Hurn: When I describe Swimming Studies, I usually say it’s about being good at something but wanting to be great at it. This transfers to being a competitive swimmer but also to being an artist or a writer. Or, frankly, a human being. As a kid training in the pool, you said that knowing you were fast was proof of your talent. Do you find yourself, now, needing to prove yourself as an artist?
Leanne Shapton: That thing about being good at something and wanting to be great — I was good at swimming, but swimming wasn’t what I wanted to be great at. It took me 20 or 30 years to find something I wanted to be great at. It comes down to this question that’s come up a lot in talking about the book: where your talent lies and how sometimes you’re talented at something you don’t want to be talented at. It takes a while for things to shake down and shuffle down. People have numerous careers and find what it is they want to be great at, even though they can be good at other things. That, to me, has been one of the most interesting things as I was thinking about the book. Why I didn’t want to be great at swimming. Why I didn’t tattoo the Olympic rings on myself, or wear badges and pins like my teammates. I did tape Morrissey’s picture up in my locker; I didn’t tape the swimmer Steve Lundquist. I was going in the direction I wanted to go, but at the same time, what was offered to me as a suburban athlete was this one option.
Do I feel I need to prove myself now? No. Not really. To myself, I suppose. I have my standards, and they’re pretty high standards. I am constantly disappointing myself. What is different between that and wanting to prove something in the athletic realm is that you can prove it to everybody in the athletic realm. You can prove it to the clock. You can prove it to the world of physics. Whereas in an artistic or creative realm, you’re just saying, “That’s right or that’s not or that’s close to what I want to say and maybe someone will pick up on it.” It’s more an effort of trying and trying to get something right. It’s not judged by anybody unless a critic steps in. At least with athletics you actually can prove something. You can go to the Olympics. You can say, “I’m the fastest; I’m the best.” Whereas with art you can’t say you’re the best.
I watched a Woody Allen documentary on the plane to London, and he was talking about how he doesn’t go to the Academy Awards because he says, “Who is to say I’m the best? If I win a race, yeah, but I’m not in a race.” So proof is funny.
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