By Kasie Whitener
In swimming, an IM’er is a well-rounded athlete. “IM” is Individual Medley and the event means the swimmer races all four strokes: butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, freestyle in succession. In a 400 IM, the swimmer races 4 lengths of the pool for each stroke. It’s crazy hard and considered one of the most daunting events. When I swam competitively I was a 200 IM’er. Now I’m mostly in the 100 IM range.
What an IM’er knows is that she doesn’t have to be great at one single stroke, she has to be competent at all four. There’s no use pulling ahead in butterfly just to have a dismal backstroke bring your competition to your heels.
As writers, we often specialize. We might be poets, or novelists, fiction writers or nonfiction writers. We may write plays or essays or blogs. In all of these specialties, we are still storytellers. The words are meant to move a reader from an existing condition to a desired one.
For me, poetry is like breaststroke. It’s slow and quiet, there’s a rhythm to it that is both visual and verbal. It may be the influence of the pastorals, but I always think of poetry as idyllic and just out-of-reach, kind of like that long breaststroke glide.
I am a terrible breaststroker. Though I’ve worked hard to develop a competent stroke, it is by far the slowest segment of my IM. I can do it, but I’m very slow. Likewise, I am a terrible poet. I can read and comprehend it, but I dare not compose. The effort would be disastrous.
I’m a fiction writer. I prefer long version, specifically novels; but when I first dedicated myself to the craft four years ago, I spent a lot of time in short stories. Short stories are how I practice the storytelling art. They require specific details and are intolerant of rambling description or unnecessary plot complications.
Short stories require powerful bursts of character, action, and emotion. In a short story, the writer doesn’t have time to lay in elaborate exposition or world building. The reader must be immediately brought up to speed with the character, the dilemma, the desire, and the obstacles. For me, short stories are like swimming butterfly.
I love butterfly. It’s exhausting whipping both arms around together, dolphin kicking in long, swift full-body waves. There’s a rhythm but unlike the languid glide of breaststroke, the butterfly rhythm is urgent and insistent. A good butterfly is satisfying: both beautiful to watch and gratifying to swim. Like swimming butterfly, I’m always trying to write that explosive, impactful scene.
I have always been an IM’er, albeit the shorter distance kind, with butterfly as my specialty. To be really good at one thing is valuable, but to be competent in many things is even more so. While I’ve let some breaststroke-like skills lapse over the years, I continue to practice in all four strokes. Storytellers know that proficiency in various forms only makes them more competitive.