Anyone who has ever been friends with a rower knows that the crew world is just as inaccessible to the average person as the world of astronauts. Rowers have highly specialized skills and their speech is littered with jargon, but most of all they have a unique way of thinking about their sport that sets them apart, even from other intense athletes. Some call crew a cult. I wonder why Tom Wolfe hasn’t written a book about rowers.
After reading Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, I saw how I could use his “new journalism” style to write a piece about the Brown women’s crew team. Since I had rowed my freshman year, I could write about the team the way Wolfe writes about various other groups, with an insider’s knowledge and an outsider’s perspective. I know the crew lingo, can describe the layout of the boathouse and the beauty of the Seekonk River after seeing them both every day for a year, and have been present for several of John and Phoebe’s inspirational speeches. But since I haven’t been a part of the team for three years, I can see that walking around in spandex isn’t normal, not everyone’s hands have permanent gaping wounds on them, and winning isn’t everything. Also, because I live with two rowers, I could interview and observe my roommates in order to create their characters and try to describe the crew mentality.
But even though it was the desire to illustrate this mentality that drove me to write this piece, I had trouble coming up with a phrase to effectively capture it. Fortunately two ex-rowers and a current member of the Brown women’s crew team just happened to be standing around in my kitchen eating microwave popcorn, and so I quickly assembled them into a think tank. After several discarded ideas (mostly mine), such as The Will to Win (so clichéd that we kept getting stuck on it), The Will to Erg, The Will to Rip Your Hands Open Every Day and Erg Until You Puke (not quite as concise as we’d like it), and Crazy Crazy Cult, Audrey finally came up with “The Perfect Catch.” While it doesn’t function in exactly the same way as Wolfe’s “Right Stuff,” I thought it had the same effect of serving as a way to identify the mindset or innate quality that separates rowers from the rest of us. I tried to characterize this mentality in the manner of Wolfe and several of the other sage writers we have read, using such things as the “pictures on the wall” as found grotesques and the “bad apples” and blistered hands as symbolic grotesques. I attempted to convey, through repetition, the idea that, to a rower, the erg is much more than just a machine.
I also attempted to imitate Wolfe’s prose style, peppering my sentences with dashes, ellipses, and italics. I played around with some of his other techniques, capitalizing words like “Crew” to indicate their importance, at least in the minds of the rowers, and throwing in a few Wolfean asides punctuated with exclamation marks. However, I mostly emulated Wolfe’s structure by following what I saw as a pattern in the beginning of most of his books, like The Right Stuff, The Pumphouse Gang, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and The Bonfire of the Vanities. The books generally open with a scene that serves to introduce the characters. The next chapter is a more general look at the group, introducing terms—like “the Right Stuff” or “Masters of the Universe”—and explaining the attitudes they represent. Next comes a more in-depth look at a certain aspect of the topic. I chose to focus on a typical afternoon at practice, taking the reader step by step through the launching of the boat at the beginning of practice in order to give a better sense of the sport.
This piece never develops into a narrative as Wolfe’s books do since I conceived the project as simply the beginning—the first few chapters—of a book, not as a complete work in and of itself.
["The Perfect Catch"]
Last modified 27 January 2004