I’m a writer, which means I spend an indecent portion of each day feeling unworthy. Pitches get rejected, editors send back stories that are unrecognizable, and my bank account drops and fills and drops again like the tide. I worry about being an imposter, the publishing world’s equivalent of a kook. And in these moments, surfing clears my head and chases away my demons. It’s hard to wallow when getting sucked over the falls, or – let’s go with this instead – making the drop on a glassy, feathering left.
As a coping mechanism, this shouldn’t make sense – surfing and writing are similar, at least when it comes to gnarly pitfalls. During a recent swell, for example, I paddled out at a jetty in Cape May, New Jersey. After an hour of battling the rip current, I was tired, the wedgey, one-peak lineup was crowded, and I had yet to get a decent ride. But I was eager to prove myself in this new-to-me spot.
Finally, my turn came up when a wave swung my way but as it walled up, I hesitated long enough to be heaved from its face. When I eventually surfaced against the rocks, bikini twisted and ego bruised, other surfers shouted questions I couldn’t hear over the soup gurgling around me – presumably: Did I need help? Or, worse: Did I really think I belonged out here? I grabbed hold of a slippery boulder and braced for an incoming set. Some days, no matter how hard I’ve trained at this thing I love, I just can’t make it. Wipeouts are inevitable but I still worry I’m nothing but a waterlogged fraud.
I once had a publisher tell me I’d written the worst sentence in the history of literature – the worst. The only thing I can compare this to is getting caught on the inside on a trip to Fiji in my early 20s. The waves were hollow, heavy, and relentless. I’d felt embarrassed and out of my league, but mostly I was panicked and short of breath. How do you recover from that kind of blow? You don’t, really. You may find a channel and make it out alive, but the memory of it lingers dormant, surfacing just before your next risky takeoff.
We romanticize both surfers and writers, assigning hokey spiritual significance to their pursuits as though engaging with either is a surefire path to enlightenment. The truth is, both involve less transcendental awakening and more, well, hanging around, just waiting for the tide to rise. Waiting for the wind to switch. Waiting for a muse to chime in and fill a blank screen already. Inspiration, like waves, can go flat every now and again. And even when it finally reappears like some beautiful, glistening thing on the horizon, there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to make it all work. Ideas sometimes close out like waves, taking you down with them. You set out for a better understanding of your place in the cosmos but end up getting worked.
Surfing and writing are twin paramours who, no matter how much you love them, don’t always love you back. You can ask my surf buddy who was recently diagnosed with an ocean-borne fungal infection in his ear and then you can ask any writer, who’d likely choose an ocean-borne fungal infection of the ear over a critical review any day. Does it make a person a masochist to keep going back for more? Maybe. No matter how hard you work, you risk getting snaked by someone who navigates waves or words just a little bit better.
Surfing can be great fun – the greatest I’ve ever had. I can say the same about writing. Both can also be the biggest nags of your life, creeping into your thoughts when you should be eating/sleeping/getting married. Sometimes, you find yourself writing about bedsore frequency in elderly hospital patients, because that’s all the work that’s available to you. And some days you end up battling a brutal current in knee-high mush because those are the only waves available to you. And yet, the obsession – that irksome drive to get back out there for another session – remains. Maybe next time you will have paid all your dues. Maybe next time will be your time.
The brilliant moments are usually fleeting. But they happen when the conditions are just right. Timing and luck and experience come together in perfect confluence, leaving with you that elusive mix of adrenaline, relief, and joy. Fight against it all you want, but you live for the days you make it through a difficult section, words or water. And despite all the fear and self-doubt, you print something beautiful on a blank canvas, paper or liquid.