Writers have all heard it, more than once; Write what you know.
Talk about a broad statement. When I first started writing I found that edict vague and annoying. I didn’t want to write what I knew. What I knew was boring. I wanted to write about worlds that were outside the little province of Kaltman. Outlandish worlds. Fantasy worlds. Dramatic worlds. Wasn’t that what fiction was about?
After many years in the writing trenches I interpret write what you know in a very different way. And surfing, which I’ve been doing for just as long, has helped shape my definition.
I started writing and surfing at age 40. No spring chicken, by anyone’s standards. In both, I’m largely self-taught. In both, I’m moderately, but not hugely successful. Until I was asked to write this post, I honestly never thought of the parallels between my two loves.
We’ll get to the writing stuff in a bit. Let’s talk surfing first. Learning how to surf is the most challenging physical feat I’ve ever mastered. Brutal on the body, brutal on the ego.
Here’s a partial list of a surf novice’s joy:
Falling, stumbling, making a complete fool of yourself. Getting ridiculed or berated by experienced surfers. Getting knocked in the head by your own damn board. Getting knocked in the head by someone else’s board because you are in a WRONG/DANGEROUS/STUPID place. Scrapping the top of your feet raw because popping up cool-cat style is months, if not years, away. Not understanding the right position to catch the wave at the right moment. Getting your leg, arm or, god forbid, neck twisted up in your leash. Snorting copious amounts of sea water and being unprepared when it comes spewing out your nostrils twenty minutes later. Bathing suit wedgies, unintentional sunburns, chaffed ribs, sore neck, aching shoulders, creaky back…I could go on, but I’ll spare you.
Like surfing, very few of us ever get it from the start. We write terrible, overdone dreck, or half-baked generic blather. We go too far or not far enough. We feel judged or ignored. No one takes us seriously. We edit, we add, we subtract, we add again. We’re so close, yet so far. We ask ourselves over and over again; when is it going to work? We are wracked with self-doubt. We stumble and fail miserably for a good long while before things really begin to click.
But they do click. And when they do, when you’re in the zone, it feels glorious. You’re writing up a storm, you’re surfing a perfect wave. You feel confident, you’re trusting your instincts. You’re not thinking about grammatically incorrect form and poor sentence structure, or lame take-offs and sloppy pop-ups. Time disappears, and all that’s left is the ecstasy of catching a great wave, or weaving words like a master.
So here’s what I know:
Whether you write the next great American novel, or manage to find that elusive ending to a 500 word story. Whether you’re surfing hurricane swells in Maui, or shore break slop in Rockaway. If you’ve traded in cool and correct for marvelous and extreme, then you’re already the best writer or surfer you’ll ever be.
I suppose this could also be construed as a somewhat cheesy metaphor for living life to the fullest. But that’s up to you. For me, after putting it all out there, the rest is gravy.