We’re back from a week’s vacation. Back from a week of beaches and relaxation and not thinking about work at all and HA HA no, we were on vacation with our kids naturally, so it was pretty much life as usual: waking up before the sun, stretching out every activity by about 50% to allow for tantrums and foot-dragging and lost shoes / stuffed animals / underwear, and remember when I said that thing about relaxing? There’s no such thing as relaxing when your kids are five and three and will fight about literally anything if given ten seconds of opportunity.
So: didn’t get as much opportunity to write as I’d hoped.
But on the night when we were uncertain whether the storm of the decade was coming through, my wife and I did sneak down to the ocean to ride some (for the gulf) killer waves. Actually, to be clear, my wife had the good sense to not try riding the waves, but as good sense is rarely one of my dominant characteristics, I jumped in with both feet, and often my head.
Surfing (okay, fine, boogie-boarding because I’m not that coordinated or cool) is a great way for a thirty-something guy to get thoroughly humiliated and smacked around in return for a few sparks of short-lived adrenaline.
But I realized — as I was on vacation, hiding from responsibilities and from my craft of choice — it’s also a pretty good parallel for writing.
To wit: here’s how surfing works. You grab your board and you head out into turbulent waters, fighting the current and the crashing waves to get yourself out a decent distance from shore, where the waves are fewer and farther between but bigger, more powerful. There, you wait until just the right one comes along, and then — with every ounce of strength and dexterity you can muster, you abandon your fingernail grip on safety and attempt to ride that thing all the way back to the shore.
Fun, but also pointless and much more likely to leave you smashed against the ocean floor, unsure which way is up, filling your lungs with ocean water than to deposit you safely on the shore, stepping casually off your board as if the thing you just accomplished were really no big deal as the ocean breeze ruffles your sun-kissed hair.
Which is basically writing. Let’s be honest: life would be easier if you just didn’t. The world doesn’t want you to write, like the world doesn’t want you to surf. Those waves are monstrous, relentlessly pounding you back to shore, which is really where you should be hanging out: grinding out your daily routine, seeing to your land-lubberly responsibilities (i.e. your job), sticking to the land you evolved to walk upon and not the sea which your evolutionary ancestors abandoned.
Every wall of water that breaks upon you is shoving you back toward land. The sea doesn’t want you there — it knows you don’t belong. Just like the writer trying to make time for himself when he has family and job and mortgage payments to contend with. That’s where you and your energy belong, not splashing around in the ocean that’s just going to leave you cold and bruised and waterlogged. But you fight your way out anyway, whether you’re chasing a thrill or an escape or because somewhere deep in your primeval brain you feel like you do belong out there.
Then you wait. The shore — and the safety and normalcy it represents — is distant. All around you break waves that you allow to pass by for one reason or another: Not big enough, not breaking at the right time, too fierce. The waves are the writer’s ideas: plentiful and without end, but mostly useless to the writer, for many of the same reasons: too big in scope for the author to tackle, too small to really hold his attention, or interesting but just not one he’s feeling right now. Most of them roll right by.
But eventually, you see the one. It’s just right, this wave, big enough to give you a thrill but also just big enough to scare you a little. (It’s the idea that frightens you a bit that will keep you writing.) So you jump on it, and this, too, is a struggle — because in the build-up to the wave, the current changes. The ocean draws the water back to itself to gather strength for the new wave, and it pulls you out to sea with it. But you find yourself atop it nonetheless, and then everything changes. Now you’re flying along at the speed of creativity, as this madcap idea explodes and crashes all around you in an erupting chaos of foam and spray — the castoffs of a story being woven from nothing.
And who knows? Maybe the wave turns on you — it breaks over your head and tumbles you end-over-end. It slams you into the sand and the ocean rushes into your mouth and nose and ears and you feel like you might as well be a mile underwater for all you can see and feel. This is where the idea leaves you and the inspiration rushes right out leaving you lost and adrift and doubting every decision that brought you to this point, reconsidering an easier life, perhaps as an accountant.
Or maybe you ride it all the way home, bumping gently onto the sand as you stick a perfect landing: the ending writes itself, the conflicts wrap themselves up neatly, and you step off the board, nary a hair out of place.
Either way, you find yourself back on land again — beaten and half-drowned or charged up and riding high — but not quite satisfied either way. Nobody heads out to ride just one wave, do they? There’s an infinity of stories out there waiting to be told, an interminable ocean of waves waiting to be ridden.
Grab your board.
Or, y’know. Your pen. Or keyboard. Or whatever.