Riding the Writer’s Wave

Writers, ditch perfectionism on the side of the road and flip it off as you speed off in a cloud of dust
Photo by kosmoseleevike via Flickr

“You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.”
John Kabat-Zinn

There’s been a Simon and Garfunkel lyric swimming in my head these last few day: I’m sitting at a railway station, got a ticket for my destination.

That’s how I’ve been feeling for the last few weeks as I stand vigil, on the lookout for inspiration and wondering when it will finally arrive. Though I know this game very well – having played it for years – I sitting around hoping for divine intervention to get me to the page. Most of the time I give in and just start typing.

Still, it’s hard to let go of the dream that the muse will arrive, unfettered and full of vigor.

Thomas Edison famously said “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration,” and it’s a lesson all writers should take to heart. From Stephen King to Ernest Hemmingway, the message is always the same – don’t sit around and wait, just write.

But as we all know that’s easier said than done, and I suspect perfectionism is the primary culprit. As writers, we feel most alive when the words flow smoothly and the ideas spark like sunlight blazing along a wave break. To take the surfing analogy further, we sit and wait for that flawless wave…the ride that eludes us…that simple, graceful, faultless glide as we drop down into the barrel, shoot through the curl and ease our way to victory on the shoreline.

Surfers constantly eye the horizon, watching for the right set, dreaming of that singular moment of undulation and speed; patient in the knowledge they’ll get their chance at perfection but happy just to try. A peaceful, contemplative aura surrounds you when you’re bobbing out on that. The roar of the breakers creates a sonic envelope, and you find yourself cloistered amongst the sun and surf. You might hear a seagull or the shout of a nearby swimmer, must mostly it’s just the lap of water against fiberglass and the gloopy plop as you lazily twirl your feet below the waterline.

I am not a surfer; I just love the idea of surfing. Having grown up in a small coastal town – and falling in love with more than one wetsuit-clad youth – I can dialogue rhapsodically about dawn patrol and the smell of surf wax in the hot sun. I’ve listened to 16-year-olds suddenly burst forth with poetic reverence as they talk about the mystical transcendence they feel when they’re out there on the ocean, waiting for the drop. Strip away all the “gnarlys” and the “dudes” – though there’s a charm in the slang maybe only a true California can  love – and you end up with a thoughtful meditation on what it means to live in the moment, to leave yourself open to the world around you.

My love of surfing is mostly unrequited. The few times I’ve teetered towards shore, I’ve barely managed to stand upright before tumbling into the shallows. Surfing is a harrowing experience for someone with little balance and even less athletic aptitude – but I arrive at my towel trembling and exhilarated. The attempt alone is enough.

And that’s the same with anything worth pursuing – the attempt is enough.

“Waves are not measured in feet and inches, they are measured in increments of fear.”
Buzzy Trent

I’ve always believed surfing mirrors writing more than any other sport. It’s mental and physical. It brings you close to the divine but demands discipline. Maybe most importantly, the only way to surf is to get out there and do it. Surfers may fantasize about the ideal wave, but I’ve witnessed the euphoria that spreads across their sunburnt faces after the most mediocre ride. They yearn for the best, but content themselves with the attempt. As writers, we should grab a page from the surfer handbook and cultivate joy in the effort.

I think surfing also provides a masters course in abandoning expectation and embracing possibility. When I think about surfing, I don’t dwell on how the ocean humbles me. Instead, I focus on how much I love paddling out into the lineup. I may not be the most graceful almost-surfer when I get there. I’m usually red-faced and gasping, hair in disarray, eyes bloodshot. Once I’m sitting out there, though, watching the world play out on the horizon, there’s this sense of completeness – just like when you’ve just finished a tough workout or – more importantly – when you’ve finally found yourself back at the page.

“How much of our lives is frittered away – spoiled, spent or sullied – by our neurotic insistence on perfection?” asks Sarah Ban Breathnach in Simple Abundance.

“In real life, we should strive to be our best – not the world’s. Still, there will always be a misspelled word, a stain on the carpet, a terra-cotta potager with streaks of mud.”

I know we all fall victim to perfectionism. We let it stop us in our tracks. We let it delay our liftoff. We surrender to its mercurial demands. We will never be good enough, so why even begin?

Because we must. Because the journey is worth it. Because humble beginnings lead to triumph on the mountaintop. Because there’s real love and joy and fulfillment to be found when we let ourselves create.

“There is not one right way to ride a wave.”
Jamie O’Brien

The trick is to ditch perfectionism on the side of the road and flip it off as you speed away in a cloud of dust. Release the ball and chain of precision and embrace the sloppy, unpredictable but so-much-more satisfying rhythm of fits and starts and landing with a satisfied thump at the finish line.

“Writing a novel is like driving a car at night,” advised E.L. Doctorow. “You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

There’s nothing quite like the feeling of floating on a tiny board out in the middle of the vast Pacific; the ocean cradles you and your body gently sways over swells in a motion, not unlike the easy back-and-forth of a rocking chair…or a mother comforting her child. Moms always believe their kids are tiny little geniuses capable of conquering the world. They overlook the funny ears, the lisp, the googley eyes, and instead they see how all those little imperfections create a beautiful whole.

Embrace imperfection. Revel in the effort. Always be willing to look foolish. To fail. Keep the faith and know that, as Ban Breathnach reminds us, “Progress is the simple pleasure to be savored.”

Cover photo by Matthew Fuentes via Flickr
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