At work the other day someone asked me what my hobbies were. I told them that I write and I surf. Their next question: If I had to choose, which hobby would I keep? I replied I’d keep surfing. Their question was hypothetical but it still left me thinking.
I’ve been surfing longer than I’ve been writing. I started surfing at age twelve but it wasn’t until I was twenty-three that sitting down at the desk became a part of my daily routine. All it took were quiet words of encouragement from two teachers I admired, and I continued, beyond university, writing the novel that I’d started there. For four years I took to this manuscript with tunnel vision, completing eight drafts. Once over 83,000 words, it’s now down to 27,000 which, technically, makes it a novella.
Some people seem able to write in cafes and parks and on public transport. I do my best in solitude. At home, at a desk, with a pair of construction earmuffs on my head. I wear these even when I’m home alone. As much as they hamper the external noise entering my consciousness, they also give the illusion of containing fleeing thoughts. They’re good gear. Yellow and black like signs of hazard, splattered in plaster and resin.
Writing is a silent, unpaid gig. In total, my work writing has perhaps equaled the hours of unskilled laboring I’ve done for building and removalist companies since university finished. I’ve also been a pizza delivery driver and an ESL teacher. Now I work on a farm that grows passionfruit. Like many of my previous jobs, this one required no resume.
Though I think of myself as a hard worker, it’s probable that my CV shows prospective employers little career aspiration. To me, my work experience reflects an embarrassing conviction, held rather deeply, that all the hours of writing will somehow, someday, pay off. I love writing and surfing, but I was also once intent on becoming a professional bodyboarder.
A bodyboard is a boogie board, which is one of those rectangular pieces of foam you see prone grannies and kids sliding up the tide line on. I fell in love with bodyboarding in the early noughties, at a time when the sport had solid sponsorship deals and a competition that circuited the globe’s best waves. All this proved fleeting, but under those conditions, my early teenage years were spent immersed in bodyboarding subculture. I strove, for a long time, to improve the way I rode until I was better than every other person my age.
My instincts for competition in the ocean have long since dampened. Whether bodyboarding or surfing, I care less about technique, less about style. I no longer entertain thoughts about the judgments other surfers are making about me. Gone is the edge of frustration in seeing some grommet in the line-up riding leagues ahead of me. I’ve had a good amount of time to come to grips with the fact that, for me, riding a bodyboard will not be a vocational activity. And now I enjoy surfing more than ever. I’ve somehow uncovered more space to appreciate everything that constitutes a surf. From the drive between spots along the coast to the texture of the sand and water, to the way the ocean plays with the sun’s light. It may be that shedding my competitive approach has been the best thing for my surfing.
Writing is different. I don’t feel guilty when I skip a day of surfing, but a day without sitting and building something on the page feels hollow. Still attached to the faint idea of a future livelihood, writing can inspire my competitive instincts. I’m not entirely sure how to handle them. When I come across writing that I admire, it’s not uncommon for me to check the internet for the author’s age so that I can compare my station to theirs. Or I’ll find some old and established author and do the math to work out how old they were when they started getting published. It’s a silly infatuation with rotations of the sun.
Would I enjoy writing more than I do if I could worry less about performance and comparisons?
Maybe. But why I surf is not why I write. I surf to have fun. If and when surfing stops being fun, it’s likely I’ll stop doing it. As far as I can see, I will continue writing regardless of my level of enjoyment. Writing is a form of thinking, and in that sense, frustrations, failures, and disappointments are all par for the course. In an early fiction workshop, I was handed a sheet of paper which included Zadie Smith’s advice to new writers: ‘Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never being satisfied.’ Rightio.
If things are going as planned and my days off unfold without interruptions, then I sit for hours between four fibro walls with my chin down and headphones on, scrawling and typing. I’m now working on personal essays and short fiction. For the most part, it’s satisfying. Hunched toward my desk, I keep going until my thoughts cloud up. Once my mind is no longer making good, I get in my van and head for the coast.
So that I can surf in all conditions, I keep a surfboard and a bodyboard in the back of my van. In the water, with my chin up and eyes scanning the horizon line, my spine reverses its writer’s curve. My eyes readjust; from hours of a glaring computer screen to the sting of sea salt and sun. They look battered at the best of times. My mind, having dabbled all day with ideas, relaxes behind the body’s grunt work, and can peaceably be reduced to watching breaths.