In December I got to spend a few weeks in paradise.
My lovely wife got the idea some time ago of renting a beach house for a month. I could use it for writing and recharging, she’d use it for de-stressing and reading, and we could have our kids come visit for eating and game playing.
The house was forty-five minutes from our home in LA, which is just about right. I had a couple of meetings in town to dash to, but I could dash right back up to the beach. The weather was incredible. I love New York in June, but December in Southern California is amazing. Sunshine and seventies this year.
In the mornings I’d wake up, make the coffee, get to the keyboard. I like to start the day when it’s dark. Then the sun would come up and I’d walk down to the beach and look at the sea. I grew up with it–summers at the beach, body surfing, playing Frisbee and football on the sand. The Pacific Ocean has a rejuvenating effect that’s hard to describe.
One afternoon I was sitting on a beach chair gazing at the suds. The waves were high, and a few surfers were out.
In front of me was a guy in a kayak. He was having the time of his life riding the waves. He’d paddle out, catch a swell, manipulate his position with the double-blade paddle and then ride the curling break to the wet sand of the shore.
One time he caught a big one, and let out a whoop of absolute elation. It sounded a little like Slim Pickens riding the hydrogen bomb in Dr. Strangelove. My kayaking friend was in a moment of pure joy made up of water, speed and emotion.
But two seconds later the wave turned him over like a mad baker slapping bread dough on a board. The churning waters took the kayak all the way to shore, dumping it upside down on the sand. The kayaker slogged his way back to the boat, turned it over, grabbed the nose rope and pulled it back out to the water. He jumped in and started paddling out to do the whole thing over again.
And I thought, this is the writing life, isn’t it?
I mean, you know what it’s like when you catch a wave in your story, when you get a scene idea that jazzes your fibers, or when a character starts surprising you in absolutely pleasing ways. When that emotional moment comes alive inside you. When that dialogue hums. When a twist pops into your head, or that perfect chapter ending sneaks up from your subconscious basement and plugs right into your text.
You whoop inside your writer’s soul, don’t you? You are that kayaker. You are riding a wave.
But then, somewhere along the way, you get dumped.
Could be a rejection. Or a negative review.
Maybe it’s the tyranny of unmet expectations. Or some know-it-all in your critique group telling you there’s backstory on page two, so you’re a hack.
For some writers it might be a royalty statement with no royalties. Or a traditional publishing house that decides to cut you loose.
Sometimes it’s a family member or friend who looks at you with a pitying half smile that calls you a fool.
Maybe it’s just a day when the words don’t come, when the kayak is stuck in a kelp bed and you’re just slapping the water with the paddle.
But you know what? It doesn’t matter. Not if you’re willing to grab the nose rope again and charge right back into the blue. Because you know that nothing, nothing, matches the feeling of catching a wave—or a wave catching you.
If you want to write, and make something resembling a career out of it, you’re going to get wet. You’re going to get dumped. Lots. You’re going to get sand in your swim suit. You’re going to swallow salt water from time to time.
But you are going to ride. For a true writer, that joy is unmatched. It’s what keeps you coming back to the page. Even with all the churning and overturning, all the wet and upside-downness, let me ask you this: would you have it any other way? Would you sacrifice the elation of creating worlds and people and dreams? Would you give up the ecstasy of art for the sodden sameness of imitation, just because the latter isn’t so painful?
Are you content to put on water wings and float in the shallow end?
Or do you keep heading out into the surf, no matter how many people scream at you to come back in and stop acting so foolish?
How is it with you?