How Wave Riding is Like Writing: Liza Monroy on Surrendering to the Great Unknown
When I'm Not Writing, a Series About Writers and Their Hobbies
When I moved from New York City to Santa Cruz, California a decade ago, I spotted surfboards atop cars all over town. Their owners rode them in the cold Pacific Ocean beneath dramatic cliffs.
I spent most of my time trying to recreate my former big-literary-city existence (dimly-lit cafe to write in, readings and workshops, a teaching job). I knew I wasn’t in Kansas—ie, Manhattan—anymore. But if someone had told me I would soon acquiesce to the local culture of the small, laid-back locale known as the Central Coast’s “Surf City,” that I, too, would pick up the habit, I would have laughed. In my thirties, how would I even learn? Besides, a trivial pursuit like surfing would cut into my writing time, and what could be less productive than sitting out in the freezing ocean, with no means for recording ideas, and trying to stand on moving water?
And yet. A few months later, when an acquaintance offered to loan me a board and take me to a beginner-friendly surf spot, I changed my mind. Things that seemed trivial at the time often informed some future essay.
So here we go.
Stuffed like a small seal into a neoprene wetsuit, I gazed out from the staircase at the so-called “gentle, rolling” waves and trembled. The notion of surfing was still, like writing, a wildly intimidating pursuit, except, very much unlike writing, there were elements of actual danger involved. I didn’t know what to do with the big, heavy board, what to look for in an oncoming wave, when to paddle, or how to stand up. As the acquaintance and I entered the water and paddled out, I saw whitewater heading my way and panicked.
He told me when to turn the board around. I let that scary water push me. Following a few failed attempts, I felt the momentum of the wave carry me forward and scrambled up, up, up to standing (awkwardly). Go with it, go with the flow. The board picked up speed, a rapidly moving plank on rushing water beneath my feet. As saltwater spray blew back from the offshore wind, misting my face and whipping through my hair, I felt a new true and ultimate freedom. It felt like taking flight.
At the end of the wave, exhilarated, my heart pounding, I jumped off the board with the glee of a young child, all smiles and eager to go back out and do it again. The sensation, much like the moment when you finally know you’ve finished a piece, for real, was overwhelming. An addiction was born. The more I went, the more I found myself able to do: paddle and make a drop into an unbroken wave, “trim,” as it’s known, along the open face, the whitewater behind me, no longer dependent on its force to get me in.
I wanted my ocean-self to inform my writing-self, in that surfing was creative play, whereas writing had taken on the tone, inside my body, of “serious business.”
Still, I carried guilt for my all-consuming desire to surf. Surfing wasn’t a means to an end. It took me away from my most beloved hours spent rearranging sentences in front of a screen. As exciting and centering as trying to surf was, it was a recreational obsession, and another obsession I could not afford; if I wasn’t constantly producing pages, or at least sitting there trying (lest the muses opt to descend), I believed, I wouldn’t count as a “real” writer. Who was I to think I should try to be–or that I could—become a “surfer,” besides? Impostor syndrome can wipe a person out harder than a heavy wave at Steamer Lane.
I silenced that inner naysayer for a weekend session here, a dawn patrol there. Eventually I had my own board, a beat-up former rental I bought from a surf shop.
By chance, I got a surf coach when, after a Pilates class, the instructor handed me a business card that read, “Emile Hawley – Pilates, Surf, Wine” (his family owned an off-grid vineyard in Sonoma County). Go with it, go with the flow. I booked a session and bought a limited-edition organic red.
Surf coaching functioned much like a writing workshop. Undergoing a process with guidance and input pushed me, made me think more consciously about what I was up to, try harder, create attainable goals, and notice incremental improvement. When Covid hit, I (and everyone from near and far) began surfing daily.
Previously, surfing had been a practice I also engaged in to find solitude in a busy world. I didn’t make an effort to speak with others in the lineup, preferring to keep the company of my fictional characters and their plot problems. Important surf etiquette dictates “one surfer one wave” because of safety hazards and wave-riding decision-making, unless two or more surfers vocally consent to go together. But rather than scowling at a person I fear took a wave I had priority on, I soon discovered that surfing is more fun with friends.
A “party wave” is the term for when more than one surfer rides a wave. We cheer each other on. The surf community reminded me to celebrate the literary achievements of others, too: to experience another rider’s beautiful wave with the same joy that would typically be reserved for my own; to cease envying writers who were “more successful” than me. To celebrate that there’s always another wave. There could be enough space for all. Mindset was everything. Shifting mine from competitive to community-oriented, from favoring solitude to welcoming company, only improved the experience. The more often I ventured out into the salty beyond, the greater variety of maneuvers I could feel entering my wheelhouse—turning, popping up—pushing yourself to your feet on your board—sooner and more smoothly. (As with writing, the one way to grow in surfing is to surf.)
The following year, I got my first custom board from a local shaper, made based on a discussion of my hopes and dreams for my ocean-self: teaching myself to cross-step, the first (literal) step in the longboard stylist’s holy grail—the art of the noseride. I hadn’t even known it required certain equipment to do so. From that craft, my passion for single-fin longboarding was born, from a seed into a sky-scraping vine.
A “party wave” is the term for when more than one surfer rides a wave. We cheer each other on. The surf community reminded me to celebrate the literary achievements of others, too.
I tell you this in the context of writing—of what I spend a bulk of my non-writing time doing—because I’m stoked (there’s the California-surfer in me) about their parallels, most notably, how over time, the project becomes more specific. There are far more avenues and choices that reveal themselves than the beginner—focused on popping up and riding a wave, or getting the last line of an early story to work just right—can see at the time. The further down the path you get, the more you’re able to see opening up ahead. The more you grasp, the more that reveals itself as yet to be grasped. It reminds me of the famous Doctorow quote comparing writing to driving in the fog: you can’t ever know what’s more than 10 feet ahead of you, but you can make the whole journey that way.
I wanted my ocean-self to inform my writing-self, in that surfing was creative play, whereas writing had taken on the tone, inside my body, of “serious business.” I began to wonder if this was the factor holding me back, if I had forgotten how to play. The wave carries you, I’d tell myself. Let the writing do the same: submit to some greater force.
Surfing taught me that not everything needs to be for a story. I surf for its own sake, for no discernible external outcome other than the combination of sheer joy and inner peace that surfing provides. I spot otters and get tangled in kelp, I fly down the line or fall, get held down and shot back to the surface, drink seawater, get an adrenaline high. I see the most miraculous formations of clouds and splendid color palettes nature provides and know that whatever happened, it was worth it.
In both writing and wave-riding, you need to be okay with–and proceed in spite of— uncertainty and the unknown. Every session means facing down circumstances beyond your control. Fears keep me from meeting the page, from venturing to carve out uninterrupted blocks of writing time in the first place. But those same circumstances don’t ever keep me out of the ocean. Lower the stakes. Get humble. Enjoy the process for nothing but itself. Answer the call to put yourself at the mercy of larger forces, whether that be the ocean’s whims or the muses (or wherever you believe creativity comes from).
Back at my desk, I try to re-meet the blank page like it’s a whitewater wave. Some days won’t be favorable, but remember: conditions may look very different tomorrow.