L.A. Kennedy

Beyond the story

By: Karen Rinaldi

Author Karen Rinaldi sucks at surfing, but she continues to dedicate hours to it anyway, and she explains why we should also be okay with failure in many forms—even our writing.

I’ve spent the last two decades devoting myself to an activity that I will never master. Worse, I will never even reach mediocrity. I surf. And I will always suck at surfing. Even though the calculus of hours spent as a factor of my skill level doesn’t seem to justify continued effort, the joy I get from trying (and often failing) makes it worth it because it’s great to suck at something.

And nothing gets us acquainted more quickly with sucking at something than being a writer.

Surfing and writing are not dissimilar. One embodies physical chaos and the effort it takes to perform within it; the other involves internal chaos and the effort it takes to make sense of it in the form of words. The satisfactions of a well-ridden wave and a well-written sentence bring hits of pleasure that compel me to keep trying to do it again and again. But as any surfer or writer knows, catching a wave and writing well are harder than they seem. Practice makes us better, absolutely, but sucking is part of the process, so it’s best to make it our friend and not our enemy.

So many things are harder than they seem when performed by people who know how. “How hard can it be?” is both the arrogance of the clueless and the fuel of delusion. We learn the hard way because it’s the only way. All of the nonsense about short-cutting your way to success is all a big fat lie. Only by doing and failing, writing and revising, paddling and wiping out will we experience or create anything worthwhile. It’s always harder than it seems. If we embrace sucking at something, we’ll develop the temerity to not quit and to push through the discomfort of knowing we aren’t the master of anything and then continue to do it anyway.

Writers are world-class experts at sucking. Most of our efforts go unseen and for good reason. We have to suck at writing before we get to the good stuff because writing something that people want to read is harder than it seems. If that sounds flippant, it isn’t. As a publisher, editor and writer, I have lifelong experience trying to get it right. It’s often a fail, though not for lack of time and effort. There’s the essay that doesn’t get published, the novel that sits in the drawer, there are the years of research on a book that doesn’t add up to a good story. Draft after draft of stories, chapters, ideas, characters…many get tossed and often for good reason. But if the writer doesn’t get on with writing in spite of how hard it is to get right–we’ll never have the opportunity to read or to be read. Worse than sucking, that’s tragic.

Incongruously, sucking at surfing helped me with writing. When you surf, your failures occur in public. The epic wipe out, the missed wave, the painful injury–all happen out in the open where other surfers and passive onlookers witness as you fumble and flail. To continue, you must turn humiliation into humility, frustration into patience, self-criticism into self-compassion. Sucking at surfing has taught me how so much good stuff is hiding in the spaces where effort results not in the expected goal, but rather in the badass-ness to keep doing it anyway. Some might call it futile but hope lives in those efforts. On the other side of our sometimes-fruitless endeavors, we gain confidence from knowing we won’t die for failing. Squirrel-suit flying and free-soloing excluded, of course. So far, I don’t know anyone who’s died from carpal tunnel syndrome.

And although writing is done in privacy, where we can revise ad nauseam without a witness, we still have to forgive ourselves for writing badly. If we don’t, we’ll stop. It’s that simple. Even when we push through and get published, we’re back to square one, where suckiness can assert itself like a three-wave hold down.

Once the essay is finally accepted, the book deal is made, and the work completed, it helps to heed the lessons of suckitude because when released into the world, our work belongs to everyone else, who completes it. The transference of a writer’s intention and labor into the interpretation and reception of other people makes it come fully alive. But how the work comes alive is a prospect for the reader, not the writer. There are no guarantees whether any particular interpretation and reception will be favorable or not. While we all want to rise above caring, the act of surrendering our writing to public scrutiny–where we now have witnesses–brings with it the fear that others will see our fault lines. In practicing the art of sucking at something, we release ourselves from a noisy ego and its outsized fear of failure. When we see that wave building on the horizon, we’ll have some muscle-memory to roll with it.

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