From the Desk of Suzanne Roberts: Boogie Boarding, the Beginner’s Mind, and the Writing Life

Suzanne Roberts is the author of Bad Tourist: Misadventures in Love and Travel (Nebraska, 2020), Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail (Bison Books, 2012), and four collections of poetry. Visit her website: Her latest book Animal Bodies is now available.

I am next to a little girl. We are both holding our Boogie Boards, waiting for the next big wave. She’s about eight with freckles. I’m middle-aged with sun spots. It’s November in Baja California, and the waves are big. The surfers are out at the break, but we’re close to shore in the white water, hoping for a turbulent ride. Sometimes we stay above the white foam; other times, it drags us under. I do not blame myself when I am dragged under. I do not judge my Boogie boarding skills up against those of the girl next to me. Boogie boarding might be something you can be good at, but that’s certainly not my goal. I just want to feel the sun on my back, taste the salt spray, and feel the power of the waves.

I’m thinking I should ride this wave to shore, dry off, go back to the house, open my computer, and write. But the truth is, I don’t want to write. I want to play in the waves until I am exhausted and then drink a margarita. I want to enjoy something without feeling like I have to be good at it. I want to stop judging myself, to stop worrying about what others will think of me: the imposter syndrome that so often floods my writing life.

The afternoon light reflects silver on the horizon, like a mirror of the sky. The Pacific Ocean is cold and strong, the undertow so powerful that as the waves retreat, the sand is pulled from underneath my feet, so I have to shift around to retain my balance. An osprey flaps by with a fish in its talons, close enough that I can see the fish eyes, startled wide. In the foamy curtain of the shore, I don’t have to remind myself to pay attention; I am taking it all in—the salty breeze, the yellow sun, the cold ocean. I am in the moment. The late poet Mary Oliver said that to pay attention is the “endless and proper work” of the poet. That’s the joy of writing, too—being in the moment, expecting nothing more than the wild ride.

Later I will look up Boogie boarding pointers, just to see if there is such a thing, and I find a You Tube video. It’s four minutes long, and the instructions are as follows: lay on the front of the board, paddle, push on the side to turn, have fun! It makes me want to create a four-minute video on “how to write.” The four steps would be as follows: sit down, write words into sentences, read them to see if they make sense, have fun! In truth, this is how I approach writing with my students, but all too often, we have somehow lost the playfulness and the fun when it comes to the work of writing.

There is something to being a beginner that makes everything more fun. In Zen Buddhism, Shoshin means “beginner’s mind,” or being open and eager, without preconceptions; In the book In Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shunryu Suzuky says, “In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind, there are few.” Enlightenment comes from possibilty. When I’m Boogie boarding, I am open and eager. Each wave is a new possibility. I do not judge myself in the usual ways.

My very best moments as a writer are when I can suspend my judgement, forget what I know, and be open to possibilities. To let go of the outcome. I cannot be an imposter if I accept that I am a beginner. I don’t care if I am good or bad at Boogie boarding. I am at my best as a writer when I can ease up on myself, and let the next metaphorical wave take me, even if it takes time to catch one.

I’m such a slow writer. An essay can take me a couple of years. My first memoir, Almost Somewhere, took me nearly 20 years to write. Bad Tourist was about 15. My latest book, Animal Bodies,  was faster—only 10 years! It takes me a very long time to figure out where I’m going, and I am at my happiest when writing is an exploration, and I am lost in the sea of language. As Robert Frost said, “No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.” The joy of writing is in that surprise.

When I am in the moment of writing, not thinking about the outcome, I lose track of time. Some months ago, I sat down to write a short story. My husband said he was going mountain biking. I let the story take me, and a few minutes later, I heard my husband knocking at the door. I wondered if he had forgotten something. I opened the door, and there he was, muddy and sweaty. I was confused, so I said, “You just left.” He gave me a funny look and then told me he’d been gone two hours. Time had collapsed, as it does when you are truly in the moment. I still haven’t done anything with that short story, and maybe I never will—perhaps it was a wave I briefly but wholeheartedly rode, one that will never take me all the way to shore

When I’m Boogoe boarding, I do so not caring how long the ride will be. Certainly, it’s a thrill to catch the wave and ride it to the sand, but I do not berate myself when it doesn’t happen. I splash about, not knowing what time it is or how long I’ve been in the water. And it doesn’t matter if I’m good at Boogie boarding. I’m not going to enter any competitions, which require a more elaborate bodyboard than the foam board I have rented on the beach for five dollars, one that’s not much different than the original Boogie Board, the Morey Boogie, that made its debut in 1971, a few months after I was born. A Boogie Board is for the beginner and especially fun for small children.

And there it is: children know how to have fun, whether they are playing around in the ocean or making up stories. They can teach us to take ourselves a little less seriously, to embrace the beginner’s mind, to live inside each splashy moment. In Boogie boarding, no one is watching me, definitely not the eight-year old girl riding the waves beside me. I can tell she doesn’t think about whether or not I’m too old for Boogie boarding, because she’s too busy trying to catch her next wave, squealing with laughter when she does. Sukuki says, “Treat every moment as your last. It is not in preparation for something else.” This little girl and I are having fun because we are beginners, each moment in preparation for nothing else. And it is possible, too, to let go of the expectations of our writing, to let it be both the means and the end.  

The writer E.L. Doctorow says “writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” When I can be at peace in the foggy unknown, letting go of the expectations of what’s ahead, I’m happiest as a writer—like squinting into the sun, not knowing what the next set of waves will bring. When the waves are overhead, I am thrilled by the fear of tumbling in the salty white water, but knowing I’ll right myself again. And finally, catching the wave that takes me all the way onto the shore.

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