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Beach Grit

Holiday repeat: 5 Rules for the Golden Age of Surf Writing!


by Longtom

Rule five: hold grudges!

This is the Golden Age of Surf writing. Chas Smith said it here, so it must be true.

But also, objectively, it is true.

At one end of the spectrum, you have the wise old men of the establishment like Nick Carroll and Shaun Doherty laying down smooth grooves. So trustworthy! So objective!
And, at the other end newer hands with different voices. You like a bit of tropical fruit in your daily word salad? Dell Rielly is your man.

Even fruitier, with impeccable Somalian/Yemeni surf cred and a Tom Wolfian penchant to suffer for style? Chas Smith will delight and infuriate with equal elan.

“Wild” Bill Finnegan has got the coolest, most detached New Yorker prose going anywhere outside New York City, even when his gal takes up with a Cuban revolutionary and he discovered Tavarua. Impeccable cool cat! All tastes accounted for!

Surf writing is taking over the world. We are all surf writers now. As we speak university courses are being rolled out in Slovakia, Borneo, Hamburg, Minnesota and many other places including Pakistan. Community colleges in Humboldt County California are struggling to find tutors to keep up with the demand. Everyone wants to luxuriate in the warm international bath of surf writer-hood and why not? Plenty of room for everyone. But please newbie surf writers, let’s try and advance the art form whilst we all enjoy the fruits of the Golden Age.

Here are some simple rules to follow.

Say Something

So simple. So often neglected. Before you sit down to write you have to have something to say, an idea, a premise, a point of view. Facts won’t do. Facts without a narrative are meaningless. This is Kurt Vonneguts first rule of writing in effect: use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time is wasted. The concept of a premise is sometimes easier to understand in the negative. These are examples of non-ideas: a college graduate intern at The Inertia writing a thousand words on a subject of their choice for free, wanting to help your friend by writing an encouraging review of their film/music/writing, re-printing a WSL press release without context, wanting to surf Macaronis with pros and writing about the trip, writing about a pros first day on the CT.
Nothing to say? No problemo hombre. Put the pen down and hit the bricks pal. Go about in the big wide world and do some living.

Tip: Failure is more interesting than success. And easier to access.

Don’t write to a word count

Nothing can rescue a shit premise or non-idea, nothing. So don’t compound the error by padding it and making it even it an even more miserable waste of time for the poor sap reading it. Don’t say in a thousand words what you can say in 500 or 50. If your idea is good, strip it naked and send it into the sunlight to dance. If it needs twelve thousand words then defend that to the death against ignoramus editors.

Don’t be a comment coward

Is there anything lamer than someone who can punch in the co-ordinates but can’t deliver the ordnance in the comments section? Answer: Nein, non, nyet. Surf writer, you ain’t Moses strolling down from Mount Sinai delivering the Ten Commandments on stone tablets. So wipe that smug grin of your face. Everything you say is contestable and maybe completely wrong. The article is just the entrée, foreplay and nothing else.

It’s in the comments where the surf writer has to show up, get down and turn it loose. If you can’t defend your ideas in the comments then they were probably shit to begin with. Like a major, you drive for show, putt for dough. That is to say, the short game, via social, via the comments, is where the shit goes down. The ancient conceit amongst the old print surf writers is that they are smarter than their audience. For the USA, wrong. For Australian readers, maybe. A safer place to start is the assumption that the commenters are smarter than you and you better get ready to hustle. If you can’t make boogie-woogie in the comments then GTFO.

You got your nose bloodied in the comments surf writer? Get over it, you had it coming!

Make the call

Art is long, life is short and success is very far off, said excellent Polish surf writer Joseph Conrad. Except, for the surf writer there is no success. It’s not a career, it’s a calling, an affliction. To rip off Hunter Thompson: a cheap catch-all for fuckoffs and misfits — a false doorway to the backside of life, a filthy piss-ridden little hole nailed off by the building inspector, but just deep enough for a wino to curl up from the sidewalk and masturbate like a chimp in a zoo-cage.

Surf writers are loathed by their fellow surfers, scorned in polite company, destined to always mumble out of the corner of their mouths when asked what they do: “surf writer”. Not real writers. Bush league batters left to die on the diamond. Parasites, low lifes, gutter dwellers according to Miki Dora via Maurice Cole.

What to do then? Make the call. If you saw it, call it as you saw it. As you see it. Don’t lose courage at the critical moment surf writer. All that is required, said Lester Bangs, is to be honest…and…unmerciful. Those people you’re writing about, they ain’t your friends. If you want to write to make them look good then you’re in the wrong neighbourhood. You need the one over there marked PR, with all the fancy homes and good looking girls.

Be like the Godfather of surf writing Freddy Nietzsche, he who “handles his language like a supple blade and feels from his arms down to his toes the perilous delight of the quivering, over sharp steel that wants to bite, hiss, cut.”

The best surf writer is the one having the most fun in hiding from the most people.

Hold a grudge

Weird thing: surfing is mostly nothing but a frivolous pastime undertaken by privileged white people but to write about it it has to feel like the most important thing in the world, with high stakes where nothing else matters. To you. That means you take every slight personally, not thanks very much for the feedback like a college circle jerk, but fuck you very much and everyone that you love. You don’t roll over like a cocker spaniel waiting to get it’s tummy tickled when someone slights you.

No writer worth anything a damn hasn’t held a grudge. Norman Mailer punched Gore Vidal in the head after Vidal wrote a negative review of Mailer’s (shitty) book Prisoner of Sex. Vidals’ response: “Once again, words fail Norman Mailer”.

Who was the better writer? Mailer wrote better novels, Gore was the superior essayist. In the end, after more than twenty years, they called a truce. If criticism doesn’t stab you in the heart and make you want to commit bloody homicide then you ain’t no surf writer. Above all though, if it isn’t fun you ain’t doing it right.

To put the cherry on the cake here is the definitive list of the Top 5 Surf Writers of all time.

1. Derek Hynd
2. Louie Samuels
3. Blasphemy Rottmouth
4. John Millius (for Apocalypse Now script, Big Wednesday, not so much.)
5. Andrew Kidman
OK, Top Ten, to quell dissent
6. Miklos Dora
7. Dave Parmenter (despite the appalling error of judgement over SUPS).
8. Chas Smith
9. Cori Schumacher
10. Michel Houllebecq (for Lanzarote, funniest book about German lesbians on a surf island ever).

(Editor’s note: This story first appeared on BeachGrit in October, 2015. Reprinted here for a couple of reasons. It’s real good, for one, and, second, it’s hot as hell and if I don’t baptise myself, soon, mind will be lost etc.)