I had an opportunity to attend a book event featuring William Finnegan, author of the Pulitzer Prize winner “Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life.” I’d been listening to the Audible version of his book and loved his eloquent, insightful tales of growing up in Hawaii as a "haole" and then traveling the world chasing waves.
I lucked out by scoring the last ticket to his sold out program, and promptly did some research so I could ask an intelligent question if I had a chance to connect with him.
As soon as I read this Outside Magazine interview, I had my question. Reporter Matt Skenazy had asked, “Do you have a favorite moment in surfing?”
Here's the gist of what he said, “It’s the pause before the pop-up … that moment when you know you’ve got it … man, there’s nothing else like it.”
I wanted to ask, “What is the writer's equivalent of a 'pause before the pop-up?'”
What I couldn’t have anticipated is that Bill demonstrated the writer's equivalent when he read a stunning passage from his book.
He was describing a day he went surfing at "Cliffs," a popular spot near Diamond Head. As he explaied, his family members were "dutiful, if not particularly enthusiastic, Catholics." After receiving the sacrament of confirmation at age 13, he was "thunderstruck to hear my parents say I was no longer required to go to Mass."
"And so, on a spring Sunday morning, I found myself slowly paddling back through the lagoon while my family sweated it out up at Star of the Sea in Waialae. The tide was low. My skeg gently bumped on the bigger rocks. Out on the mossy, exposed reef, wearing conical straw hats, Chinese ladies, or maybe they were Filipinas, bent, collecting eels and octopus in buckets. Waves broke here and there along the reef's outer edge, too small to surf.
I felt myself floating between two worlds. There was the ocean, effectively infinite, falling away forever to the horizon. This morning it was placid, its grip on me loose and languorous. But I was lashed to its mood now. The attachments felt limitless, irresistible. I no longer thought of waves being carved in celestial workshops ...
I was a sunburnt pagan now. I felt privy to mysteries ... The other world was land: everything that was not surfing. Books, girls, school, my family, friends who did not surf. 'Society,' as I was learning to call it, and the exactions of Mr. Responsible.
Hands folded under my chin, I drifted. A bruise-colored cloud hung over Koko Head. A transistor radio twanged on a seawall where a Hawaiian family picnicked on the sand. The sun-warmed shallow water had a strange boiled-vegetable taste. The moment was immense, still, glittering, mundane. I tried to fix each of its parts in memory."
That, folks, was a “drop the pen” moment. That perfect prose-as-poetry passage could have won Bill the Pulitzer on its own merits. It was so clearly a moment where everything came together - his intelligence, exquisite observational ability, and story-telling powers partnered with the muse to produce that sensory-rich, transcendent passage.
Bill was gracious enough to sign a couple books, one for me and my son Andrew who grew up on Maui and who now lives in Brooklyn, but religiously takes his surfboard to Rockaways (via the subway!) to reconnect with the ocean. You can take the boy out of Hawaii; you can’t take Hawaii out of the boy.
My first words to Bill were, “You may have stopped going to Mass; but you didn’t stop going to church.”
He smiled and we discussed the metaphorical aspects of the “pause before the pop-up.” Here’s the gist of our conversation.
If you surf, you know that catching a wave results from a fortuitous combination of coalescing factors. You have to have the right skill, the right board, the right wave, the right positioning, the right conditions, the right weather. It all goes into the mix.
There can be wonderful waves but sometimes they’re too crowded or getting blown out by a cross-wind, or your board’s too short, or you’re in the wrong spot, or you’re tired (or too old and out of shape) and can’t paddle fast enough to match the momentum. Surfing isn’t always glorious. It’s often a lot of waiting, frustration and missed waves.
However, if you’re lucky, there are also times when a rare and much-welcomed match occurs between your skill, the board and Mother Nature. You’re in just the right position at just the right time, the elements coincide and you’re about to transition from paddling as hard as you can from a prone position to standing up on your board.
In that peak performance moment when everything comes together in a state of flow; there is a flash of simultaneous anticipation and appreciation that your hard work is about to pay off and you’re about to reap the rewards of commitment and kismet.
That is the pause before the pop-up. The writer’s equivalent? Our life equivalent?
Sometimes we grind. Our work becomes hard, frustrating, mundane. The words (funding, success, results) won’t come. We don’t have the skills, tools or right conditions to create what we want. We’re tempted to give up. We’re not sure our efforts will ever pay off.
Then there are those sublime times when everything comes together and we write (or perform or present) better than we know how. We have the right idea, the right time and place, the right experience and expertise, and everything starts flowing easily and effortlessly. We see the story, become the story. We’re no longer over-thinking it; we’re in service to what wants to be said. We’re riding a wave of momentum.
These are the penultimate moments when the right conditions converge, our commitment is rewarded and we know we're about to succeed in experiencing the vision that's been in our head.
Those “immense, glittering moments” (Bill’s term) keep us coming back, make it all worthwhile, are the "cosmic reward."
How about you? Are you grinding away on a project and feeling only the frustration of invested effort that doesn't seem commensurate with results?
Could you instead stay alert to “pause before the pop-up” moments?
Could you remember a kismet experience of matched momentum where you performed better than you knew how - and tell yourself, "I've done it before. I can do it again?"
Could you understand that if you keep your antenna up for it - there will come a time where all the elements come together and your time, effort and hard work will pay off?
And when it does, can you promise yourself you will look around, appreciate it and imprint it so you can re-visit it in your mind whenever you want, as often as you want?