The Mark Blog

Nothing Lost

Five years ago, when I was just beginning to surf, my husband (then boyfriend) and I were out on our longboards in a bay that drops steeply off a shelf. With genuine awe, he pointed directly beneath my board and said, lightness in his voice, “Shark!” I will never forget the movement of the shark’s body, precisely as I’d always imagined it might be—smooth, snakelike, mechanical. Later, we recounted that it was five or six feet long. From the book, we couldn’t identify the species—a gray shark? A blue?

At my grandparents’ pool, I used to swim to the edge and climb the ladder extra fast, imagining beasts in the water. I’d heard about men putting piranhas, sometimes crocodiles, in lakes and ponds simply to be cruel.

Sometime last winter I surfed the Pismo Beach Pier the day after a great white had been sighted not far offshore. As we reached the top of the stairs to the beach, I spotted the laminated, neon pink sign: Warning, it read. Swim at your own risk. Confirmed 17-foot Great White Shark Sighting. I spent the better part of an hour with my legs tucked under my board, attempting to protect my femoral artery—the one that usually causes people to bleed out. From a documentary I’d seen somewhere, I recalled perfectly the shot that displays how similar the silhouettes of surfers and seals appear to be from the depths. I comforted myself with this thought: If I’m attacked by a great white shark and live, it’ll make an amazing book.

A few times I’ve been told Write what you know. On other occasions I’ve heard the same adage convincingly rebuked. Jerome Stern’s chapter in Making Shapely Fiction seems to strike it exactly right: “A broader application of write what you know recognizes that the idea of you is complex in itself. You, in theory at least, know yourself. But your self is made up of many selves…” This is the part I really love: “You are, in part, not only the persons you once were, but also persons you have tried to be, persons you have avoided being, and persons you fear you might be. All these are people you know.”

Pam Houston, a writer I deeply admire and the advisor of my thesis at UC Davis, sees her work as a collage: “Lots of little pieces that have value on their own, that, put next to other interesting pieces, are sometimes transformed. In a certain way I want each sentence to stand alone, each paragraph as well, each chapter. But then I want all the sentences to add up to something more than the sum of its parts, all of chapters, even all of books. In other words I want the pieces to have integrity, no matter the size of the frame.” If you haven’t read Contents May Have Shifted, do!

Even as I was still floating, waiting for a wave, keeping my eyes peeled for fins in the near blinding gray-white of the morning, and trying not to let the guys know how petrified I was, I thought about how stories aren’t made of events. Not really, not at the heart of them. It’s how we see things, how we put words to them, and how we make them matter to characters that make stories shine. In the words of Henry James, as writers, each of us is “[trying] to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!”