Passage of the Week

Love_stargirl_book

I went out and got Love, Stargirl the morning after I’d finished Stargirl. The novel does what readers want a sequel to – it picks up sometime after the close of a story that they were sad to see end – yet offers plenty more.

Part 2 of the Stargirl story is not narrated by Leo Borlock, as is the first. The book takes the form of a long letter, written over the course of a year and a day, and done diary-style, with a dozen or so dated entries appearing each month. The letter is written by Stargirl, and while the “you” addressed throughout is Leo, it’s uncertain whether it’ll ever be sent or given to him.

In his novels, Spinelli explores his characters (many of them quirky, non-conformists) fully, and by the end of Stargirl, you feel as though you know Stargirl – this girl who wears pioneer dresses, has a pet rat, and totes around a ukulele in order to serenade peers with “Happy Birthday” in the cafeteria – in and out.

But that knowledge was, of course, imperfect. We saw her through Leo’s eyes. We knew her from a remove. Here, in Love, Stargirl, we get closer. Reading about her year in her own words, seeing how she chooses to shape her experiences and feelings with language, we nestle up right against her heart – as close as Cinnamon the Rat when he’d tucked into her shirt pocket.

Plenty of people have written epistolary novels, and it’s possible that such books – along with their cousins, the diary-turned-novels – are more popular in Young Adult and Middle Grade fiction. You can find a lot of books in these forms for even younger readers, too. They provide an instant sense of intimacy. Emphasis there on sense. Because depending on the writers’ skills, depending on the care they take with crafting their novel, the letter- or diary-writing character may still come off as dull or flat, the intimacy promised never delivered.

Spinelli, unsurprisingly, kills it. In my opinion, the guy can’t write a bad book. He could write a novel about hard-boiling an egg, and I’m willing to bet the sentences would sparkle and dance enough to keep me up all night reading. He pushed the letter/diary form – he wrings the thing for everything it’s got.

This week’s passage shows Stargirl having a “conversation” with a fantasy Leo. As she writes earlier, on October 6th: “I know you have questions, Leo. And I know you’re busy with other things at college. So I’ll ask them for you.” Such passages appear throughout the novel, YOU/ME dialogues, all of them funny, fascinating, and heartfelt (Spinelli’s trademark mixture). This one, though, leapt out at me in particular. It comes [SPOILER ALERT!!!] shortly after Stargirl has kissed another boy, Perry, and realized, to her surprise, that she doesn’t have feelings for him beyond those of a friend.

Enjoy.

. . .

From “Love, Stargirl,” by Jerry Spinelli (pp. 223-226)

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YOU: I’m surprised

ME: You’re not the only one.

YOU: Considering what you’ve been saying lately.

ME: I know.

YOU: Care to fill me in?

ME: Well, the most obvious thing is that if you had been here all along, it would have been no contest from the start. But . . . you are there and he is here, and, as Betty Lou said, I’ve been lonely and vulnerable. She also told me to inhabit my moments, to live today, to embrace the uncertainty, the mystery of Perry. So I guess that’s what I did the other day on Calendar Hill. I plunged into the moment. I let myself drown in it. The setting, the sunrise – talk about a moment! Who could resist? And that moment just went on and on for the rest of that day and into the next. But then I began to notice a funny thing. The moment began to fray at one end and disengage itself from one of its major parts – namely, him, Perry – until there was a clear space between them: the moment here, Perry there. They were not one and the same. And I began to feel again something that I had been only dimly aware of before. It was a small, surprising sense of disappointment even as he was kissing me, but the violins were so loud that at the time I could hear nothing else. Now that disappointment was returning, and with it the realization that the magic had come only from the moment, not from him. It was different with you, Leo. In the eyes and ears of my heart, you and the magic are one and the same. The setting never mattered. On the sidewalk in front of my house, at the enchanted place in the desert, walking the halls at school – wherever I was with you, I heard violins.

YOU: Wow. I don’t know what to say. I don’t deserve you.

ME: You’re right, for once.

YOU: After all that, how can I not love you back?

ME: Beats me.

YOU: OK, I’m saying it: I love you.

ME: No! I don’t want to hear it. Not that way. I never want to hear those words unless they’re coming from your lips. The flesh-and-blood you, not the fantasy you.

YOU: I thought you wanted me to say it. You’re not making sense.

ME: The heart makes no sense.

YOU: So what do you want from me?

ME: The answer is in your question – I want it from you. I want you to say the words because they’re flying out of your mouth, because you can’t possibly stop them, not because I led you to the brink of them. And I want to know that they’re being said to me. To me. Not to some girl in the movies or a book. Not to some idea of Girl that you’ve picked up along the way from other boys and other girls. To me. Stargirl. Do you know me, Leo? Really know me?

YOU: You’re making it hard to say yes.

ME: OK, short course, pay attention . . . Susan Julie Pocket Mouse Mudpie Hullygully Stargirl Caraway 101. She dreams a lot. She dreams of Ondines and falling maidens and houses burning in the night. But search her dreams all you like and you’ll never find Prince Charming. No Knight on a White Horse gallops into her dreams to carry her away. When she dreams of love, she dreams of smashed potatoes. She loves smashed potatoes, and she dreams that she and Starboy are eating smashed potatoes, possibly on a blanket at a deserted beach, and as Starboy digs in for another scoopful, he drops the spoon and his mouth falls open (showing some smashed potato goop, but she finds it cute), and he looks at her in a way she’s never been looked at before – he sees her! – and she can practically see the words boiling up inside him – they’re unstoppable! – and here they come, gushing over the smashed potatoes: “I love you, Stargirl!” They just keep coming as potato flecks fly – “I love you, Stargirl! I love you, Stargirl!” – like a cereus blooming not once but over and over a thousand times in a single night.

You understand what I’m saying, Leo?

YOU: You’re saying love makes its own magic.

ME: Praise be. There is hope.

YOU: I think I’d like to take Stargirl 102.

ME: Stargirl 102 is the same subject matter, but from Starboy’s point of view. The lesson is: he must hear violins too, the same ones she hears.

YOU: He did. I did.

ME: Maybe so. But you also heard the drumbeat of others. And the drumbeat overpowered the violins.

YOU: I can change.

ME: I hope so.

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Scare Your Kids (Sorta)

"Where the Wild Things Are" -- Maurice Sendak
“Where the Wild Things Are” — Maurice Sendak

As a young reader, I went through a phase during which all I wanted to read were scary stories. I wasn’t alone. Plenty of my friends and peers would pull out books about ghosts and goblins, haunted houses and Halloween parties gone awry as soon as our teacher declared it “free-reading time.” And all you have to do is recall the astounding popularity of the Goosebumps series in order to grasp how widespread a phenomenon this scary-story phase is.

Occasionally, I’ll still see a kid toting around a copy of Say Cheese and Die! or The Haunted Mask, and bent and battered, weak-spined Goosebumps novels are a common sight at book sales of all kinds. Take a quick look at the kids’ section in the nearest bookstore, and you’ll see plenty of eerie-titled, creepy-covered books, many of which also occupy bestsellers lists and win top honors from various prize-giving organizations and associations.

My question is why. Why are so many kids hungry for books that will shock, terrify, and disgust them? It’s more than just an interest in or love for the horror genre. I still read horror fiction today, but I know plenty of people who devoured Goosebumps and similar books as kids who now, for one reason or another, won’t go anywhere near, say, a Stephen King novel.

"The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon" -- Stephen King
“The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon” — Stephen King

I think the answer to my question has to do with a key – perhaps the key – strength and feature of fiction. Not horror fiction, mind you. Not scary stories. Just stories. Period.

Novels and short stories offer readers a space and series of situations into which they can imaginatively and empathetically enter. Books, in other words, give you the opportunity to walk around in somebody else’s shoes. They allow you to have experiences that you might not ever be able to – and might not ever even want to – have.

"The Book Thief" -- Markus Zusak
“The Book Thief” — Markus Zusak

Most kids, of course, have less worldly experience than the typical adult. To young eyes and minds, the world can seem like an incomprehensibly enormous place. It contains countless wonders that have yet to be uncovered – but it has many terrors, too. A child’s universe is full of dark corners and shadowy corridors, unanswered questions and irrational ideas. Someday, for better or worse, experience will answer these questions and shine its bright light into many of those dark spots. But until then, the curious, frightened child has stories.

Scary stories in particular give children a chance to confront their fears from a remove. And while it’s common for kid’s stories to end happily, they certainly don’t need to (and, I’d argue, often shouldn’t). It’s the experience that matters, the close – but not too close – encounter with the strange, frightening, and unknown. Done from a safe distance, these encounters don’t traumatize, but instead leave young readers feeling braver, wiser, and more prepared for the everyday terrors of the real world.

"Doll Bones" -- Holly Black
“Doll Bones” — Holly Black

This may sound overly lofty and hyperbolic, but this is the unique power of a great story, of an exceptional book. Fiction gets a good deal of its magic from its omissions, from what an author chooses to leave unsaid. A clever writer will carefully insert all kinds of crevices and nooks into their prose, and will then use the language surrounding these empty spaces to lure their readers inside of them. Once there, it’s up to the readers to put their imaginations to work, to finish what the writer has very purposefully left undone.

Perhaps the task is something as small as deciding a bit character’s hair color, or maybe something larger, like designing and decorating a sparsely described house or, even, figuring out the potential motives behind a person’s behavior. But by inviting readers to thus engage with the story, the author is, in a way, making each one of them a co-author.

"Coraline" -- Neil Gaiman
“Coraline” — Neil Gaiman

This is why book-lovers can sometimes be possessive of certain novels, a feeling which often manifests itself as the jealous guarding of a particular physical copy of a book. When you think about the fact that they, too, have expended considerable time and effort not just reading, but also imagining – also creating – the story that is bound between those covers, this sense of ownership is more understandable.

Giving children ownership of stories – especially the long, sprawling story that is each one of their lives – is as good a way as any to ensure that they grow up into strong, confident adults. It may seem strange that you can help a kid by giving them a book that might frighten them. But it’s true. Because while they may worry, they’ll also wonder, and by rehearsing for fear, they’ll be better able to face it when it arrives.

"We Have Always Lived in the Castle" -- Shirley Jackson
“We Have Always Lived in the Castle” — Shirley Jackson

So let – and even encourage – kids to read the great scary books that we’ve been gifted, those of Maurice Sendak and Neil Gaiman, of Shirley Jackson and Stephen King (these last two have written some great, kid-friendly stories and novels). Scary as it may be – for them and you – you may just be doing them a favor.

. . .

Throughout this post, I’ve inserted the covers of some of my favorite scary books, ones plucked from all different genres and shelves. Young or old, easily frightened or tough as nails, every one of them is worth a read (or two, or three, or thirty). Below are a couple more – two of my all-time favorite books, period – which aren’t so commonly thought of as scary, but certainly pack their frights (in addition, of course, to a world’s worth of other things).

"The Chocolate War" -- Robert Cormier
“The Chocolate War” — Robert Cormier
"Great Expectations" -- Charles Dickens
“Great Expectations” — Charles Dickens

Passage of the Week

stargirl

I often use Twitter to post particularly funny, quirky, or profound quotes from my day’s reading. But frequently, I find myself wanting to share with the world (that is, the handful of folks who read my tweets) longer passages – paragraphs or even whole pages that leap out at me in their awesomeness. Whether pretty, strange, clever, or wise, these passages all deserve a closer look. Some may contain a lesson for the writer, but they’re all packed full of plenty for the reader to chew on.

While reading, I dog-ear the pages on which these passages appear (fear not, bibliophiles – if the book is especially beautiful, valuable, or meaningful to me, I use Post-it notes in order to keep the pages pristine) so that I will remember to revisit them at a later date, and so that I can do so easily. Together, these pages form a sort of library within a library – a secret collection of gems hiding in plain sight.

Because I often find myself stammeringly attempting to recite these passages to friends in the middle of conversations – and in the process do the author, the book, the passage, and the English language an enormous disservice – I’ve decided to share the passages here, on my blog, out-of-context, in the hopes that they will be admired on their own, and that they’ll further inspire you to go out and read more.

I’ve decided to call this the “Passage of the Week,” even though I may post more or less frequently than once a week. After all, you never quite know what you’re going to find between the covers of a book. There are weeks when I feel like I’m dog-earing every other page of every book I read, and at times, a month will pass during which the books I pick up leave me bored and uninspired.

For the first Passage of the Week, I’m posting a page from Jerry Spinelli’s Stargirl, The book, like all of Spinelli’s novels, is full of humor, deep feeling, and a profound, guiding wisdom. Fast-paced scenes and firecracker dialogue alternate with slow, meditative passages and bursts of pure poetry. This passage has Leo, our narrator, summing up an important conversation that he and Stargirl have over a stretch of days – a conversation, it could be said, that the novel itself, from the first page to the last, is also having with itself.

Enjoy.

. . .

From “Stargirl,” by Jerry Spinelli (pp. 137-138)

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We continued this conversation for the next couple of days. I explained the ways of people to her. I said you can’t cheer for everybody. She said why not? I said a person belongs to a group, you can’t belong to everyone. She said why not? I said you can’t just barge into the funeral of a perfect stranger. She said why not? I said you just can’t. She said why? I said because. I said you have to respect other people’s privacy, there’s such a thing as not being welcome. I said not everybody likes having somebody with a ukulele sing “Happy Birthday” to them. They don’t? she said.

This group thing, I said, it’s very strong. It’s probably an instinct. You find it everywhere, from little groups like families to big ones like a town or school, to really big ones like a whole country. How about really, really big ones, she said, like a planet? Whatever, I said. The point is, in a group everybody acts pretty much the same, that’s kind of how the group holds itself together. Everybody? she said. Well, mostly, I said. That’s what jails and mental hospitals are for, to keep it that way. You think I should be in jail? she said. I think you should try to be more like the rest of us, I said.

Why? she said.

Because, I said.

Tell me, she said.

It’s hard, I said.

Say it, she said.

Because nobody likes you, I said. That’s why. Nobody likes you.

Nobody? she said. Her eyes covered me like the sky. Nobody?

I tried to play dumb, but that wasn’t working. Hey, I said, don’t look at me. We’re talking about them. Them. If it was up to me, I wouldn’t change a thing. You’re fine with me the way you are. But we’re not alone, are we? We live in a world of them, like it or not.

That’s where I tried to keep it, on them. I didn’t mention myself. I didn’t say do it for me. I didn’t say if you don’t change you can forget about me. I never said that.

Two days later Stargirl vanished.

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“Scat,” “The Underneath,” and the Appreciation of Nature

Before I’d finished reading Kathi Appelt’s The Underneath – before I’d even gotten more than a few dozen pages into the novel, in fact – I wanted to start telling people to read it. Now that I’m done with the book, the urge to share it with others is only stronger.

blog_naturepic1

The problem being that, like any great book, it’s impossible to describe The Underneath’s greatness. It is, basically, about a cat and a dog and a pair of kittens who live beneath a grouchy guy’s house and, later on in the book, about what happens when one of the little ones gets a bit too curious (as kittens are wont to do). But there’s also an ancient snake and an equally ancient alligator. There’s an old native American community, populated by a handful of shape-shifting individuals. There are rivers and creeks and an enormously important, lightning-struck pine tree. And beyond the novel’s sprawling cast of characters, in layers above and beneath the situations that unfold among them, there’s even more.

Appelt is both a gifted poet and a natural storyteller, and in The Underneath these two capacities intertwine and play off one another in profound and even magical ways. The book is divided into over a hundred chapters, some paragraph-long prose poems, others longer, full-on dramatic scenes. The writing, however, is invariably gorgeous, gripping, tender, and wise. Reading, you will find yourself constantly torn – both eager to speed ahead to find out what happens next and longing to linger over the sinuous sentences and rich, evocative descriptions.

For the writer, each chapter – whether a hundred words-long or ten pages – offers up a little lesson, a masterful example of how to build tension and suspense, how to reveal character, how to set a scene, how to slow down or speed up a narrative, how to describe a face, a tree, a house, a boot, a storm, the sound of a car, the sound of a cat, the smell of the woods, the taste of hate, the feel of regret – how to, basically, put the whole world down on paper.

But all of this exquisite language is governed by a sensitive perspective, one that folds numerous important ideas and themes into the larger narrative. Many of these are related to nature. Throughout the novel, Appelt shares her love of the natural world. Her feelings for the woods and waterways and the countless creatures that inhabit them – including us – ache out at the reader from every page. Her language is so deft and delicate that, after just a few pages, you’ll find yourself feeling the same – newly sensitized, as it were, to the world around you. After reading The Underneath, you will never look at a pine tree the same way again, will never hear a dog barking and baying without wondering at the worlds of feeling behind the cries.

It was only by coincidence that, after finishing The Underneath, I almost immediately picked up Carl Hiaasen’s Scat. In terms of style, shape, and tone, these two books are enormously different – they come, after all, from two very different writers. But Appelt and Hiaasen share a deep reverence for the natural world, and these feelings run through nearly every sentence of Scat, same as they do The Underneath. Love, respect, and appreciation of nature function in both Appelt’s and Hiaasen’s fiction like a tree’s roots. Invisible, yet integral. Unseen, but essential.

blog_naturepic2

Scat is about a missing biology teacher, an endangered panther, illegal oil pipelines, unlikely friends, accidental teenage detectives, “eco-avengers,” families (some broken, some fractured-but-surviving, some in the military, some mysterious, some strange), and also, if you can believe it, quite a bit more. And the writing is superb. Plenty of times throughout the novel, Hiaasen proves that he can wax poetic with the best of them, but he also manages to keep you edge-of-your-seat thrilled, dying to read on. And maybe best of all, Hiaasen makes you laugh.

All of this is in the service of telling a good story. Yet it’s clear that Hiaasen’s novel has a secondary mission, too. He’s seriously troubled by our modern-day use and abuse of nature, by our apathy towards its needs and our ignorance of its offerings. He doesn’t want money-hungry oilmen to barge into the woods with their bulldozers and pipelines both for the sake of the many living things that call the place home and, importantly, for our sake, too.

Hiaasen doesn’t want future generations of kids to grow up in a world devoid of even a single expanse of wilderness, to be kept from exploring and learning about the woods and nature at large, from climbing trees, building forts, hiking, camping, getting lost and finding one’s way – from cultivating an appreciation of nature that can add meaning, depth, perspective, and joy to (and throughout) an individual’s life.

Hiaasen is perhaps less subtle than Appelt when it comes to imparting his own brand of nature-appreciation, but it should be said that he never once gets out his moral hammer and hits you over the head with a message. He just has different goals than Appelt. His concerns are more political. He aims to leave the reader not just with a fresher, more-poetic view of nature, but also with a sense of urgency about its current state and prospects for survival, with a desire to change their ways and maybe even take a stand against the disregard and destruction of the natural world. Hiaasen convinces you – through storytelling, not self-righteousness or statistics – that these are important things to consider. And they truly are important, and only growing more so by the day.

If you read this blog, you know that I recently took a trip to Iceland. Besides the vast array of stunning natural sights, the thing that I was perhaps most surprised by was the almost total lack of safety measures taken to keep people from (a) interfering with those natural sights and (b) injuring or even killing themselves while viewing or “experiencing” them. When I spoke to some locals about this, they informed me that this had actually become a big problem for the Icelandic government – never before had it been necessary to put up signs or barriers warning people, say, to keep away from the edge of a waterfall, to not touch the boiling hot geyser, to watch their step when walking along a cliff, to be careful if swimming in the ice-cold and enormously powerful Atlantic Ocean, or to please refrain from removing sand, rocks, water, and any animal or vegetable life from their natural habitats.

A rare bit of safety signage at a glacier in Iceland.
A rare bit of safety signage at a glacier in Iceland.

This, of course, has to do with the huge increases in tourist traffic that Iceland sees every year. But is it just that more people equals more danger? That crowds cause new problems? Or is it, instead, that many of these new visitors don’t have the same sort of appreciation of nature – both its gifts and curses – that a people who have taken root and thrived on a volatile, volcanic island have by necessity (if nothing else) learned and handed down to their children?

Signage in America -- where adults still need to be told to wear appropriate footwear.
Signage in America — where adults still need to be told to wear appropriate footwear.
Oh, thank God. I was totally about to do that.
Oh, thank God. I was totally about to do that.

Say you’re traveling with someone who has a decently nuanced understanding of nature – would you ever have to worry about him or her reaching out and touching a jet of bubbling water as it gushed up vertically from a gaping, steam-spewing hole in the earth? Would you ever have reason to fear that he or she would climb down a series of slick, steep rocks in order to stick his or her hand into a waterfall flowing at 140 cubic meters per second?

No. Probably not.

An appreciation of nature can keep you from angering and disrespecting locals, injuring yourself, and even accidentally killing yourself. But it can also enhance and enrich your life, and can go a long way toward easing and even solving many of the political and ecological problem our planet faces, too. In their own way, both Scat and The Underneath make all of this – and much, much more – clear.

I don’t believe a novel has to carry a moral message in order to be worthwhile. But if an author is going to attempt to edify, they should make sure not to stop intriguing, exciting, and entertaining their readers, too. Both Appelt and Hiaasen have, in their own unique ways, done just this. By never letting their narratives slip away from them, the messages gently built into them come through all the more clearly and powerfully. And bound up as they are with stories we grow to love and characters we come to cherish, we won’t be able to help but take those messages to heart – and hold them there, too, for a long time. Perhaps even forever.

Psst. Take a walk.
Psst. Take a walk.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Skateboarding

Christopher-St.-Leger_1

Sometimes I get asked why I still skateboard. And sometimes – like when I’m picking my bruised and bloody body up off the concrete – I wonder why myself. The short and simple answer is this: I can’t help it. There are days when the weather is just too perfect, or days when I happen to pass by a particularly inviting bench or a curiously positioned series of curbs. My toes start to tingle and twitch in my sneakers, and all I can think about is hopping on my board and pushing down the pavement.

There’s more to it, though. So much more. Skateboarding, for me, has become – and probably always was – about more than just having fun with my friends and getting out some excess energy. It’s always been about those things, too, of course – and, importantly, it’s never felt like it had to be anything more. But it is. It’s bigger.

If it were only skateboarders reading this, I wouldn’t have to go on. The statements above would require no explanation. Hearing them, fellow skaters would most likely just nod in agreement and then go on to ask me if I’d seen So-and-So’s new video part or heard about What’s-His-Name’s new brand. I’ve never been asked by another skateboarder why I still skateboard, even though I can’t do all the tricks I used to be able to do, even though I can’t get up and shake off a fall as easily as I could when I was ten or twelve or even eighteen. They just get it.

But others don’t. And that’s why I so often get the urge to try and explain it. Not because I feel the need to justify myself to anyone. I try to explain for the same reason I try to explain just what makes a good book so good – because when you encounter something great, something life-changing, it’s natural to want to share it with someone else (if not the whole world), to let someone close to you in on the secret.

And no, that is not an exaggeration – once you’re under its spell, skateboarding truly will change your life.

I can’t remember the first time I stepped on a board, or even the first one that I ever owned. Skateboarding entered my life and overwhelmed me so completely that it became impossible for me to imagine myself existing without it. I was, in a word, hooked.

For one thing, it was more fun than anything else I could be doing. Being out there with my friends, learning and landing new tricks, discussing the mind-bending maneuver this or that skater had recently done down a set of stairs or a handrail – it was heaven. But the real reason behind the addiction, the thread – or, more like, the heavy-duty metal chains – that had me bound to my board and growing more passionate by the day, was the way in which skateboarding was constantly and permanently changing how I looked at, saw, and acted upon and within the world around me.

You can skateboard anywhere, on anything. You don’t even need pavement. Skateboarders stuck in more-rural parts of the world have found ways to skate the woods. They ride larger wheels, sometimes ones with tire treads. They scrape away a downed tree’s bark and, waxing the smooth trunk, make themselves an all-natural rail. They pour concrete, hammer together two-by-fours, set up slabs of plywood. They look – they create – they skate.

It’s a kind of art. But so is the skating that happens on the stairs and rails and ledges and curbs of our cities. These skaters are still looking, still seeing – seeing possibilities, seeing options – then making a decision and trying (and then often trying, and trying, and trying some more) to execute the trick that came to their mind to do. They’re leaving a bit of themselves – scrawling their name, in a way – on the world around them.

It’s no coincidence that, early on in its history, skateboarding found itself growing in tandem with another controversial art form: graffiti. It’s less of a stretch, perhaps, for doubters to understand how someone else could consider tagging a wall with spray paint making art – it is, after all, paint. But at its core, graffiti is the same as skateboarding. They’re both manners of self-expression, ones which use the found world – be it the side of a building or a railroad car or, for skaters, the stairs and granite ledges of a city plaza or even a fallen tree – as its canvas.

skate graffiti

It’s also no coincidence that so many skateboarders prove themselves hugely talented in other creative endeavors. Countless professionals create their own graphics for boards and t-shirts. Tons also design their own shoes and clothes. Some skaters are also widely respected musicians and painters and filmmakers and actors (Ben Harper, Shepard Fairey, Spike Jonze, and Jason Lee spring immediately to mind). It’s also common and even expected within the skateboard community for skaters to launch their very own companies and brands. It might be hard to believe, but some of today’s most innovative, creative, and successful entrepreneurs are skateboarders working within the skateboarding industry, and I can’t readily think of another industry that so eagerly encourages and cultivates individuals’ (especially young individuals’) entrepreneurial spirits and talents.

My argument being that all this creativity comes directly from the act (and art) of skateboarding. That if these people hadn’t spent so much of their lives atop a four-wheeled plank of wood, they wouldn’t have otherwise become the people they are now – that skateboarding crucially and permanently changed them. This is what I meant when I said that skateboarding changes the way one looks at, sees, and ultimately acts upon and within the world around them.

Once you’ve begun skateboarding – and even long, long after you’ve stopped – you can’t help but see the world as a skateboarder. Visiting a new city, or even walking around your same old neighborhood, you can’t help but look at the architecture and landscape and imagine yourself (or, more often than not, a super-talented version of yourself) doing a trick on, down, under, over, or around it. You are constantly assailed with the urge, with the overwhelming desire, to create, to express yourself everywhere and anywhere.

That alone is an incredible thing, a gift given by a piece of wood to countless kids all over the world. But there’s even more. There’s something inherent in the act and art of skateboarding, something that carries with it another slew of lessons and imparts another bunch of critical skills and capacities. That thing is risk.

All creation requires some kind of risk, even if that risk begins and ends with seeing for yourself alone what you can create (which, of course, is nothing at all to scoff at). But putting your creations out in the world, sharing them with others – that’s another risk. And when you get lukewarm or even negative feedback, when you meet with failure and rejection, it’s another kind of risk to pick yourself up and try again (and again, and again).

But skateboarding teaches you that risk is necessary, and that risk always pays off. Yes: always. Even if you don’t end up landing the trick you just spent four hours attempting, even if your body calls a quits on you before the last of your determination drains away, you’ve pushed yourself, you’ve grown. Failure isn’t a bad thing. It’s fine. It’s even good for you. It’s a necessary part of the process. You walk away from a set of stairs with the taste of blood on your tongue, and in a perverse sort of way, you become even more determined to come back again and continue trying tomorrow.

It’s the same with writing – or, really, creative pursuits of any kind. Falling down over and over again and still getting back up to try again is the physical equivalent of having a manuscript rejected over and over again and still turning back to it to make it better and send it out again. It’s even the physical equivalent of the day-to-day practice of writing. You pound out a couple thousand words, only to realize the next morning that only a hundred of them are any good. Or you get a dozen chapters under your belt, only to discover that you’ve got to change something back at the beginning, something that will completely alter everything that comes after it.

Skateboarding has encouraged, cultivated, and stoked my urge to create while at the same time teaching me about the risks and rewards inherent in the process. Without it, I wouldn’t be who I am, and I probably wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing – or, at least, doing it quite as well.

So I guess all this is why I continue skateboarding, and why I’ll probably always keep one foot in the culture (even if my other one is done letting me pound the pavement): to express my thanks for all that it’s given me, and to keep on gathering the gifts it has yet to give.

. . .

Below I’ve included links to video parts from some of the most creative skaters out there. I encourage you to watch – and to seek out more videos, too – and hope you can see the artfulness and self-expression within them.

Jason Park – “Forever My Home”

A short skate film by Brett Novak – a stunning talent in his own right, who may be better equipped than anyone to show a non-skater the artistry not only of skating, but of filming and editing skateboarding, too. (Click here to visit Brett’s website.)

Chris Haslam and Daewon Song – “Cheese & Crackers”

Two friends and teammates have a fantastic time – and, in the process, absolutely devastate – a single mini-ramp. An instant classic packed full of mind-melting maneuvers and astonishingly fresh-eyed creativity – this pair of imaginative foot-wizards ought to get the jaws of even the uninitiated dropping.

Steve Mull and Dave Mull – “From the Borders”

These are the guys who refuse to let any terrain tell them they can’t skate upon it. Brick, cracked pavement, snowy sidewalks, icy rails, random construction materials, logs, and rough, left-strewn, moss-marked, branch-riddled ditches – these dudes just don’t care where it is, they’re gonna hop on their boards and do their thing.

Thanks also to Thrasher Magazine for continuing to post and promote the best skating happening, no matter where it is or who’s doing it.

And one last note of attribution: the watercolor of the kids skating at the top of this post was done by Christopher St. Leger. Click here to visit his website, where you can learn more about him, link to his blog, find out how to contact him, and see more of his great works.