Michael Christie was a professional skateboarder and has spent the better part of 26 years practicing tricks. A few years ago, he traded one board for another and now makes his living with a keyboard.
Christie’s debut novel, If I Fall, If I Die has recently published to critical acclaim, including a starred review from Kirkus and kind words from Karen Russell (“You will feel it in your shins and your solar plexus.”) It’s the story of Will who lives in Thunder Bay, the northern most city on the Great Lakes, with his agoraphobic mother. As the novel opens, Will is 11n years old and can’t remember ever going outside. He has lived a sheltered and solitary life with little more than his mother’s company. The story follows Will as he discovers the world beyond his doorstep. One of the things that draws Will out of his house is a skateboard, and it becomes central to his exploration of life “Outside.”
If skateboarding is a way out for Will, it is a way in for Christie. I don’t think that I’ve read more beautiful descriptions of skateboarding, like when Will watches is friend do an ollie, “frozen like a cat stalking a robin, before cracking the rear of the board down, rocketing himself upward with the apparatus clinging impossibly to his feet like a burr.”
Christie has said that the transition from professional skateboarder to writer was fairly seamless. As I’ve long held that writing is a contact sport, I was curious to hear more.
As told by Michael Christie, here are five ways that being a writer and professional skateboarder are the same:
1. They Both Hurt
“When I finally got the time and resources to write with any kind of regularity, I was surprised to learn that full-time writing is weirdly gruelling, and requires a sort of conditioning of the mind and body. This could be my arthritis-addled joints talking, but it’s punishing to sit for hours on end (yes, I know about standing desks, but they make me feel worse, like I’m back working construction or waiting tables) and there have been days when my trackpad-maimed right hand is positively raptor-like.
But I’m certainly not complaining! What a luxury it is to ‘suffer’ this way. And there is great pleasure in the physicality, too. When I’m on a roll, it feels like my body is possessed by some benevolent guiding force and hours zoom by, pain-free. I remember similar days on my skateboard when it felt like I could land just about anything I attempted. My legs were lighter, more springy. My balance was consistently zeroed in and my board seemed telekinetically bound to my will. What greater joy is there?
Besides, I think the boundary between mental and physical pain is very permeable. Over my skateboard career I managed to break a small bundle of bones, but I’d take fracturing my wrist again any day of the week over working doggedly for four years on a novel before realizing in one grisly flash that it is fundamentally flawed, boring and utterly unsalvageable. That hurts like the dickens.”
2. They Both Involve Constant, Crushing Failure
“The true measure of a skateboarder’s prowess is something called the ‘video part.’ These are usually three-to-five minute montages of the best, most unbelievable tricks that a skateboarder has performed over a period of years. Skaters offer up every last ounce of themselves to create these morsels of footage.
Yes, the indomitable Kevin Romar landed this majestic, gorgeously executed feat after dealing with some dude with a pit bull, and after skittering repeatedly on his back over the hot, Santa Monican pavement, all while the cops were en route to charge him with trespassing. If that isn’t persistence I don’t know what is!
I’m not exactly sure what my own lifetime skateboard trick-landing percentage would be (thank God we don’t keep stats like that), but I’d estimate it somewhere in the neighborhood of .1 percent. The same is true of even the most proficient and consistent skateboarders in the world. You usually try a trick hundreds — if not thousands — of times before ever rolling away. Just to get in the door and learn the rudimentary ollie requires hours of struggle and failure, some of which results in minor or major injury, but mostly it’s just endless frustration and disappointment. You just have to get used to it, this failure. Basically, you have to be like Kevin Romar.
I realize that this may be reductive, but to me, writing is the same. Doing it means figuring out how to resist viewing all those small failures as catastrophes. You have to keep pulling yourself off the pavement, even when the cops are on the way…”
3. They Both Require Carving Your Own Path
“I grew up in a hockey town, but I always recoiled from organized sports because I couldn’t stand coaches yelling at me and telling me what to do. But skateboarding was completely different. There is no court or field or score. It happens in the real world, like a site-specific dance improvised anywhere there is concrete.
And I think writing has that same delicious feeling of unboundedness. There is no coach, thankfully. Nobody is going to tell you what to work on next, hopefully. So you’ve got to be a person who enjoys this open-endedness. Nobody told Kevin Romar that he ought to try to nollie backside heelflip those stairs. He did it because he believed he could. And he was right!
Writers have to be able to make these enormous, potentially disastrous — or potentially brilliant — decisions all the time. And like skateboarding, it takes a certain amount of bravery (or delusion) to believe you can pull it off.”
4. They Both Demand Obsessive, Almost Monastic Devotion
“I grew up skateboarding in Northern Ontario, which was kind of like a kid from Kansas deciding to become a mountain climber. For seven months of the year my hometown was ice-locked, completely unnavigable by skateboard. The first snow was my yearly heartbreaker. Luckily my house had an unfinished basement, and my mom was insane enough to let me skateboard down there. I’d fake sick and stay home from school, then by 11 a.m. or so I’d claim to be feeling better, and spend the rest of the day practicing kickflips in the basement like a maniac. I’d make these personal challenges with myself, like ‘If I don’t land the next 10 ollies in a row, my whole family is going to die.’ (Yes, I was weird.)
But it was something I took very seriously and practiced very devotedly. And nobody was telling me to do this. No coach. No instruction manual. For some reason, I just needed to do it. I’d feel unnerved and depressed if I couldn’t skate for even a few days. I remember my legs would get jumpy and I’d be agitated in class, unable to listen to anyone’s voice, especially my teacher’s. Obsession would be a gross understatement for how skateboarding consumed my life.
I suppose that I’ve managed to redirect this obsessiveness towards my writing. I feel this similar weird devotion to whatever I’m writing. I treat it like I’m filming a video part. Trying to each day create something good enough to use in the final product.”
5. They Leave Blood on the Ground
“I believe that if you aren’t getting bloody somehow in your work, whether opening a psychic wound, closing one, disinfecting one, or just plain jamming your finger into one to see what happens, then it’s doubtful the work will be worth anyone else’s time.
There must be some kind of stakes for the writer, personally — whether they’re explicit in the book or not it doesn’t matter. Writing ought to be, at least on some level, potentially injurious. Like in skateboarding, there is always a razor-thin line between catastrophe and triumph, between falling and staying up, between bad writing and great writing, between a brilliant book and a terrible one, and I think writers ought to try to tightrope walk that line.
In both skateboarding and literature, there is that sublime moment when someone pulls something off that is clearly at the very outer limits of their ability, that is even perhaps beyond their ability, but yet it somehow worked out anyway — and this is where the true magic happens. Art is risk. That’s why it captivates us. And if a writer taking this risk has left a little (metaphorical!) blood on the ground, then all the better for those watching. The spatter is how we know they meant it.”