Some of my recent writings, along with my sixth-grade report card. Photo by Chris Ahrens
Columns Waterspot

Waterspot: Surfing by the word

It would be easier to imagine a jockey playing center for the L.A. Lakers than me becoming a writer. Nobody, including friends, family or teachers from grade school, thought it possible. And yet, I was convinced it would somehow happen and here I am —roughly 2 million published words later with bylines in publications as diverse as the Los Angeles Times and Family Circle, eight mostly successful books, one award-winning documentary, the words editor-in-chief written next to my name in three different magazines, and a weekly column in The Coast News.

The nicest thing anyone called me then was “dreamer.” Among the worst was “nutcase.” Still, I persisted with nearly zero encouragement and enough rejection letters to paper a shopping mall.

My first success did not yield money, but something more important to me at the time — the respect of my classmates. It was during the last day of third grade at Saint Benedict School when our teacher, Sister Mary Ignatius, chose my story, “Big Bully,” from the big stack of folders on her desk and read to the class. I didn’t know it was called that then, but this was a parody — a story of a kid in our class who beat up each of us just for fun. I changed the names and circumstances surrounding Bully, and Sister Ignatius had no idea why the kids in her class were laughing, and my bully was scowling. I was rewarded with many pats on the back and one punch in the face. The pain must have been worth it because I persisted.

From then on, I always answered “writer” to anyone who asked what I would do when I grew up. Those who knew me best laughed the hardest, but I continued writing. Poorly.

It wasn’t until 1971 when a free zine called Waves hit Southern California surf shops that I was published for the first time. The article was titled “Jesus in the Tube.” A longer one on the destruction of Dana Point quickly followed that story.

Two years later, I moved to Australia and had some minor success in the Aussie surf press. When I returned to the U.S. after two years away, I sold my first piece to the prestigious Surfer Magazine.

My first full-time job as a writer came in 1978 when I became a reporter for a Luiseno tribe publication called Nok Ma. It was there editor Richard Shopelry, and reporter Gordon Johnson, taught me the basics of news journalism. Nock Ma lasted six months and was followed by several pieces in Track’s Australia, where I eventually became the California correspondent and a few more in Surfer.

Throughout those lean years, I had countless jobs — mostly in surf shops and restaurants — but was always daydreaming about writing, and so was never employed for long. My final non-writing job was picking up recycled newspapers. It was strenuous work, and I would hit the bed exhausted after tossing bundles for eight hours.

There used to be a surfing magazine called Breakout, located on State Street in Carlsbad. I had written a few stories for them and one day walked in to deliver one of them. Just then, the founder and publisher of Breakout, George Salvador, walked up and asked me if I wanted to be the editor of this magazine. Of course, I said yes.

I edited Breakout for around five years, and in that time, learned a lot about writing from both Salvador and his famously talented photo editor, Guy Motil. After years of hard work, I had finally become a writer with a tax return to prove it.

Now, I’m not suggesting any kid failing English follow their dream into a world built on words. Then again, maybe I am. I haven’t dreaded a Monday morning for over 40 years.

Chris Ahrens,

Writer

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