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[Interview] Karen Rinaldi

Updated: Jan 18, 2020

By A.M. Larks

It’s Great to Suck at Something is first and foremost a book about passion, and for Karen Rinaldi that passion is surfing. Her writing is packed with beautiful visceral descriptions of the ocean that make even the timidest of readers want to pick up a board and give it a try. If they did pick up that board, they would likely find that they suck (because surfing is one of the hardest sports on the planet) and that would be okay.

To be fair, I probably picked up Rinaldi’s book out of a bit of confirmation bias. I have, like many people, failed at a number of things in my life. But unlike many people, I have also failed big, failed publicly, and failed in a small community where I still face that failure every day. This book sounded like it would make me feel better about that failure and it did, just not in the way I expected. Because this isn’t a self-help book, at least not in the traditional sense, it is a book that tackles ingrained American cultural values like winning, perfectionism, and productivity. It is a book that talks about the benefit of discomfort and how learning and creativity are just on the other side of that. This is a funny, well-researched, personal account of transcending usefulness and go do something (even if you are bad at it).

Karen and I caught up over email to discuss how this book came to be, the finer points of suckitude, and of course, surfing.

KELP: You picked a bold title for this book. Was that intentional to begin breaking down our preconceptions and barriers from the get go?

RINALDI: The concept came from something someone once said to my son about 14 years ago. He said, literally, “It’s so great to suck at something!” It stuck in my mind and became a kind of mantra--meant to be counterintuitively encouraging and supportive. My publisher and I considered whether it would be a barrier to open reception but we decided that people would either get it or not. It’s gone both ways.

KELP: The concept of the positive aspects of “suckitude” is a difficult one to define and explain, and you have tied it into the other ideas like passion, resilience, nostalgia, and perfectionism to name a few. How did you go about tackling all of the topics that sucking at something touches upon?

RINALDI: I did two things: First, I followed my own experience. This book came from more than a decade of thinking about how I found the most joy from doing the thing for which I show the least talent. It baffled me. So, I started paying attention to the feelings surfing (and sucking at it) aroused and I tried to break them down by writing about those ideas and feelings. Second, I started digging into those ideas through research studies, books, conversations with other surfers, and subject experts, etc.

KELP: Your book opens with a graph that boils down “sucking” at something. The vertical axis measures competency, starting with sucking at something and ending with being good at something. The horizontal axis measures mindfulness with cluelessness on beginning of the left and ending with awake-ness on the right. You indicate that the sweet spot is in the quadrant where one is aware of their abilities and also sucking at something. It is easy to see how sucking at something and being clueless about it is detrimental, but why is being good at something but clueless about it or a subject matter expert aware of their ability also a detriment?

RINALDI: Being a subject matter expert who is awake to her skill falls in the quadrant of being good at something and awake, so it’s actually not detrimental at all! Keep in mind that you can know how good you are and still strive to improve--that’s what GOATs (greatest-of-all-time) do. You could call it another kind of sweet spot--but it’s not what the book is calling out. Being good at something and clueless about it is the space where a damaging lack of self-knowledge and self-belief thrives. Like everything else, the S@S matrix is meant to give a spectrum of experience.

KELP: Sucking at something is diametrically opposed to many American values, like ones that foster competitiveness, perfectionism, and constant productivity. Do you think that your book acts as a criticism to some of our ingrained values and opens up a dialogue about the way we live?

RINALDI: I am not saying that competition is a bad thing, but there is a time and place for everything. And winning shouldn’t be the only thing. As for perfectionism, it is simply a fool’s game (an excuse to cover our insecurities.) And productivity is open for interpretation. I would say that contemplation, inner growth, helping others and awareness is productive, even if it doesn’t result in a tangible or recognizable-by-others reward or gain.

KELP: What I liked most about your book was that you talked about the whole person and you encouraged people to have passions outside of careers and continue learning. Why do you think this is a hard concept for people to grasp? It seems like it would be an intuitive way to lead a balanced and full life.

RINALDI: Somewhere along the way we started to believe that getting ahead, winning, was the only way. I think it is fostered by many different factors: The loss of community, the trend towards exceptionalism, the power of advertising selling stuff to us that we don’t need…the list goes on. When we spend more time either in solitude getting to know ourselves better, or in community helping others, our lives become more balanced and full as you say above, and the world becomes a kinder place.

KELP: There is a unique structure to your book, as you have broken it up into seven memorable surfing incidents involving seven memorable waves. How did you choose these experiences out of the many memories of surfing that you have?

RINALDI: I started writing this book long before I knew it would become a book. When something happened while surfing that I was trying to make sense of, I would write about it as a way of trying to understand it better. For example, when I was finned between the legs (which turned into Chapter 3), I considered quitting. Then I asked myself, why, if everyone who surfs gets injured, I took that injury as a sign that I didn’t deserve to surf? When I opened up that question and started writing/thinking about it, I realized that while I always thought I was a confident person, that didn’t tell the whole story. I had to paddle around my insecurities to learn something more about who I was. Every chapter was borne out of those attempts to understand versus simply reacting.

KELP: Despite being a kook (a novice surfer), you’ve mentioned that you have surfed in a variety of places. Where are some of your favorite spots?

RINALDI: Playa Guiones on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica is my favorite spot. It’s where I travel to most often, but I also go for the community, which I love. Freights Bay in Barbados is a great spot for me because it’s a gentle, long left, and as a goofy-foot who struggles to go backside, it’s perfect.

KELP: You write that your journey to surfing stemmed from your fear and obsession with the ocean, which doesn’t seem like a common reason to become a surfer. Does everyone who becomes a surfer have their own origin story?

RINALDI: Story seems to be a common bonding tradition in surfing. If you hang around any surfer long enough, you’ll hear about when and why they started!

KELP: There are a number of surfing/philosophy books cited in It’s Great to Suck at Something and you seem particularly well-versed in surfing lit. What does this sub-genre provide that isn’t covered by other texts?

RINALDI: Surfing is so particular that it’s especially enlightening and satisfying to enter someone else’s experience of it. I try to read every surfing book that comes out.

KELP: For a surfing lit newbie, can you give a list of some surfing books and/or authors to start with?

RINALDI: On a Wave by Thad Ziolkowski; Barbarian Days by William Finnegan; That Oceanic Feeling by Fiona Capp; Surf is Where You Find It by Gerry Lopez; The Wave by Susan Casey; Breath by Tim Winton; Caught Inside by Daniel Duane; West of Jesus by Steven Kotler; Crossings by Michael Kew; Saltwater Buddha and All Our Waves Are Water by Jaimal Yogis.

KELP: You are an editor and publisher of Harper Wave--which you founded--as well as an author. Can you talk about your process? How do you switch modes without driving yourself crazy?

RINALDI: Switching modes is exactly how I don’t go crazy. When I edit and publish, I spend time in other people’s psyches and experiences. It’s rewarding work and I love digging into another writer’s work. And it’s easier, in some ways, because finding the weaknesses and fault lines in someone else’s writing--to try to make it better--is so much easier than finding them in my own. That said, I find balance in being able to turn that externalized process inward, to sit alone with my own thoughts--rather than rummaging around someone else’s--working to solve a problem of my own making. I’ve become pretty good at compartmentalizing the work. When I edit, I surrender to the process and devote my attention entirely to the voice and point of view of the writer. When I write, I try to peel away the layers of internal BS that can crowd my mind and I try to write something true--whatever that means. It is both a privilege to do and it feels absolutely necessary. I like to think that by sitting on both sides of the desk, one side illuminates the other.

AM Larks writes fiction, nonfiction, and drama. Her writing has appeared in Scoundrel TimeAssay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, and the Zyzzyva and Ploughshares blogs. She has performed her stories at Lit Up at Town Hall Theatre in Lafayette, California. She is the current Fiction Editor at Please See Me literary magazine, the Photo Editor at Kelp Journal, a multimedia literary revue, and she is the former Blog Editor of The Coachella Review. She earned a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature, a Juris Doctorate, and her Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts from the University California Riverside Palm Desert's low residency program. She lives in Northern California.


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