The wind is blowing. The spring run-off is high and the river is rushing. The afternoons are warming up. The sun comes up before five o’clock a.m. and doesn’t set ’til after nine in the evening. It’s time to get back on the water.
I’ve been windsurfing for twenty-two years. It’s the most challenging sport I’ve ever
attempted. Every time I get out on the mighty Columbia River, I don’t know what’s going to happen. Windsurfing is like being in the center of a gyroscope: nothing is stable — the board, the mast, the boom, the sail all rotate. Every part of your body is engaged. Your mind must be completely focused; if your thoughts wander, you’ll be in trouble. The exhilaration is addictive.
It’s just like being an actor.
As I get ready for the new season of sailing, I am thinking how my three rules for windsurfing apply to the actors graduating in a few weeks with an M.F.A. in hand. If I were speaking at their commencement ceremony, this is what I would say.
Rule #1: Stay in shape; stay sharp; keep learning.
There’s nothing more frustrating than getting on the water out of shape. It can take half of the summer to get up to speed. I work out the rest of the year so that when I’m on the river in the spring, I have a chance. And it’s still exhausting until the specific muscles I’m using get organized.
It’s so easy for an actor to let her skills subside between gigs. Don’t. Do your voice work every day, sing, read plays, go to plays, rehearse Shakespeare pieces, stay physically fit, do readings. You want to be ready so that you waste no time when the big opportunity comes up.
Every sailor is a different age, different physical type, and has different capabilities. I’d be discouraged if I compared myself to a twenty-two year old world-class athlete (many of whom also sail in the Columbia River Gorge). Instead, I’m inspired by watching them sail; I don’t worry that I’m not able to do what they do. And every summer, I challenge myself to try new techniques on the water: completing more jibes, approaching larger waves, riding bigger swell. My only competition is with myself.
It’s so easy for an actor to be discouraged by the accomplishments of others, particularly if they are your classmates. Remember, you are who you are and your gifts are specific to you. Be honest with yourself. You are a combination of capabilities that no one else has, but you must know your strengths and develop those gifts. Let others’ successes be an inspiration to be better at what you do.
You are graduating from a great school. You’ve learned a lot. I’m sure the last thing you are thinking about is learning something new. Well, OK. Take a break for a bit, but then take class. Push yourself beyond what you know. Take risks so that you can get to the next level of your craft. Take every opportunity you can to improve.
Rule #2: Bring your best self every day.
The windsurfing mantra is “attitude is everything.” It’s a difficult sport with a huge number of variables. Getting ready can seem like a series of chores: from watching the weather reports and choosing a sailing site, to deciding which boards to take and loading all the gear, to driving to the site and scoping out the wind and waves, to picking the right size sail and then rigging it, to slogging out to the wind line, hoping your wet suit is warm enough.
It’s easy to be frustrated when you can’t find a parking spot, or you’ve rigged the wrong sail, or you didn’t bring the right board, or the wind changes, or dies, or the water’s cold, or you’re tired, or, or, or… It’s essential to bring the right frame of mind to every moment of the whole experience. A positive mind creates a positive time both on and off the water.
And of course, this is the same for an actor. You can use any excuse to be less than who you are. You are working two jobs, your agent doesn’t send you out, you can’t afford new head shots. You know how to create a character in a play; use those same skills to create the you you want to be. If you are one-hundred-and-ten percent present, you will never regret a moment of your life. You will have always brought your best.
Many days, I sail like a pro. I fly over the water at rocket speed, pushing my limits, delightfully balanced between sail and board. I’ve also had days on the water where I’m ready to give up. I’ve cracked ribs, bruised muscles, torn my meniscus. I’ve been so exhausted I could cry. I decided one day to stop beating myself up for what I didn’t do and start celebrating what I’ve accomplished. Just getting on the water is the accomplishment on those days. This attitude shift has completely changed my experience — I now look forward to facing the challenges.
The life of the actor can be filled with pitfalls, disappointments, and despair. You can choose to berate yourself for what you imagine to be failure. Or, at the end of the day, you can ask yourself, “What did I do well today?” You will always find something to celebrate. Soon you will notice that your accomplishments are piling up and there are more wins than losses.
Rule #3: See the big picture.
The crests of the waves refract the sunlight into a thousand sparkles. The water wakes up every part of your body. The summer snow on Mt. Hood glistens against the cloudless sky. The bright sails of windsurfers in the distance look like butterfly wings. If I’m just focused on my success or failure on the water, I will never see the beauty around me.
Being an actor can become an narrow obsession. You can lose sight of the world around you. Don’t. See the L.A. hills turn green in the winter. Watch the flowering trees bloom in spring in Manhattan. Take a walk in the February slush along Lake Michigan. Enjoy a wonderful meal. Treasure your friends. Be in love. Remember that you have chosen this life and its tremendous creative rewards.
Adam Phillips wrote in Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life, ”Our lived lives might become a protracted mourning for, or an endless trauma about, the lives we were unable to live.” Be the person who is living their life fully, learning, growing, celebrating, seeing. Remember, if you believe that you live in a state of grace, you will live in a state of grace.
And as they say out here in the Gorge, “See you on the water.”