A Thanks to Brian Lam, Matt Warshaw, Jeremy Spencer, Chronicle Books – and Everyone who’s Made this Ocean Life Possible
by Chris Dixon
My first ever rejection letter. Courtesy of Surfer Magazine and Matt Warshaw. 1989.
It’s weird the stuff you decide to file in your folder book of memories. The above note is one such recently found object. It’s my very first, of very, very many professional rejection notes. If you’re a writer, you get used to rejection notes from editors. If you don’t, well, you’d better find other work. Aside from being a first, what makes this letter so very damn special is that it was written and signed by none other than Matt Warshaw. If you’re a surfer who’s worth even a grain of salt, you know him. If you’re not a surfer, suffice to say that the author of The History of Surfing and editor of The Encyclopedia of Surfing is to our sport as Ken Burns is to baseball – or James Michener is to Hawaii.
Not too long ago, I stumbled upon Warshaw’s note in the back of my garage, amidst a stack of yellowing articles and letters. I’d completely forgotten this little nugget, but I vividly remember when it arrived. It was late 1989. I was a hopeful young journalism graduate, freshly minted from the University of Georgia, freshly cast off by my UGA girlfriend and freshly rendered unemployed and homeless by hurricane Hugo’s godawful smashing of the South Carolina coast. Forlorn and filled with a twenty-something’s boundless capacity for angst, I’d found temporary refuge in the basement of my dad’s Atlanta condo, and a temporary job shuffling fonts around on a Macintosh computer at his advertising agency. I reckoned the only way out of depression and self-pity was to write, and get the hell back to the beach.
Such was my desperation to return to the coast, even one as storm-blasted as Surfside Beach, South Carolina, I made queries to every editor I could think of. One was Win Minter, editor of Hot Times, Myrtle Beach’s answer to The Village Voice – that is, if the Voice‘s demographic was Kenny Powers. Bemused by this enthusiastic, ignorant young hick hack, Winter offered me a gig selling ads and writing whatever the hell I wanted – for very little money. But money didn’t matter. I packed my bags.
Kenny Powers. The pride of Myrtle Beach.
On a wing, hope and a prayer I’d also typed up a letter to Surfer. Through my teenaged years, Surfer was my favorite, favorite, favorite magazine. I’d memorized every issue and spilled copious amounts of cereal milk on pages poring over Mike Balzer and Jeff Divine’s photos of Martin Potter, Brad Gerlach and Shaun Tomson and studying the wisdom of editor Jim Kempton and writers like Ben Marcus, Steve Barilotti and of course, Warshaw. Completely unaware that as a Carolina cracker, I had a snowball’s chance in hell, I sent them some grainy pictures and a proposal for a first-ever feature on Jamaica, where I’d already spent months amidst incredible waves and more incredible people.
Inilek Wilmot (arm outstretched) and his own seafaring Rastafarian family.
Incredible photo courtesy of Steve Gorrow.
Surfer’s reply arrived a month or so later, via the U.S. mail, addressed to me! In a real envelope with an actual stamp! With sweaty palms and thundering heart, I tore it open. It was on real letterhead! Typed in real ink! Signed by Matt Warshaw! Holy shit. I felt like Ralphie in A Christmas Story, ripping into my autographed note from Pierre André and Little Orphan Annie.
Alas, a quick scan revealed that Mr. Warshaw would let me down as surely as Ralphie was to be crushed by Annie and her Ovaltine decoder pin. Surfer already had a rough map, and some rough plans, for a story on Jamaica. A map? Rough plans? From who? Son of a Bitch! But wait, Warshaw’s last line. Maybe he left the door open a tiny bit. Reach out, he suggested, to Donna Oakley, editor of Surfer’s version of Lonely Planet Travel Guides, better known as The Surf Report. So I did. When Oakley asked me to author a Jamaica guide, my jaw hit the floor.
Because I didn’t know any better, I worked really, really hard on that Surf Report. Again, for very little money. Surfer was pleased. So pleased in fact, that a year later, a call came from out of the blue from Surfer’s new editor Steve Hawk. To introduce more Surfer readers to The Surf Report, Hawk wanted to insert my travel guide into the magazine, with a picture of my buddy Will Hardgrove dropping into a epic left at the late, great Zoo. Are you fricking kidding me?
The “Railslide” Issue of Surfer. Featuring Kelly Slater with hair, and my Surf Report.
So where, exactly, am I going with all this?
Today, on the first day of 2016, I bid The Scuttlefish, at the very least, a temporary farewell. See, thanks to editors like Warshaw, Steve Hawk (who would have a big hand in my later job as Surfer‘s first online editor) and plenty of others who were willing to take a chance on an eager writer stupid enough to see opportunity in rejection, I’m embarking on the second major book of my career. I’ll not reveal that much about it, except to say that it’ll be an ocean-centered project published by Chronicle Books. It’s the direct result of a ton of brainstorming between Scuttlefish founding father Brian Lam, writers Carolyn Sotka and Owen Burke, my agent Meg Thompson and former Outside features editor Jeremy Keith Spencer – who will be the book’s co-author. It was Spencer, incidentally, who rejected the first feature story idea I ever sent to Outside, but would later put me onto the job with Mr. Lam and TheScut.
Working with Brian editing and writing for The Scuttlefish and his mammoth baby TheWirecutter.com, has been an ongoing education and a revelation. As anyone who’s had the pleasure of working with Brian can attest, he possesses an incredibly rare combination of entrepreneurial drive, organization, creativity, digital and analog genius and straight up soul. He’s tipped me off to stories for the The New York Times, and has allowed me to work behind the scenes on a completely different oceanic collaboration that I can’t yet reveal at all. Should it come to fruition though, it will be the most important and inspiring projects I’ve ever been a part of – next to helping my daughter ride her first wave, and my son catch his first fish, that is.
Thanks to to everyone, for words written and memories made – and yet to come. May your 2016 be as great and deep as the ocean. — CD