Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

on the benefits of not writing (surfing)

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It isn’t (usually) wise to blame other people for things that happen to you, but I blame Dr. Kary Banks Mullis for everything.

Dr. Mullis is a Novel Prize-winning biochemist who devised paradigm-shifting improvements to the polymerase chain reaction (PCR), for which he shared the 1993 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Canadian Dr. Michael Smith.

In lectures, I talk about Dr. Mullis often because PCR revolutionized the field of molecular biology. Basically, PCR enabled scientists to amplify large amounts of DNA from the teeniest, tiniest biological samples. Like, say, flakes of blood, bits of nails, or strands of hair collected at crime scenes. PCR has also allowed scientists to amplify and decode DNA extracted from ancient biological specimens, like the wooly mammoth preserved in Siberian permafrost.

Anyway. Whenever I talk about Dr. Mullis to my students, I do not fail to mention that he is an extremely interesting person with exciting personal views. (He alleges, for example, to have encountered an extraterrestrial raccoon glowing green).

What I find also remarkable about Dr. Mullis is that he clearly knows how to relax. Case in point: on the cover of his best-selling book, Dancing Naked in the Mind Field, Dr. Mullis is sporting a wet suit. In short, he surfs.

Not to be outdone, last summer, I decided to try surfing too. I took a very small plane to Tofino, B.C., and made my way to South Chesterman Beach.

The Pacific Ocean seemed incomprehensively blue. In the distance, I could see whitecaps spilling sideways toward the shore. A few dozen surfers, slick in their wet suits, sat astride on white surfboards. The wind, meanwhile, was blowing from sea to land.

Overcome by the feeling of absolute freedom that sometimes comes on a beach, I decided to take a break from writing. For good.

The truth is that by the time I ended up on the beach in Tofino, writing had not been going well for me for some time. And so, as I stood there, watching surfers waiting for yet another wave, I decided to quit trying to write fiction altogether, and be just a reader of fiction instead.

The following morning, I was pleased with my decision. I woke up much later than usual because I did not have to write. Over breakfast at the B&B, I read a romantic short story while sipping a steaming chai. Afterward, I took a long lazy bath in a clawfoot bathtub and read some more.

At noon, fatigued by all the reading, I biked into town and rented a surfboard. One hour later, I waded chest-high into the ocean and lay down on my board. There were a few surfers ahead of me, riding. Good. Nobody was falling off.

I caught a few small waves to get my surfing stride back. Within twenty minutes, however, the wind had changed. The waves had shifted also. The horizon had seemingly tilted a bit.

Nonetheless, I paddled out farther toward a friendly-looking wave. It was swelling up fast though and by the time it reached me it was three-storey high. I turned back toward shore then, paddling like crazy, thinking that somehow everything would be okay. Too late. A second later, I felt tremendous acceleration and was thrust head first into the abyss.

It’s hard to describe the shock of freezing cold ocean water gushing under your wet suit. It’s hard to find proper words for its taste in your mouth, or its slippery strangeness slithering up your nose. It's hard to define what it felt like, exactly, to lose a little bit of yourself. Because, believe me, you lose a little bit of yourself in the ocean, when it flips, tosses, and spits you like that.

I surfaced and found myself kneeling in the midst of swirling white foam. And before I could help it, I began to compose the words in my heads to describe it all.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Irina Kovalyova

Irina Kovalyova has a Master’s degree in Chemistry from Brown University, a doctoral degree in Microbiology from Queen’s University, and an MFA in Creative Writing from UBC. She is currently a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry at Simon Fraser University. She has previously interned for NASA and worked for two years as a forensic analyst in New York City. She was born in Russia and currently lives in Vancouver.

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