JAMIE BRISICK’S TURN FROM PROFESSIONAL SURFING
TO WRITING THROUGH MUSIC, SPORT, AND LOSS.
Written by Michael Adno
Photography by Jamie Brisick
Nestled along the rim of Los Angeles’ Simi Valley, skirting the Santa Monica Mountains, lies Westlake Village, halfway between Hollywood and Oxnard, California. Jamie Brisick grew up here near the end of a housing development; the kind that has come to define the suburban American landscape — garages, thirsty sidewalks, and station wagons. South through the canyons that spill out onto the Malibu coastline are a series of points around which waves bend, forming long, open-faced walls. These famed point breaks — as surfers call them — hold their own Hollywood-esque aura. Ages of seismic shifts have formed the ocean’s bathymetry and blessed Malibu with smooth, round cobblestones and thumbs of sand, forming First Point’s sought-after walls, a wave where surfing luminaries planted seeds that still take root today. This place has served as the site for some of surfing’s brightest moments; the shift from ancient to modern surfing, outsider to mainstream, and culture to sport.
Brisick came of age along the ins and outs of sand and stone, born at Hollywood Presbyterian on September 17, 1966. His first memorable encounter with surfing came during a family trip to Oahu, Hawaii, where he and his brothers took a surf lesson. “We rented soft tops and went out at Waikiki, which is such a long, forgiving wave. And I remember just streaking along and there was this yellow, phallic thing sticking out, turquoise water, and I’m watching the reef go by, and out of the corner of my eye there’s Diamond Head and the pink of The Royal Hawaiian. It’s warm. And I was like: This is so fantastic! We surfed everyday. We got sunburned, nipple-rashed, and I remember being back in the hotel, laying in bed, and the rides flashing back so vividly, a sort of afterglow. It was so magical.”
At fourteen, Brisick entered his first surf contest. Driving home up the hills that day his prized trophy sat on his lap like a new puppy, his smile glowing in the brass plate incised with “Second Place.” After that first result, surf companies took notice, and he had a whole host of mentors leading him down the path toward professional surfing, teaching him how to make the final heats, to assuage sponsors, and ultimately to make the World Tour of Surfing — the pinnacle of professionalism.
Coming from white-bread suburbia in the eighties, nothing was more infectious to a young Angeleno than Dogtown’s Zephyr skate team. Brisick explains, “I loved how crazy they were. I loved how it was this all-embracing culture of all misfitted, strange, broken home kids that were all in this world.” That milieu of skateboarding, surfing, bad luck and punk rock was enormous in his early conception of professional surfing. The no bullshit ethos reigned supreme. The melting pot of Los Angeles focused into a ten-space car park strewn with sand, a mix of movie producers and construction workers. Hollywood chic meets blue-collar canyon types. Brisick reminisces, “I feel so lucky to have grown up there.” But when he took to competing, “It was almost the opposite.” The enigmatic cool of diverse, unlikely surfers molted into what was a full boar jock culture.
Brisick explains, “When I came to surfing it was a place that embraced the outsider and the alienated. I always felt self-conscious about own kind of almost weirdness or my own natural human unpredictability, the ease with which we contradict ourselves, etcetera. And surfing somehow represented freedom, the community of surfers that I encountered in the late seventies were really open minded and there was a lot of eccentricity within the culture. I read a surfing magazine and I felt like, these are my people.”
On a family trip to England, Brisick and his brothers spotted “a classic, quintessential punk” in the Heathrow airport, a Mohawk climbing up his skull. He gave the three Brisick boys a copy of Richard Hell and the Voidoids’ Blank Generation. Brisick was twelve.
The three brothers delved into punk together, the late seventies of the London scene melded with the New York CBGB cohort and the mean South Bay sound in Los Angeles. “My first show was Iggy and the Stooges at the Stardust Ballroom,” says Brisick. “I was thirteen. And it kind of took off from there. There was an energy to punk that was an extension of our rambunctious youth. But there were all these ideas behind it, so I started listening to lyrics, reading interviews in Slash magazine, or whatever magazines of the time.” He scoured the radio for interviews with Johnny Rotten, parsing the anthems of punk rock, the lyrics and power chords coursing through his veins at that initial point of contact. Gotta Gettaway, the Stiff Little Fingers song, still haunts him.
Apart from the cheeky nature of those punk characters, he’s noticed how important the genre continues to be. “Punk rock was a conduit to higher, bigger ideas.” He remembers, “It suggested a more interesting world than the suburban, cookie-cutter life I was presented with as a young man.” Most importantly, “Those lyrics and ideals got me thinking about language. And art for that matter.” He remembers fawning over Raymond Pettibon’s Black Flag posters with his brothers like treasured anthropological discoveries
Brisick grew up between the grit of Dogtown and suburban cul-de-sacs. Dogtown’s pathos took shape through Craig Stecyk’s gonzo-style journalism, published under pseudonyms in Skateboarder magazine. Stecyk later became a dear friend and mentor of Brisick’s, along with Pettibon. Brisick’s father was an academic, so dinners at home were made up of colleagues and friends, professors and administrators. While Brisick would have happily bobbed up and down in the ocean waiting for the next set of waves, his father preferred he buried his head in books. Surfing seemed like a perfectly fine, albeit thin, pursuit for the young kid. His dad wasn’t unhappy about the newfound passion, “But he wasn’t totally thrilled,” says Brisick. Week by week, his father would set aside money for his kids’ college tuition. Jamie would ask to borrow another fifteen dollars to enter some surf contest down the coast.
His mom happily drove him to contests. His parents were suspicious where it would lead but impressed when he returned home from Newport Beach with a box full of clothes and a fresh quiver of surfboards. Brisick explains that telling his parents he wanted to be a professional surfer was akin to telling them that he’d planned to follow the Grateful Dead around the country. But soon enough, his mother and father would forgo their doubts and come around to the idea of their youngest son going out to see the world, through surfing.
In 1986, Brisick arrived as a young pro. The year was staked out in contest periods around the globe. He remained on tour until 1991, spending five years chasing oversized checks and champagne showers. The overabundance of the eighties was mingling with the lo-fi, understated sense of the post-recession early nineties. Brisick grew up gallivanting around the world in that little stretch of time, never staying anywhere for more than six weeks. The biggest shock on tour for Brisick was the machismo that permeated the competitive realm of surfing. It seemed more narrow-minded and conventional than the enclave of weirdos and misfits surfing in north Los Angeles. Regardless, he felt that, “For pro-surfing we might have had this entitled, privileged lifestyle, but at that time it was so hand-to-mouth.” Today, the financial cushion for even the lower ranks has increased exponentially. Making the cut of the top forty-four has become an instant payday where, “You suddenly can buy a house for your mom.
Speaking of the tour’s hedonistic lifestyle Brisick says, “There was a sense of ‘let’s burn the candle at both ends,’ because this is going to end.” He and his peers believed, “This is the scam of a lifetime,” travel, food, surfing all in the name of being an athlete. He recalls the truth of it settling in, though. “It wasalmost like we were in denial of the fact that we were going to have to create some kind of second act for ourselves, because no one was making the kind
of money with which they could retire.”
But inevitably — away from all the scaffolding and peanut gallery chatter — he’d still find himself in the water. Brisick made the distinction from team sports as, “Before I got into surfing, my father was encouraging us to play baseball, basketball and football, team sports. And that was never my thing. I got into skateboarding first and then surfing. I liked being alone out in the ocean, just dreaming or allowing my mind to drift. There really is a communion that takes place. And that had nothing to do with team sports, you know, having to kick or throw a ball over to someone else.”
Early one Saturday morning, I met Brisick at his home in Malibu. We gushed about music, surfing and writing; Yo La Tengo, County Line, and a brief dispatch into a galley version of Geoff Dyer’s White Sands, an excerpt detailing the purported differences between fiction and nonfiction, which Brisick read to me. As I glanced at a pile of paperbacks, Brisick cited his early points of entry into literature. Often on tour, he’d be alone for long stints between flights, on flights, during lay days, and he would mostly read and write. Charles Bukowski and Henry Miller filled his carry on. Ashton Goggans, the managing editor of Surfer magazine, says, “The work that he’s done best is about people who try to adopt personas. He’s very interested in the thing that we put up in front of ourselves as who we are.”
With all that downtime, reading led Brisick to see the inconsequential as meaningful rather than banal. The quotidian doldrums he’d paid no notice before became fodder for prose. He had a curiosity about all things marginal or perverse alongside those more fantastical kernels. Brisick seemed to abide by his literary compass, and when you look at the people he has profiled over the years — Peter Schoff, Peter Drouyn, the Marshall Brothers — you find that he is very much in search of some subterrene self, an attempt to reflect a part of himself, presumably. Hell, even when he profiles a deep-seated surf star like Shane Dorian, he’s furnished a broader, bigger economy of means with which to view them, approaching them as people apart from their careers, with families, hopes and fears. Goggans says of Brisick’s subjects, “They all seem to be very inward, about some fantastic version of his own inner mind. He just wants to make sense of them.” Brisick’s stratified look at surfing has afforded everyday surfers the ability to identify more meaningfully with somebody like Dorian or Drouyn. He’s lent a level of visibility to the culture previously reserved for veteran insiders.
At the height of Brisick’s professional surfing career, his brother died from a drug overdose. “My highest moment in pro surfing coincided with his death,” he says. He recalls sitting alone, thinking about his brother like a limb shorn from him. He had a meta moment in which he saw himself sitting, bereaved, as if in a film montage and he thought, “What a strange thing to think about, what a strange reference, and the only behavioral reference I had was from movies, and hopefully good ones.” Recently, he came across journals he kept from that time — journals his father encouraged him to fill — and he recognized how helpful the act of writing had been, to flay himself open on the page.
Soon after his brother died, Brisick’s surf ranking dwindled, and in 1991 he was off the tour, left itinerant as a former professional surfer with little to claim as work experience. Brisick lived in Australia until 1992, working in Sydney, staying close to his friend Hynd. He worked retail at a surf shop. “It was an abrupt shift, signing autographs on the beach in Brazil one week to saying, ‘Hello ma’am, can I help you?’ the next. I thought, ‘if this is what life is like after pro surfing, I think I want to find a tall building and jump off it.” But he had accrued an encyclopedic insight into what it meant to chase waves
around the world.
Brisick landed a part-time job at Tracks magazine, working under Andrew Kidman. This was Brisick’s first writing job, but it wasn’t his first entre into writing. When he was nineteen, the editor of Surfer magazine, Matt Warshaw, had sent Brisick on a trip to Fernando de Noronha — a small volcanic archipelago off of Brazil — where he penned a gonzo-esque, first person narrative-nonfiction piece called Yachtzee Jones. Later, he adapted this into an essay, The Hard Truth, in his first book, We Approach Our Martinis With Such High Expectations, where he drew out the more unremarked, unsexy parts of a magazine photo trip. He made the in-between moments as enticing as crystal clear walls of water set against towering headlands; and he traded in descriptions of swell lapping the beach for musings on transvestites and the flesh locker that was Ipanema.
Kidman told me about Brisick’s time at Tracks where, about two days a week, “He’d come in, sort a few photos, sleep under the desk, chat up the good-looking secretaries around the office, and then tell me he was going home. It was hilarious. He’d write some stuff for the magazine, always drug-fuelled stream of consciousness stuff.” The publisher had been reluctant to run Brisick’s pieces as they were clearly beyond the scope of Tracks’ audience, but he was also not afraid to acknowledge how it would push the envelope of what surf journalism could be. Brisick remembers, “He allowed me to be extremely self-indulgent, in a sophomoric way, but it was like, write about anything you want, Jamie.” Eventually Jamie got tired of sleeping under the desk and wanted to move on. “Which I think pleased the publisher,” Kidman said.
The curtain drawn, Brisick prepared for his second act. Fresh off a plane back to California, he found a place in Venice and began freelancing for magazines, like WARP and Bikini, still trying his hand with surf pieces.
By that point it was 1994, and he had fallen in with the burgeoning arts scene in west LA, often sneaking up the coast to his cherished Malibu. At an opening in Santa Monica, he met Sandow Birk — an aspiring painter — and the two fell in together, bemoaning their attempts to stave off day jobs. Their friendship grew out of that shared struggle, and gave them an outlet to release. Birk remembers how Brisick made life easier for him in the water. When they paddled out together in Malibu, Brisick generously made introductions to the salty locals Birk had cautiously paddled around for years. Birk told me of their shared interest in making surfing a bit more than it was, a bit more literary, a bit more intellectual, or maybe just a bit less Jeff Spicoli. The cultural eclipse of the eighties was still hanging low: neon lycra board shorts, logos on everything, sun-kissed blond boys as surrogates for surfing everywhere, and not a trace of that outsider ethos that initially drew them both to surfing.
Twenty-two years later, Brisick looks at the state of surf journalism and thinks it’s gone backwards in terms of support. In the midnineties, he worked as a contributing writer for Surfing magazine, and he remembers an expense account, a retainer, and a list of trips that would make any traveler salivate. Now, it’s like pulling teeth to get proper rates and expenses covered, but he tells me, “I’m better at being financially insecure than most people.” The feast or famine mindset of a freelancer suited him, but the chasm of athleticism gnawed at him. “I was lucky/unfortunate to experience that at such a young age, because I’m cursed now. There’s no coming back.” After a few years of writing for his supper, Brisick realized that he had once expressed himself by drawing lines across waves, and now he would do the same on the page. And from there, he would encounter a series of crises regarding writing and what would ultimately become the elephant he’d push up the stairs.
Depending on how you distinguish between trying too hard and working hard, Brisick’s chutzpah has served him well. Scott Hulet, the editor of The Surfer’s Journal, recounts, “I was up at [First Point]. And he came and introduced himself to me at The Wall, and I’ll never forget it. He walked up — and if you’ve met Jamie you know that he is exceedingly polite in a way that’s almost out of time. And he said, ‘Hi. Scott Hulet, I’m Jamie Brisick, welcome to Malibu Beach,’ as if a greeter, because Malibu is where he made his bones as a Valley kid.” The extra effort both on and off the page has not gone unnoticed. William Finnegan, staff writer at The New Yorker, whose writing has garnered countless awards (including a Pulitzer Prize this year for his memoir, Barbarian Days: A Surfing
Life), told me, “He’s an unusually compassionate and thoughtful person.” ForFinnegan, that thing that cannot be named about Brisick has transitioned well onto the page and his surfing, too. “There’s a kind of humility and amusement in his writing that you also get in his surfing.”
In 1998, Brisick became the editor at Surfing magazine. He dragged his belongings down to Orange County. He arrived to their offices with wide eyes and an ambitious agenda to make surfing more creative, and more inspired. He learned discipline there, but his experience was nowhere near what he had expected creatively. “It didn’t do me much good,” he says. When the editorial team came up with a cogent, inventive issue, the ad department would shoehorn in some lame contest puff piece to fuck it all up. “The church/state lines were horribly blurred.” After two years in the “bromuda” triangle, Brisick hightailed it to New York City where he would learn how to not surf, what it meant to write, and inevitably that, “you needed to have something to say.”
In New York, Brisick took a place in the Lower East Side and vowed to do the things he didn’t do before. The unfettered hubris and authorial ethos that had carried him this far needed to be shed, and he believed that surrounding himself with writers rather than surfers might abet that. A part of that experience would be to write himself into a corner, to read like he had never read before, and to surf less, if at all. “Surfing was diminishing returns at that point,” he says. Without his go-to, he had to focus on his writing and what his writing meant. The hedonism of being a professional surfer did make hitting the real world a bit harder, but he believed that, “the athleticism brought discipline.” Both were arduous pursuits, but writing was a bit less plainly vain.
He turned to all kinds of outlets to make up for less time in the water, an early iteration of which was meditation. The practice was something that repressed his recidivist urge to fuck things up on purpose, but he was still lacking the kind of physical engagement surfing provided. With writing he would pine, “Be this thing. I want it to be this thing.” And sometimes it would inevitably be that thing, but, he says, “of course, it was a very unrealistic validation of myself as a writer.”
Brisick took to New York well. He hemmed himself into the apartment he’d rented, and like Hulet told me, “He wrote like a motherfucker.” And, “Just by all that woodshedding, he became a better writer, channeling emotion in a way that drove narrative rather than just drawing attention to the emotion.” Brisick had recently published his first book, a collection of essays and photographs, We Approach Our Martinis with Such High Expectations. Hulet described it as, “Quasi indulgent, semi experimental,” a book that, “wore its references on its sleeve.” And Hulet acknowledged that play, noting, “This guy’s willing to hang it out in many ways that others aren’t, which is admirable. And then he ratcheted it up to the next level.” Brisick secured a deal for a second book with HarperCollins for a comprehensive history of surf, skate and snow: Have Board Will Travel: The Definitive History of Surf, Skate, and Snow. He’d spend his time bicycling from the Lower East Side to the midtown offices where he would work and then join the editor for drinks afterward, immersing himself in the New York publishing world.
In 2001, a month after September 11th, Brisick met Gisela Matta, a Brazilian filmmaker visiting New York. Gisela left for Barcelona and then Italy, and Brisick followed suit. Later, the two married and returned to New York, living in his LES apartment.
Now he was regularly contributing to The Surfer’s Journal, freelancing full time for over a decade, a published HarperCollins author, and madly in love. He thought, “I’ve arrived!” A third book came into the fray in 2003 when an agent suggested he write a memoir of his surfing life. Brisick dug in deep but struck stone early on. “Simply put, I did not have the maturity,” he explains. “I was too full of hubris, too excited that I got to write about myself, still too close to my pro surfing days. The writing was terrible.”
He made a first pass and showed his agent the manuscript, who replied that if this is what Brisick thought the book would be, then it would not work. The note deflated him. His agent pushed him “to write from the heart.” But that addendum only made Brisick feel more like a failure. He would incessantly second-guess himself, and it paralyzed his work. “I was frozen. And I lived in that place for a long, long time,” he says. His quick shift on the spectrum from a mid-tier imposter complex to mild comfort within the New York literati lead to a downward spiral of self-doubt. He admits that he was too fragile to mesh with this agent, but also tells me, “I lacked the conviction to say, Hey dude, fuck you, I’m the expert here.” And so in the shadow of his misfire, “It became like an albatross. I was sinking in this thing. I was wilting.” During that period he learned that, “there’s something [I was] trying to work out about [myself] through that book.” And he carried that with him moving forward. “I’ve got to keep following that thing.”
With Gisela, Brisick found solace, encouragement and purpose. She undoubtedly helped him realize that his self-worth was entirely divorced from the New York literati’s interest in a surf memoir, and he too realized that his sense of surfing should not be determined by what the publishers would buy. In 2008, Brisick wrote a proposal for a Fulbright grant with a glowing letter from his now co-conspirator, Scott Hulet. The gods smiled on him, and his application was funded. He took off to Japan, reported for The Surfer’s Journal, and began writing travel pieces for national outlets like the New York Times and The Guardian. After the four-month stint, he returned back to the city, a bit more girth to his stalk. He made a short detour to the renowned artist colony Yaddo in upstate New York, and reflected on his earlier work. “It was too eager beaver, trying too hard.” But his belief that just by immersing himself in literary circles, banishing surfing, and learning the arcana of writing did pay off. He now knew what to leave out. He returned to reading Henry Miller and acknowledged the importance of avoiding big words and high language, and instead to more honestly ask, “What am I actually saying?”
After being kicked in the teeth presistently by New York, Brisick believed that writing was a mix of great humility and great audacity; the salient solution that drove work forward. Moreover, he realized that the smartest people around him were rarely arrogant and acknowledged that they didn’t know much and would need to learn. Most importantly, this was when he noted that, “writing has been this life raft, and it saved me,” spiritually, mentally, professional, financially, geographically and intellectually. Like surfing, it was a means of siphoning from his deepest self, to tap into those selves, one on the page and one non-verbally.
Later in Australia, Brisick was on assignment for The Surfer’s Journal, and Hulet had suggested Brisick speak to Peter Drouyn, a cult icon in surfing who in many ways revolutionized the way competitive surfing takes place today when he developed a heat format that the world tour from Brisick’s generation onward employs. Moreover, he’d still find himself in the water. Rather than meeting Drouyn though, Brisick met Westerly Windina. Drouyn had become a woman. Brisick was completely enveloped by Windina and followed her for five years, eventually going with her to Thailand for her sexual reassignment surgery.
Brisick published a book, Becoming Westerly, which follows Windina through the transition, the surfing community’s response, and all the challenges that both Drouyn and Windina faced. Brisick explains, “The thing that drew me to the story is the notion of Westerly as a carnival mirror, and how I see a lot of myself in her. It just reminds me of how complex we are. On some level, it gives me a more compassionate sense of myself and how I approach other people; it reminds me to be less rigid about how we’re supposed to behave or how life is supposed to go.”
Brisick notes, “When I first met her, I asked, where is Peter now? And she pointed skywards. She said, ‘Up there with mom and dad,’ insinuating that Peter had gone on to heaven, basically. I think there is something of a death, saying goodbye to a former self.” Again, we find that Brisick was searching for a bit of himself, maybe in a kindred attempt to say goodbye to a former self, as Westerly had to Peter.
Brisick had done this before, forgoing his sense of self as surfer by moving east and wholly embracing writing. Back in New York, he’d begin again. Brisick left Gisela halfway through 2012. The two split but remained married. Another ten months passed, and then Gisela — visiting Brazil — was struck down in traffic while riding a bicycle. Brisick hopped a flight to Brazil for the funeral the following day. As he recounts the timeline, he looks down, pauses, and then says, “One minute a vibrant person, the next minute, gone.”
In those months apart, Brisick had tried to mend things with his wife. “There was a lot unresolved. We were not in a good place,” he says. When he arrived at the funeral he felt as though his entire nervous system had been rewired. “I had a lot of remorse. I was trying to make things right with her, and then she died. In the weeks and months afterward, it was almost as if some higher hand or some force above was like, listen, you loved this person deeply. You had a magical time with them. You are going to have to move on in your life. We want you to move on. But at some point down the track it’s going to be harder to recall your time with her, so what we’re going to do right now is play it all back, like a film reel, everything you had shared together. And that was the strangest thing, because I felt like I was transcribing the ten years we were together, it all came back in such vivid detail,” Brisick explains. This was his year of magical thinking.
Grieving, Brisick turned to every outlet he could to stave off the overwhelming loss. Therapy. Wine. Yoga. The Hoffman Process. Meditation. St. John’s Wort. Whatever it took to feel “well.” He confesses, “I don’t feel like I got through it in any noble kind of way. I felt like I was just trying to get by.” Gently he adds, “I did the best I could.” Like many bereaved, he felt guilt for things left unsaid, for days that passed unnoticed, for the time he’d spent unhappy, and the time he spent apart from Gisela. During that time, Brisick worked very little. But inevitably he would sit, and he would write. Every memory, moment, and petty dispute he could recall went onto the page. It was one of the most redemptive aspects of that period that he returned to writing as he had done after his brother passed.
He mentions, “the death of my wife loosened something inside of me.” Pulling at his collar animatedly he says, “If a T-shirt represents the scale our emotions, it’s as if I took mine and lent it to a big linebacker, and he wore it for a week and gave it back to me, and it came back all stretched out, the highs much higher and more manic, the lows horrifyingly low.” He writhed in that feeling, but he grew out of it, too, or rather through it. As he puts it, “I imploded my world.” Brisick returned home to Malibu. Hulet told me, “He did what comes naturally when you’re unhinged; you often retreat back to places of comfort and places that have always bailed you out in the past. For some people, that’s booze or junk or working out or family. For Jamie, he’s a surfer, so he went back to surfing in a way that he hadn’t in some time. And he started surfing more. He started indulging his peripatetic nature more. He started traveling more than ever and spending time abroad. And that’s where he is now.”
After Gisela’s death, Brisick received so many queries from concerned friends that he decided rather than respond, he would write something. That led to a series of Facebook posts; the personal, intimate stories he recounted publicly. With that, he realized he was writing in a much less contrived and mannered way. He had found a trenchant tone, and he thought, “I should write like this more often, and I’m not even trying to do it.” He compared the style to writing a eulogy or obituary where there’s no place for unnecessary, lofty language.
And then, in the wake of his wife’s death, he recognized that he was not a fun guy to be around; he was brooding and self-loathing, a self-prophesied failure. “I had been stuck on the idea that to be happy I have to be succeeding on a certain level — I had prerequisites for happiness. And then when you lose someone you care about, you realize that person stuck by a version of yourself that could have been a whole lot better. It’s your own mortality being brushed, too. You stand on the edge of the world, and you look over.” His bereavement garnered a more adept sensitivity toward life’s bullshit. “It brought me closer to things that matter.”
All those serpentine paths Brisick traveled had fishtailed into one another now, back home in Los Angeles. He thought, “I need to live a more honest life.” And by proxy, he’d try to write more honestly, too. “It’s like stepping back into the motherfucker that you are.”
Brisick tells me, “I really felt like signing off. I didn’t go into the details of how to commit suicide, but I was pretty certain I wasn’t going to be around much longer. I thought, This is a bad game. I don’t believe in it.” But he adds, “She died. I didn’t die. We were close, and I felt like I went to the very edge of life. And in looking over that edge — or looking at life in a kind of Scrooge-like way — all this fog just disappeared, and I saw in sharp relief what’s important, what matters.”
Aside from his personal work, Brisick still had his Westerly story to finish. The book was due and a documentary film had picked up speed. He rented a house in Encinitas and wrote around the clock. Just after the book was published in 2015, he tells me, “I was married and then halfway through my five-year odyssey with Westerly my wife passed away suddenly. There was a kind of commiseration happening between Westerly and me. And I must say, Westerly was so great to me through all of that, and it was a telling moment.” In Becoming Westerly, the narrative took a turn as it started to weave in Brisick’s own life. It evaded the tenets of new journalism and brought about a kind of David Foster Wallace-like dispatch; self-indulgent but not overly sentimental, with emotion driving narrative.
Throughout this, Brisick returned to surfing. “My head was in a terrible place, my heart was in a terrible place, but by getting in the water every day, at least my body felt good. And I enjoyed surfing more than I ever had,” he reflects. And his investment in writing changed, too, as he says, “after my wife died it was like, I am not going to try to be anyone other than who I am. I will never be these writers that I’m emulating or thinking this is what this book is supposed to be.” Losing his wife gave him the perspective to see how fraught the validation of being perceived as this or that inevitably was. His new maxim was, “Just write for you.”
Of the changes Brisick has gone through in the past thirty years, Hynd told me the biggest is that “he gets to walk any fucking way he wants and not have the privilege denied.” Warmly, he continued, “he’ll probably go way farther than where his currency keeps him now.” Brisick is part Lou Reed, part New York City Man, a dash of Townes Van Zandt — his backsliding receding with age — and still a sliver of that clenched fist athlete with Stiff Little Fingers swirling around in his head. Of his career, Goggans told me, “Jamie used surfing, his talent — and the interest it garners in people — and he leveraged that into living the most interesting life he could possibly lead.”
At this stage, Brisick treads lightly, but he doesn’t look back much like you would in the lineup at First Point. After nearly thirty years writing about surfing, Brisick has been able to thread together the finer, more idiosyncratic points of what it means to be a surfer; to bob up and down in the ocean waiting for the next set to pour in — and in a way only someone so wholly immersed could. At the moment, Brisick is fielding a litany of assignments while simultaneously working on the Westerly documentary and his memoir on losing his wife. He explains with a self-deprecating profundity that in order to finish the book he would need a split sense; half divine conviction and half utter insecurity. Looking through the trees in the ebbing afternoon sunlight, he tells me, “I feel like those things that are haunting you are the things that are really good to write about. That being the case, the more capable that I am of being honest with you in a conversation right now, hopefully later — when I sit down to write — that will be there.”