Skating and Writing towards Mental Wellbeing
Skating and Writing towards Mental Wellbeing
Words by Sam Buchan-Watts
Brian Anderson’s SMiLe film for the Ben Raemers Foundation, released in October of last year, is striking for many reasons. It’s one of the most recent in a series of powerful, pensive documentary shorts commissioned by the Foundation in which pro skaters generously open up about their experience of mental health issues and the ways in which they are exacerbated – and ameliorated – by elements of skateboarding life. Most memorably, perhaps, is Anderson’s statement that for almost as long as he was a pro skater, the question of his sexuality was ‘a black box in an aeroplane […] it is never going to be opened until I crash’.
His notebooks, shared in the film, tell a different story. If Anderson felt reservation about articulating certain difficult experiences in conversation, his long-established habit of filling journals and sketchbooks with drawings, fragmented thoughts and other scraps of ephemera offer a rich, liberated world of interior expression. Like skateboarding itself, a journal becomes a space through which to channel feelings that can be hard to bear in other forms.
Both skateboarding and journaling involve a practice, a discipline, and (often) their own unique language, illegible to much of the outside world: this can give our conversations about skateboarding, or the dialogue we have with ourselves between the covers of a journal, a clandestine quality. Talking among skaters can feel safe, in the words of John Rattray (more on him in a minute), like ‘us, together versus the world’. When I spoke to Anderson recently about journaling, he talked about the time he spends on the subway to and from Queens doodling and writing on little squares of paper small enough to fit in his back-pocket, as though to carve out a portable space to collect his thoughts. The practice offers, he said, a disarming presence in a notoriously frenetic public zone, arousing curiosity from his fellow passengers (particularly in contrast to the typically standoffish smartphone scroll).
In a recent piece for Skate Jawn, the poet, psychotherapist and skater Matt L Roar says that writing and skating share an ability to make conversation and, in that, to build community too. Notwithstanding the complex and beautiful ways that skate film conveys and conditions skating, writing’s ability to reflect our internal lives and (in the words of the poet Wallace Stevens) the movement of a ‘mind in the act of finding / What will suffice’ may lend itself to capturing the uniquely intimate relation each skater has with skateboarding. And what’s more, when you’re making lists of tricks or lines for a video part or poring over skate mags’ suggestive relation between caption and tour photo or conversing with your friends in the ever-developing jargon that we use to name this extraordinary activity you are drawing from a set of language skills, skills that could be applied to other areas of life: whether that’s writing a poem, a letter, or checking in on a friend.
Although skateboarding has historically been an emphatically visual medium centred around film and photography, it is, in quieter ways, a verbal one too. From a staging of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Grove DIY skatepark in 2022 to Walker Ryan’s character-driven fiction and Matt L Roar’s prose poems about adolescent intimacy and annihilation in skateboarding’s potent nineties era, the verbal and literary character of skateboarding has been made especially audible in recent years. As somebody who grew up skating a beach shelter which was (unbeknown to me at the time) used to ruminate in nearly a century earlier by a modernist poet I went on in my literature PhD, I have often found equivalences in the way that skateboarding and poetry coincide around formal elements like line and rhythm, along with harder-to-define notions like ambiguity, contingency and style. As Olly Todd points out in a recent piece reflecting on his poetry collection Out for Air, which is scored with the subterranean rhythms of the author’s skating in LA and San Francisco, references to skating in English poetry can be traced back at least as far as William Wordsworth, who captured the fleeting sensation of moving ‘across the reflex of a star / That gleamed upon the ice’.
Much recent work has evidenced the therapeutic elements of skate life and its sensations, fleeting and otherwise. Through the repetitive actions of skating we may be unconsciously learning to negotiate stress and build resilience and foster empathy. I’m sure you have your own list too. And it’s possible that writing about skating has its own virtues of this kind. John Rattray has used both the interview form (a mainstay of skate discourse) to share the load of hard subjects and the comic book (which, like a skateboarding mag, twists the verbal and visual into playful relation) to explore his ‘Why So Sad?’ initiative to increase awareness of mental well-being in skating. Indeed, the project is named using a piece of skating wordplay: the melon grab has melancholic origins, given its relation to the sad plant. John’s video comic blends the language of psychology, neuroanatomy and the more creative elements of storytelling and myth to dramatize the ways in which a young John suffered without having a language to describe the disassociate states and experiences of depression he was undergoing after a less-than-perfect childhood and how skating can help to sooth, regulate and even recalibrate the mind.
A series of workshops I’ve programmed with the Ben Raemers Foundation, beginning online on 28 June and running weekly every Wednesday until the 26 July, will look at other ways in which the literature of skateboarding might be redirected towards difficult conversations around mental health and wellbeing. Each session will centre on a mode of writing that intersects with skate culture, featuring a special guest who will discuss their experience. Brian Anderson will be exploring journaling, Matt L Roar the poetic memoir, Dani Albuhawa will consider performance and creativity, Jacob Sawyer and Walker Ryan will compare methods of building characters by drawing from their respective experience in interviewing and the novel. These sessions will build towards a session on zine-making – it’s no surprise that localist and anarchist propensities of zines underpin much of skateboarding’s print culture – in which participants will have the opportunity to publish their work. Sessions will include conversation with each guest and a creative writing exercise to prompt some original writing. While it is important to recognise that writing is never a substitute for therapy, it can be a place to find, to store, perhaps to open the black box – and most importantly it is, as these Zoom sessions intend to be, a place to share.