“Lacerating Self-Doubt”: My Interview with William Finnegan

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In April 2016, William Finnegan won the Pulitzer Prize for his memoir Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life. Following his award, I wrote a six-sentence brief for our campus newspaper at the University of Montana, where he had studied creative writing more than a generation ago. I sent a handful of questions his way via email, and he kindly responded with a note I turned into a follow up story on his years in Missoula.

The semester’s end was near, and I was exhausted between obligations for class and the paper. Barbarian Days is a long, rich book almost devoid of humor, and it doesn’t make for light reading. I listened to it on audio read by Finnegan himself. His voice made for an intimate experience during the many hikes I took to relieve stress from the waning semester. I was moved most by chapters concerning his mid-to-late twenties. At my age, he was amid a half-decade surf odyssey in Asia, Australia, and Africa. But persistent, “lacerating self-doubt” shrouds a lifestyle I might easily romanticize.

I identified with his “lacerating self-doubt” and was inspired by how he withstood it. He made his own way while enslaved to an inordinately high standard he held himself to. He was on his own, halfway around the world, seeking his voice and becoming a writer, something I want to be myself. As far as I know, this endeavor involves struggle more so than anything. Thoughts like “I can’t write” or “I’m not smart enough” pervade my already contemplative mind. Finnegan is a celebrated international reporter who’s resided at the New Yorker for three-decades and had just won the Pulitzer. Though hard to admit, he is the idyllic version of my future self. Which is why his humility and honesty in Barbarian Days hit home. It brought his lofty achievements down to Earth. His progression toward becoming a writer was an immense struggle, one I must take on myself.

Finnegan was coming to Missoula for a reading a week into my summer vacation, around a month after my articles for the school paper. I wanted to meet him for more than an autograph. A face-to-face interview for the school paper was my ticket, and I resolved for it to happen. I analyzed his book in several exhaustive emails. To the last he replied, “Thanks for thinking so much about my book!” I was in. We scheduled to meet the morning after his reading.

I was very uncertain and exited on my way to pick him up for the interview. He was staying at the home of his longtime friend Brian D’Salvatore, who’s pictured aside him on the cover of Barbarian Days. My car was stuffed with luggage for my upcoming summer job at Big Sky Ski Resort, a four-hour drive I needed to complete by early afternoon. I had staid off the job for as long as possible, and Finnegan was kind enough to meet me for an early-morning interview. Finnegan was holding his eyes open when he answered the door. I drove us to the Break on Higgins, where we started our chat over pastries and coffee. I tried to sound smart and competent but was scattered and, at times, I verged on incoherence. I was star struck, looking into the eyes of someone I admired. He wasn’t the handsome, well-dressed man I saw at the meeting the night prior, nor was he the extremely handsome man in the photo he sent me for an article. Rather, he was wearing a weathered flannel and faded blue jeans. His face was leathered, how a lifelong surfer’s ought to look.

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The portrait Finnegan sent my way after he received the Pulitzer.

A recording clip from our interview, in which Finnegan speaks to his battles with self-doubt in his youth:

Often, those close to me remark, in one variation or another, “You think too much.” I never expect the observation, but it never surprises me. I tend to ponder things into perplexity more so than others, perhaps far more so than others.

My tendency to overthink has hindered me in the past, especially with sports. I started at quarterback for my high school varsity football team. Apart from my height and arm, I wasn’t cutout for such a demanding position. A QB must be assertive and able to command his team—I was shy and painfully self-aware. He must be an astute performer, aware of not only his responsibilities, but of those for every player on the field. While I could hit the books when I desired, I wasn’t football smart, let alone QB-smart. My athletic-IQ has never been strong. The smart athlete’s ability to disengage the audience and focus on the task at hand—winning—is a trait I’ve never had, and one I admire in others.

I was entrenched in a quarterback controversy for the duration of my junior season, and I overthought every perception of me, whether it was from friends and family, my coaches, campus peers, or the newspaper. Never able to give myself a break, I quit the team before my senior season, a decision I never regretted in contrast to the warnings I received when I made it. Ten years removed, I still battle a “lacerating self-doubt” over my football years. I brood over hypotheticals, such as What if I could start over with all I know now? But still, I don’t regret how hard on myself I was, for it’s made me into the person I am today.

Self-doubt afflicts my writing like it did my tenure at quarterback. But contrary to the sensory overhaul I survived beneath the Friday night lights, writing narrows my focus and slows my racing mind. I can ponder things to a productive end, rather than to perplexity. Not that this is pleasurable—no struggle is. It’s an endeavor rife with exhaustion, humility, and uncertainty, afflictions Finnegan articulates with Pulitzer-grade precision in Barbarian Days.

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Finnegan surfing Cloud Break in Fiji

Finnegan visited campus for a craft lecture in late October, more than a year since our interview. He remembered me when I extended my hand over several stacks of books he was signing. We caught up over the course of a mere three sentences, within which he acknowledged my email I sent him a few days prior. Chuckling, he said it was an email subject line like no other he’s seen: “Hi, Lecture,” it read. I said I had to grab his attention amid the daily flurry of emails he must receive. Then I said I had one question, to which he said, “Fire away…”

“Your book isn’t nostalgic,” I said. “Your depiction of your surf-odyssey is filled with what you call ‘lacerating self-doubt.’ Now, do you regret being so hard on yourself? Or do you feel it was instrumental, as something that propelled you forward?”

“Instrumental,” he said…“paid in full.”

2 thoughts on ““Lacerating Self-Doubt”: My Interview with William Finnegan

  1. Beautifully honest and incredibly thoughtful read… I feel your heart and hear your voice clearly. Been waiting for this blog for a long time … I’m glad you took the time and care with your words. As always, I am forever impressed with both your writing and your humility. I love you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love this, Mark. And I can relate. I had no idea you were experiencing any of this in high school. I’m glad you made the right choice for you at the time—that takes courage. Glad you posted again. It’s nice to hear from you. 🙂


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