Kyle Beachy’s new memoir-in-essays, The Most Fun Thing: Dispatches from a Skateboard Life, interrogates a lifetime of skateboarding, plumbing the past and present of the practice with a keen eye for nuance and an unflinching critical lens that’s as apt to magnify moments of intense beauty as to call bullshit on this lifelong obsession. The crackling specificity of the material, which Beachy yokes, with great deliberateness, to everything from the writing life to a marriage in crisis, is what makes the book a rewarding read even—or especially—for those of us who don’t know anything about skateboarding. The essays’ varying forms and approaches, their discursiveness and willingness to do the hard work on the page, ultimately offer up a way to think about being in the world that feels endlessly relevant.
It was in 2012 that I first encountered Beachy’s writing at The Classical, and thereafter I’ve been an avid reader of his work. Even as I know skateboarding is not my world, I can’t resist peering through the window his writing opens because every time I do, I find new illuminations. These feel not so much surprising as inevitable because, as he writes, “[Skateboarding] is a practice of both faith and finite, hard reality, and its rightful place is among the humanities.”
Kyle Beachy’s first novel, The Slide (Dial Press, 2009), won the Chicago Reader’s Best Book by a Chicago Author Reader’s Choice Award. His short fiction has appeared in Fanzine, Pank, Hobart, Juked, The Collagist, 5 Chapters, and elsewhere. His writing on skateboarding has appeared in The Point, The American Reader, The Chicagoan, Free Skateboard Magazine, Jenkem, Deadspin, and The Classical. He teaches at Roosevelt University in Chicago and is a cohost on the skateboarding podcast Vent City.
Below, Beachy and I converse about art, immediacy, the great pleasure of bringing together disparate obsessions, and more.
The Rumpus: Several of these essays were written with specific publications in mind, most notably Jenkem and other skateboarding-specific publications, as well as The Classical—long live that delightful flourish of sport and sport-adjacent work—and some are overtly building up the tissue of the book. What was the process of situating these different groupings together? Did the essays in which you’re following the thread of marriage—what it means, how does one be in that state—emerge independent of the memoir?
Kyle Beachy: Chapters of this book were written from a critical perspective and originally positioned as standalone articles, even when they really weren’t. It was always a single project for me, this big encompassing attempt to stare into this totally weird thing that I’d committed to doing since age eight. I don’t believe I was writing toward some kind of poetics, exactly, at the outset. But once you start criticizing, at some point you have to own that criticism, especially if the object of your attention lacks a long, established lineage of critique. And if there’s any consistency or cohesion in the writing, you eventually start getting curious about what binds it together, and whether there’s something bigger or deeper and even potentially useful guiding the critique.
The final piece that I wrote for publication came in the early months of 2020. If you stand it alongside the first one, from 2011, the latter is much more intimate and transparent with its struggle. So, there was a kind of bleeding of personal material into the project, which all felt perfectly natural since much of who and how I am has been informed and shaped by my time with and among skateboarding, the thing that I was critiquing. I suppose that I became the object of my critique. About half of the book is material I wrote between March and August of 2020, once the book was under contract. All of this new material came out of that more intimate, baffled mode of writing. By this point the project had sort of spiraled out from skateboarding proper to include everything: marriage, memory, Nike footwear and Brian Evenson and Chicago’s Picasso statue.
Rumpus: While we’re at it, why a memoir in essays? What about the essay form appeals to you, and why?
Beachy: A wonderful and maybe even emancipatory quality of skateboarding poetics is that it’s a non-narrative formal practice that’s much closer to poetry than story. I’m not much of a poet, but I found the permissions the essay grants for iterations and redirections and abandonments to be extremely useful for addressing and at times evoking the bodily and perceptual practices of skateboarding. One thing I learned pretty early on was that I simply wouldn’t be served by my standard writerly fears of being banal or saying something obvious. Like, those would be death for what I was up to. Skateboarding is built out of repetition and failure and adjustment—three things the essay form invites.
As I wrote the essays, my life underwent changes that in some key ways altered the perspectives that informed my writing, my interests, and the ways each next essay took shape. I got injured, got married, got tenure, got rejected one thousand times by agents and publishers, got my ass to a therapist. Got older and felt my body turn against me. I treated each one as a new chance to try coming at this thing, this big topic that kept yielding new rewards the longer I looked at it, from a different angle of approach. Do you know that Phillip Lopate-ism, “surrounding a something”? In my case the something, skateboarding, was also changing as I was watching and trying to surround it. Time was passing and skateboarding was changing, I was changing, and you can see how “memoir” comes into the conversation.
Rumpus: One of the true delights of The Most Fun Thing, for me, is its performance of essaying and its self-awareness. When we embark on the linguistic lyricism of “On Bitul Z’Man” and the interjection of the self in pain into “Pretend We Haven’t Grown,” and encounter an absolute wealth of theoretical and aesthetic bridges to other disciplines, there’s no ignoring the mind at work. What are the challenges you’ve faced as a writer in bringing together such disparates? Is that a point of resistance you’ve experienced?
Beachy: Living with these essays about skateboarding pretty much rearranged and reprogrammed my approach to writing. I spent much of the last decade being suspicious of the narrative arts while also trying to write novels. I don’t know what I expected, but it didn’t work out. The essays, by comparison, never resisted. Maybe that’s because I’m still not fully sure what form and style mean to today’s novels. I know what I think style and form should “do” for a novel, because I know what sorts of novels I love. And I don’t want to go too deep into an audit of contemporary US fiction and what US publishing is looking for currently, but it’s not, you know, modernism. It’s not formal experimentation. It’s not plotlessness and cyclical movements and subordinating clauses. It’s not weird associative shifts in direction. With the essays, I could always sense they were up to something; I always felt that I was taking steps toward some goal, even if I had no idea what that goal was. I think now, as a book, they resonate and work together in ways that justify whatever resistance they might have encountered as standalone objects.
Rumpus: In many ways, The Most Fun Thing is a chronicle of recognition toward reckoning, starting with capitalism and commodification and thereafter grappling with racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, etc. You are, I’ll note, careful to include yourself in the conversation—a thing I appreciate—but the earlier essays in the book, which are mostly the older essays in the book, don’t necessarily linger overmuch on such things. It does not feel accidental that the epilogue, “Loveletters,” is the essay that most forcibly confronts the various toxicities of skateboarding culture that exist in a quieter, more ingrained way, the ones that are harder to see than the Jason Jessee debacle. There’s a lifetime of material in this memoir, of course, and essays a decade old; what has it been like traversing a decade of writing about skateboarding and its culture while the whole country undertakes similar grappling?
Beachy: I should mention that I’ve come to believe in the human soul as a kind of mutualized practice of expression and perception that occurs between actor and audience. That means the soul is not a private, essential, and immortal “core” of a person, but rather a cumulative and changing set of relations that a person engages over the course of a life. I can’t imagine any way I’d otherwise have come to believe in such a thing without the time I’ve spent thinking of skateboarding. I’m saying it’s a reward, a thing skateboarding has facilitated for me. That probably sounds a little New Age-y or whatever, but that, really, is the nature of the weird thing we’re talking about with skateboarding. It offers reward; it presents something like a tao. Maybe. I don’t know. I’m certain people are giggling somewhere nearby.
But to your question, I don’t know how anyone who actually believes in skateboarding, who’s lived with it and stared into it, could but recognize how absolutely necessary it is for skateboarding to be as inclusive as possible, to open itself to every individual out there who feels drawn to its weird demands and rewards. This, really, is non-negotiable stuff—skateboarding culture is enriched by openness and curiosity and mutualized dignity. Whatever power dynamics the current version of the industry upholds however long they can, whatever the ecosystem of any given scene or skate session, skateboarding itself hungers for new and diverse inputs. Yes there are people who dream of some older, smaller version of the thing, because they long for their own pasts and thereby suffer the unbearable dread of their mortality and ultimate meaninglessness. Sure. But skateboarding doesn’t care about these people, and neither do I.
I’m not sure that answers your question!
Rumpus: I feel answered! The questions are very large, but that’s also the aim of the book. There’s nothing trifling here.
In thinking about skateboarding as an action, a practice, and the way you write about it (with the falls and the blood and the gravel embedded), I’m struck by the immediacy of its feedback. The trick lands, or the distance is traveled, or it doesn’t and it isn’t. Compared to the way an essay or novel draft often needs months or years before one has an inkling of its success or even potential, skateboarding seems possessed of a satisfying immediacy that writing cannot hope to touch. Does this resonate with you? Is the immediacy part of the appeal of skateboarding?
Beachy: I like this; I agree with this. One difficulty of writing is that it’s tempting to see ourselves as always potentially failing. Way too often the matter of failure or success is something we subcontract out to a third party—workshop, agent, publishing house—who pass judgment based on tastes and interests that are usually different and sometimes directly opposed to our own. This, at a basic level, is stupid and confusing and alienating. I can remember the moment when I realized that a great deal of what I considered success and failure were anchored to decisions I made back when I set out to become a fiction writer, in my early twenties. And this person, this young me, he was such a fucking idiot.
Yet, for some reason, I spent fifteen years letting this little asshole dictate whether I was allowed to feel good about the work I was doing—basically, I let him decide if I was a success or failure. Why did I do that? I’ve no idea! I should have paid more attention to skateboarding. Because not only is skateboarding more immediate in terms of real-time feedback for what’s working and what’s not, but it’s also got a built-in sliding scale of success and failure that aligns different parties’ approach to critique and support. What’s a routine, warm-up trick for you might be the raddest thing I’ve ever done. Unless you’re a total dick, odds are you’re going to be stoked for me, and that stoke is going to be genuine. What’s more, because skateboarding, for all its growth, remains a community linked by this weird and harmful activity we all love, I’m going to hear and see and feel your feedback, and believe it, rather than find a way to discard it because young version of me decided that only certain achievements matter.
Rumpus: Knowing which feedback to take and which to reject (from the younger self or otherwise) applies so much to all of this. One thing I admire is the way the book explores and occasionally runs admirably afoul of the skateboarding business and its “feedback” on the work. “Primitive Progressivism” appeared in and was scrubbed from multiple publications because said publications didn’t want to push back against advertising pressure. One effect of the book, then, is the differentiation between the action (skateboarding) and the entity (the brands, the trade publications, the industry clout). Do you see any similarities in the divide between writing and the career of the writer?
Beachy: In skateboarding the challenge is that we’ve got this one huge word that encompasses both of your terms, “action” and “entity.” All of the people out there doing it, and all the factories and warehouses committed to producing and marketing and selling, and all the cultural side of it, too, its geist, is all called “skateboarding.” It ends up like that Mos Def line, “People talk about hip-hop like it’s some giant living in the hillside,” all mythical and legendary because that’s what happens when we fail to recognize lines—the distinct pieces of the thing end up acquiring the mythology of the whole, thereby seeming (the pieces) untouchable. In music, sales at least are made distinct from artistry: we understand that live performance is a branch of remuneration. We know there are record labels. Writing should be even more protected from trickle-down mythology because we’ve got this other verb and noun: publish and publishing. And both are at least distracting, if not destructive, to the writing, in that they’re aligned with totally different impulses than the action of writing, as you’re calling it.
Many of us, at least from what I see on Twitter, seem to have internalized this destruction, so that any writing we sit down and do is charged by a misery that we know awaits us on the writing’s far end. We all log on and present our miseries as writers: it’s so hard; it’s so miserable; it is all so much suffering. But that’s not writing as I want to understand writing. I mean, writing is hard; it’s extremely challenging and never gets easier. But is it miserable? Aside from the alluring comforts of self-pity, I’m not sure why writers are so insistent on that matter. Stand up! Take a break! Come back to it when it feels good, or don’t! Publishing is terrible. Publishing is shallow and unjust and disempowering—a truly trifling ass industry. Writing, on the other hand, like skateboarding, is a relationship we all have agency to make into whatever we want.
Rumpus: For a memoir that chronicles the near-dissolution of a marriage, the essays that touch the issue of marriage hold their cards very close to the chest. In “Still,” you write: “There is more to say about our decision, of course, but I don’t think those are words I want to share with anyone but her.” This stands contrasted with the very frank grappling you do on the subjects of aging and the body and the consuming passion for a pastime that hastens its own end: more skateboarding equals more injuries; passing years multiply rather than subtract pain. How did you navigate the vulnerabilities on the page?
Beachy: The simplest answer is that I didn’t want to tell our story. Stories are guides that lay down their paths of specific details brick by brick with spackle or mortar of cause and effect relations—this thing leading to this thing, and so on. Story is a process of whying your way along a line and finding meaning in where the whys lead.
Skateboarding isn’t about paths. It’s about being in a space and exploring what can be done within that space. That means centering the body, which a lot of contemporary US authors like to pretend doesn’t exist. We’re so caught up in the why of desire and the self-consciousness of examining that desire’s validity, its authenticity and morality, weighing whether we should or shouldn’t be subject to that desire, that we’ve ignored the body’s actual movement through the world, and what that body might convey to others and ourselves. We ignore the perceptive processes by which we come to know other human bodies and other human beings. I’d like to be on record as being pro-embodiment.
Marriage is a place, and I wanted to make a little church out of our marriage’s crisis and invite you inside. This is all stuff drawn from Bachelard, but rooted in the performance and perception that are so central to skateboarding. And, you know, that matter of a soul.
Rumpus: In two different places, you make mention of Don DeLillo’s Point Omega as a book you love and that few other people do. I love a celebration of under-loved things. What other books, skaters, middle infielders, literary magazines, or dogs could stand a little more appreciation?
Rumpus: No trifling answers anywhere. Thank you.
Photograph of Kyle Beachy by Michael Worful.