Acclaimed surf writer and journalist Tim Baker bares all in his latest memoir, Patting the Shark – from his diagnosis and treatment of prostate cancer in his early 50s, through his experiences within a healthcare system gone askew, to fighting the stigma that comes with vulnerability. Fresh from the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival, we sat down with him to talk about the writing of this powerful book.

Tim Baker found his place in the world early in life – he fell in love with surfing as a kid on family holidays to Perth, and he knew he wanted to spend the rest of his life writing about this passion after handing in a successful English essay exploring the sport. You might consider him lucky – the last 20 years have brought him a supportive wife, children who followed suit when it came to hobbies, and a life filled to the brim with gnarly waves, travel adventures, and successful books published one after the other.

However, on the 7th of July 2015, lucky couldn’t have been further from the truth.

But let’s backtrack a bit first.

The story behind the story

By his own admission, Baker has loved reading since he was a kid. Growing up in a family that moved around a lot meant that Baker often found himself in new neighbourhoods and new schools – and one way of dealing with the unknown was within well-known pages.

“If I had a good book, I would never be lonely or bored.”

Eventually, the family settled in Melbourne, but they often returned to their hometown of Perth for family holidays, which is where Baker would be acquainted with the second love of his life. Surfing.

“It all started when I was about 10 on a family holiday to Cottesloe Beach. After that, I always found ways to get to the coast from Melbourne – by hook or by crook, I’d end up surfing most weekends.”

The two, however, didn’t come together until his last year of school, which was when a stream-of-consciousness essay about surfing earned him 100% on his Year 12 English exam. The result made him think there might be something there – an inkling that led him to study journalism at university and spend the next decade or so working for newspapers and magazines, writing primarily about surf culture.

As he put it, “once I got a taste for it, it was quite intoxicating.”

The perfect pairing – surfing and storytelling

Surf culture has a great oral storytelling tradition – a practice originating in the unofficial birthplace of riding waves, Hawaii. More than a sport, surfing was considered to be a part of culture, and as such, epic tales were passed down from one generation to the next. Therefore, the marriage of the two – surfing and storytelling – isn’t anything new. It was, however, the perfect amalgamation for Baker.

“I run writing workshops, and I always say that surfing makes great material for storytelling because as soon as you paddle into the ocean, something is guaranteed to happen. You leave the land and you enter this forward-dynamic environment, and there’s always going to be some sort of drama or action. You can get cartwheeled down the face of a big wave, or held under water to the limit of your lungs’ endurance.

“Surfing also fits the hero’s journey template perfectly – you get a protagonist in their ordinary world, they answer a call to adventure, they enter this extraordinary world and face all kinds of challenges in pursuit of their quest, and then they return to their ordinary world changed for the better, having gained some new insight or wisdom. To me, every surf session is a little like a hero’s journey. I’m always in pursuit of the next perfect ride.”

But of course, the hero can’t bypass the challenges – a hard lesson that Baker has been learning for the past seven years, ever since he got diagnosed with stage 4, metastatic prostate cancer. The disease has taken a huge toll on the writer’s life, in ways that he could never have imagined. His memoir, Patting the Shark, is his way of facing up to his own mortality: a candidly written, vulnerable journey all the way down one hell of a wave.

“Initially, I was just doing some personal writing, kind of as therapy. It’s been such a great way to try and process my experiences. I always find that if you can get stuff down on the page, it becomes less scary, less daunting. We tap into our higher instincts when we write, and it can help summon a bit of courage and resilience in the face of life’s more daunting challenges. That was the case for me – it really helped to write about it. I was doing it very candidly, and at some point I thought, ‘maybe there’s something here’.”

The birth of a book – from cancer diary to raw memoir

With the support of his agent, publisher, as well as one of Griffith University’s Creative Writing PHD scholarships, Patting the Shark was born, and the result has been cathartic and meaningful in every way. And not just for Baker.

“I got lots of messages from men dealing with prostate cancer, and especially partners of men dealing with prostate cancer, thanking me for articulating what men go through as part of this illness. My book opened the floodgates in a sense.”

In a society where processing emotions, looking after mind and body, and self-care are often associated with the practices of women, men going through prostate cancer have even less tools available to them to process their diagnosis in a holistic way.

“I want to give men with prostate cancer hope that there's life after the diagnosis. Particularly men who I think aren’t always so good at self-care, I want to encourage them to take the time to look after themselves. Even though there’s a lot of difficult stuff that comes with cancer, it can be this incredibly mind-expanding experience.”

Initially, Baker found it difficult to navigate his new predicament in a healthcare system that neglected to take a holistic, pre-habilitative approach too. It wasn’t until he started taking his MEDS – meditation, exercise, diet, and sleep – that he began to see an improvement.

And while he was expecting pushback or criticism from the community for his exploration of what he calls supportive therapies, Patting the Shark has proven to touch the medical field profoundly.

“The thing that took me by surprise was the response from the medical fraternity. I was approached by the Head of Urology from the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre: he had listened to an interview I did on ABC Radio Conversations, and he sent me a message saying, ‘as someone who prescribes a lot of hormone therapy, this was really difficult for me to listen to. But I’ve gone and bought your book, I read it, and now I’m going to tell all my colleagues that anyone who prescribes hormone therapy should read this book’.”

As a cancer patient, Baker has gone through the lowest of lows – he faced his shark square on, and he decided to pat it in hopes of a healthier, more promising future.

Life after the diagnosis

As for surfing? It has proven to be the best form of active meditation for Baker.

“It’s impossible to think about pills to take when you’re riding a wave – you get completely swept up in the moment. And it’s fun! I think one of the hardest things for a lot of people going through cancer treatment is that exercise can feel like a real chore, but surfing is a great pleasure for me, and I’ve never had trouble convincing myself to go for a surf.”

In many ways, Baker now “feels healthier than before the diagnosis.” He writes a weekly blog for the Prostate Cancer Foundation of Australia, taking the opportunity to raise awareness and to make other men going through similar things feel like they’re not alone. Tim Baker and his book are truly helping facilitate meaningful change.

He also can’t wait to finally launch Patting the Shark in his hometown of Tugun. As a long-time supporter of Storyfest, he is excited to talk about his story amongst familiar faces.

“When you make yourself vulnerable like that, it gives other people permission to be vulnerable too. I never expected to become a prostate cancer poster boy, but here we are. I will try to make the most of the platform I’ve been given and create meaningful change. It’s humbling and incredibly nice to feel that you’re making a difference in people’s lives, and I hope that whoever comes along to the book launch might take something away from the evening that helps them too.”

Join us for an unforgettable night of tears and laughter as Tim Baker talks about his story to Matt Webber on the 24th of November! Book your ticket here!