Writing more and more turns out to be one of those human endeavors that boils to the realization that the more you think you know, the more you come to realize how much you still need to learn. In this regard, it is a lot like trout fishing with flies, where one day we may foolishly think to ourselves that we’ve got “it” figured out, and the very next day find “it’ and fate tag-teaming to show us that we haven’t. It’s very humbling and pride can take a pretty nasty beating. Hubris burns like cheap paper.
I’m reminded of the many parallels in the two lifelong activities. Trout-chasers spend years and decades learning how to “read” rivers and I mean by this what scholars call “close reading,” a term which describes, in literary criticism, the careful, sustained interpretation of a brief passage of text. Such a reading places great emphasis on the single particular over the general, paying close attention to individual words, syntax, and the order in which sentences and ideas unfold as they are read. Which is to say in river terms, examining every bump, dip, hydraulic, structural element and shadow at every possible time of day and some nights, to the point you can feel the river flowing in your mind even when you are hundreds of miles away and engaged in other things. It is a passion. To read a river, we have to try to imagine ourselves as fish, specifically a trout, which has different habits than other kinds of fish. This is obviously impossible and in clear light of day seems downright silly. C’mon, think like a fish? Doofus!
Not really. Fiction is about empathy and putting yourself into another entity, one made up, to be certain, but one you inhabit in an attempt to bring it to life for your own selfish story-telling purposes. The similarities of thinking like a trout or Limpy Allerdyce are no so-far fetched.
The truth is (or is the fact) is that a lot of the fishing experience takes place inside the head and physical movement (wading, casting, retrieving, etc) is mostly by rote (muscle training). You reach a point where you no longer (or rarely) think about the mechanics of fly-casting and concentrate almost entirely and exclusively on where you want to place the fly and how you want it to look to the trout holding in the dark water below the surface. The same is true of writing where the writer eventually reaches the point where we are not thinking of technique, and almost all of our focus and intensity are being channeled into telling the story. To do this you have to become the character (or the trout). All right, I’m no doubt stretching the point, but not all that much.
If you don’t reach this stage of total immersion you are unlikely to catch a trout or write a story. A difference is that you can catch trout on pure luck. I have a pal in St. Louis who catches trout and smallmouth in the most unusual and unexpected ways and all of his pals in the St. Louis Fishheads refer to this phenomenon as “Walkering a Fish.” You can’t Walker a short story or a novel.
I’ve been reading the John L. Thomas book A COUNTRY IN THE MIND; WALLACE STEGNER, BERNARD DEVOTO, HISTORY, AND THE AMERICAN LAND ( Routledge, NYC, 2000). I’ve long been a fan of both DeVoto and Stegner, and the American West and its history and varied aspects. Thomas’ book is a fine read and a great look at two of our great literary lights and scholars.
DeVoto’s writing, it always seemed to me was curmudgeonly blunt, but when I read Stegner’s description of his mentor and friend, I had to laugh. Stegner, writes Professor Thomas, “traced his friend’s ‘incomparable knack of infuriating people and his blunted sense of how much was enough… how far to go in colloquialisms among those who spoke only the stiffest King’s English, how far to go in profanity among those whose mouths have been sterilized with soap, how far to go in familiarity with reserved strangers and friendly women, when to stop tomahawking the body his intelligence and eloquence had slain, how much to resent an apparent slight, how not to turn simple disagreement into insult, how to state his opinions, which were quick, powerful and sure, without stating them at someone’s expense, social graces all,” which Stegner wrote, his friend and mentor never managed to acquire.
I could see myself in some of DeVoto’s behaviors (absent the brilliant light).
Then I read DeVoto’s “The American Indian of Legend?” And laughed out loud when DeVoto told readers he had not found the Indian to be a beauty lovers, the creator of a deeply spiritual religion, or an accomplished metaphysician who plumbs the eternal secrets which his brutish conqueror could never understand. “Call it racism or philistinism,” Thomas wrote of DeVoto,”if you must, but DeVoto warns the “best minds of the Eastern intellectual establishment, but Sybilline women rapt men from megalopolis have been unable to persuade me that Neolithic culture is anything but Neolithic culture.” Neolithic means prehistoric and prehistoric refers to A period before written records. Sybilline means a seer, foretelling the future, etc.
So DeVoto ruffled feathers, and doesn’t buy into the religion of political correctness. It seems to me that this is one element of the writer’s job, be it in what gets onto paper, or what gets said around and outside the writing itself. James Wood in THE NEAREST THING TO LIFE (Brandeis U Press, 2015) writes, “Fiction is a ceaseless experiment with uncollectable data. What I loved, what I love, about fiction is it proximity to and final difference from religious texts. The real in fiction is always a matter of belief – it is up to the reader to validate and confirm. It is a belief that is requested and that we can refuse at any time. Fiction moves in the shadows of doubt, knows it is a true lie, knows that at any moment it might fail to make its case.”
There, more eloquently and succinctly than I could manage it, Wood gives us the perfect description of the fly fisherman’s offering, which comes down to the trout to think (he is being fooled and inveigled) the offering is real and edible and knowing that this is the unspoken endpoint at issue, the caster alone must through his or her sill and technique make the false item look real enough to bring a rise and a strike.
We writers spend a great deal of time alone and in solitude, debating all manner of ethereal things, and always reaching for the same goal, to find better ways to make our offerings, on paper or on a river, as real as we can make them. Without the buy-in wrought by skill, no strikes, not fish, no readers.
At present I’m working my mind into readiness for working with conservation officers in the north country. Not much productive is getting pecked onto paper, but 90 percent or so of all writing occurs in our heads long before it gets into electrons or onto paper. Ergo, work moves along and forward, albeit not visible to real world witnesses, e.g. Shaksper, who at this very moment has seen me look up and he lets me know he wants out. Real life is always a mere glance away.