I think writing is a lot like fishing, especially when it's about fishing, as most of mine is. Both take curiosity, patience, persistence, lots of time, some skill, a willingness to put things together in odd ways, an appreciation of the process itself (regardless of how it turns out), and faith that it's all somehow worthwhile. What sane person would spend a whole day writing a paragraph that reads like it was dashed off in thirty seconds? The same kind who'd fish for one big trout all morning just so he can look at it and release it.
I like to think I was born to be a fisherman. There's a family story that I caught my first bluegill at age five and wanted to have it mounted. I don't remember that, but it sounds about right. By the time I was a teenager I fit the standard profile of a lifelong angler: I was lazy, shiftless, unambitious, and willing to work hard only at things that were widely considered useless. My folks thought I'd grow out of it.
As for writing, I don't remember why I first thought I'd like it, but I have to suspect it's because writers weren't very well thought of and because they didn't seem to work. At a certain age, playing hard, not really working, and living up to a bad reputation seemed like the way to go.
My first revelation was that writing did involve some work. Lots of it, actually. Some people have a warped view of writers in general, and outdoor writers in particular. Now and then someone will say to me, "Boy, what a life you have. All you do is fish." Usually I nod and smile because that's what I used to think myself and because it's not entirely wrong, but there's a mood I sometimes get into that makes me ask, "Who the hell do you think writes the stories?"
Then there are those who'll tell you you're blessed with talent, which is another way of saying you don't work. If you explain that whatever talent you may have now is the result of decades of toil, they'll say that kind of patience is a gift. There's no talking to some people. If they want you to be blessed, then you're blessed, god damn it! Don't argue.
Then again, one of my more levelheaded friends once said, "Look, if someone thinks you don't work, maybe it means your writing seems effortless, so you should take it as a compliment." I wouldn't mind having more levelheaded friends, but when eventually almost everyone you know is a fly fisher, guide, writer, editor, or publisher, you take what you can get.
I didn't start out to be a fishing writer; I started out to be a "serious" writer, back when I was much younger and still liked the sanctimonious sound of that. I wrote my first stories for outdoor magazines out of curiosity; to see if maybe that wouldn't be a better way for a struggling writer to support himself than driving a garbage truck not that driving a garbage truck was all that bad.
That didn't work out the way I had it pictured because writing for a living turned out to be a full-time job that left less time and energy for art than real work had. On the other hand, I found that writing was writing and that any subject with the possible exception of golf could open up on grand themes if that's what you wanted it to do.
I remember two milestones now: the first story I sold, and the first story I sold that seemed to be about grayling fishing in Canada but that was really about death. At the time I thought I'd fooled the editor who bought it, but years later I ended up fishing for salmon in Scotland with him and he said, "Remember that story you did once about death and grayling? I liked that one."
Some of these stories began in the "Outside" column I've been writing for the Longmont Daily Times-Call newspaper for the last seventeen years and also the one I did for the New York Times for a short period in the early '90s. Being a weekly columnist is grueling, but it's a good job for a writer. If nothing else, it's steady work, and it also keeps you in shape, like hiking two or three miles a day unless there's a good reason not to, which I also do. You know that whatever else happens in a week's time, you'll write one reasonably coherent, 800-word story, and in most cases you'll go fishing at least one extra time so you'll have something to write about.
It really is grueling at times the writing, not the fishing but by now I'm so used to it I'd probably miss it. I didn't even realize how long I'd been doing it until a few years ago, when, during my rare appearances in the newsroom, some of the younger people there started calling me "sir" and a man in his thirties told me he'd grown up reading my column.
Anyway, some of those short columns hinted at something more, so they went on to become magazine stories, and then finally book chapters, usually getting longer and more genuine in the process. A book is the only place where I don't run into constraints on length, language, or content, and in a few cases book chapters have served as revenge against editors who located the heart and soul of a story and removed it before it appeared in the magazine or who just chopped it for length and accidentally hit a vital spot.
I hadn't read most of these essays since they were published, because by the time a book comes out I'm done with it. For one thing, I've moved on to other fishing trips and other stories. And I've already read the thing dozens of times, carefully, critically, changing this and that, then maybe changing it back to the way it was to begin with. Then I read the copyedited manuscript. Then I proofed the galleys. When the actual book arrives in the mail, I'm happy to see it even get a little glow of satisfaction but I don't feel like reading it again.
Then I have to pick a nice short chapter to read aloud on the brief publicity tour my publisher now sends me on when I have a new book. (I read the same one over and over so I come to know it by heart and don't stammer too much.) I'm fairly new to book tours and I guess they're not my favorite part of being a writer. There's something in my Midwestern Protestant upbringing that makes me shy about being the center of attention, and of course book tours are almost always scheduled when the fish are biting back home.
Still, I've come to terms. It's fun traveling on an expense account even if you don't have much time to abuse it and some neat things usually happen. I get to see some of the great independent bookstores Tattered Cover, Elliott Bay, Powell's, Boulder Bookstore meet guides, fishermen, book people, and other writers; sometimes get an invitation to come back later and go fishing; or maybe even accidentally say something that could be construed as brilliant. And once I ran into an old girlfriend who somehow hadn't aged a day in more than twenty years. She asked if I remembered her. How could I forget?
A few pieces of advice about book tours from more experienced writers helped a lot. Specifically: "Don't start believing your own dust jacket copy" and "Don't let the bastards put you in a necktie."
I enjoyed reading these stories again because I'd all but forgotten about some of them. Sure, a few I remembered nearly word for word and a few more started to come back after I read the first paragraph, but some of the oldest ones were almost new; by now, no more than vaguely familiar. Not surprising, I guess. I figure that since I finished Trout Bum in 1985 I've written over eight hundred newspaper columns, somewhere in the neighborhood of three hundred magazine stories and nine books.
I'm almost sorry now that I stopped to figure that out (and also surprised I kept such good records), because adding up numbers is no better a way to look at a life spent writing than one spent fishing. The fact is, I either don't work as hard as it seems, or I do, but I enjoy it so much it doesn't really qualify as work. Years ago Charlie Waterman admitted that writing about fishing can be more fun than actually fishing. Up until then I thought that was my little secret.
I think I'm a better writer now than I once was, but I can't put my finger on anything I do differently. I've always tried to figure out what a story is actually about usually it's something other than the fishing, but that wouldn't have come up without the fishing and I've tried for the sound of real, spoken language.
I think a good fishing story is like any good story: It either gets at something that wasn't immediately apparent or it gets at something obvious in a way you never thought of before. Beyond that it's honest, plainspoken, and avoids being a billboard for the author's ego. Of course that last one is the trickiest, because your own motives are always the hardest to see and because without a pretty healthy ego you wouldn't be writing in the first place.
Still, you come to understand that if you compose something that you think really shows off your skill as a writer, you should get rid of it because it's self-indulgent and, worse yet, it won't fool anyone. At its worst, this can become what Garrison Keillor recently called "stuff in which there's nobody home," and Jim Harrison could have been talking about fishing stories instead of poetry when he said that most of it was "elaborate harness that never smelled a real horse."
There have been times when I dashed off columns on a portable typewriter set up on a picnic table or tailgate and filed them with datelines like "Last Chance, Idaho," but I do most of my writing at my desk at home. It's best for me to take a good, long time to write a story, and also to let a trip sink in for a while and then see which parts of it float to the top by themselves.
I do keep a fishing journal that I sometimes refer back to usually to find something like the correct spelling of "Agulukpak River" but besides making short daily entries in that, I really try not to write on the road. (If I did I'd have graduated to a lap-top by now, and although I think typewriters are charming, computers annoy me.) Whatever contraption they're written on, the stories are almost always cleaner and more honest if I don't try to orchestrate them as they're happening, but just go fishing to see what happens and then think about it later. If a trip somehow doesn't produce a story, that just means I have to go fishing again right away. It's my job.
Jim Harrison (obviously one of my favorite writers) recently described the process of editing a collection of his own work as "brain peeling," but for me rereading the six books I've drawn on in this volume was fun, like going back through old photos even though a few were the inevitable snapshots of people who are now dead but back then were holding big trout and grinning. Since no one told me to choose the best stories based on some objective standard let alone what that standard might be I just picked the ones I liked the most, for reasons of my own.
Writers are compulsive tinkerers, and I did feel the urge to edit here and there or maybe revise in light of what I've learned since, but I resisted. If there's ever a time when a story is irretrievably finished, it's when it appears between the covers of a book. And anyway, I like them all the way they are, especially the parts that let you fill in things like the actual size of a fish for yourself, thereby almost surely making it bigger than it really was. A man I've fished with for years was once asked if all my stories were true. He said, "You bet they are in a way."
I also noticed that I kept drifting back to old familiar fishing spots in one way or another: the St. Vrain, Platte, and Frying Pan Rivers, some local bass and bluegill ponds and pocket water streams. Fishing writers dote on their home waters and compare everything else to them. (What's the Moraine River in Alaska like? It's like the North Platte in Wyoming except with tundra instead of prairie and brown bears instead of cows.) The home water is where we do our casual, day-to-day fishing, where our friends are most likely to say the offhandedly profound things we end up making our own, and where we sooner or later take on the coloration of our environment.
But there are plenty of new places, too, because writers and fishermen are restless, always sniffing out something unfamiliar to compare with what we think we already know. I remember some of those new places clearly, even if I only fished them once years ago and never quite got around to going back, but some others have pretty much faded. That is, I can picture them well enough, but I don't recall their names and I don't think I could find them again without help. I'm not sure how I feel about that. A little wistful, maybe, but also happy I've done so much fishing that I've managed to lose track of entire rivers.
Naturally, some of the old familiar places I wrote about fifteen and twenty years ago are even more familiar now, but then some waters you could once get on because no one much cared are now fenced and posted, and there have been changes in regulations, overcrowding, floods, fish kills, natural cycles, new fish stocked in some places, an end to stocking in others, and lately whirling disease. Proposed dam projects were defeated on two of my favorite streams, but the rivers seem more fragile now. There are days when I stop casting and think, This could have been under fifty feet of water and it might be yet if we're not careful.
But then some places are still the same as when I first saw them, either because they're that resilient or they've somehow been overlooked. A few even seem better than they were, with more and bigger fish, but that's probably just because I'm a better fisherman now. And of course they're as beautiful as ever, like the ageless former girlfriend in Portland. Or was it Eugene?