Fly fishing has been a source of literary inspiration since the days of Dame Juliana Berners, and over the years we’ve seen hundreds of thousands of piscatorial pages come to print. That said, one of the coolest things about the modern fly fishing community is how many different venues there are for the written word: blogs, magazines, e-zines, social media and word-pumping websites like this here MidCurrent. It’s an era of unprecedented authorship, but so far fly fishing writing hasn’t gotten the sort of craft-oriented focus that fly fishing photography often has. So today we’ll be doing up a little compendium of tips distilled from the creative writing classes I teach at the University of Michigan.
Leave the camera at home
If you’re serious about a piece of writing, try to resist the urge to carry any sort of picture-taking device with you. That’s not necessarily because cameras are distracting (though smartphones certainly can be), but rather because when you carry a camera you tend to look at the world in camera terms—you focus on those things that can be captured by a camera. The great thing about writing is that you can capture much more than what the camera senses—your brain is a much more sophisticated, sensitive and multi-dimensional sensor. Not carrying a camera puts the onus of documentation on your language. Which brings us to point number 2.
Carry a notepad
Yup—your notepad is your camera now, and you should carry it with you at all times. It’s essential to record your experiences—just don’t ever record your impressions. To clarify: an impression is an interpretation of data. “It felt great to be on the river this evening” is an interpretation of a bunch of much more interesting data and details: trout spearing caddis out of the air, the scent of juniper and wet stone in the evening. That’s the stuff you want to document immediately—the specifics. It seems like a paradoxical rule at first, but one eternal law of evocative writing is this: if you want to get other people to feel what you felt, never tell them how you felt. Rather, show them what you saw or heard or smelled that made you feel that way.
Adverbs are crutches for weak language. You can arm a weak verb with a whole army of -ly’s but your sentence will never throw the sparks it would with the right verb. “I waded slowly, patiently and tentatively up to the fish” doesn’t have the same punch as “I stalked the fish through the pool.” It’s verbs, not nouns or adjectives, that are the heaviest hitters in the language. They can do the most work, but you have to ask them to do it.
Revise, revise, revise
This tends to be the piece of advice my students find most painful, but it’s arguably the most essential. Simply put, the kind of writing that feels effortless and is a pleasure to read wasn’t born that way. It came out of a crappy blob of language that was then sculpted and resculpted. The first thing I have my students read at the beginning of the semester is a great little essay called “Shitty Rough Drafts” by Anne Lamott. It encourages one to accept and embrace the archetypical awfulness of a first draft of writing. So next time you write a few paragraphs and lean back in your chair and hear yourself say, “Well that was crap,” say it again—this time with pride and excitement and a sense of kinship. The Hemingways and Harrisons felt that way too. Only they knew that this type of crap was essential, that it was only from the loam of crappy writing that better drafts could sprout roots and grow.
Share your work
Yes, share your work and ask for feedback—but do it carefully. Honest feedback about writing can be very, very hard to get. The worst way to ask for it is to say to someone, “Tell me what you think.” 9 out of 10 people will always say a given piece of writing is great even if they found it empty and flat—it’s human nature not to want to offend. So instead of asking someone for their general impressions of your work, ask them to underline two sentences—no more, no less. One should be the best moment in the piece—the sentence or image or single word that makes them feel like they are there. The other should be the worst—a moment that was flat and boring and made them want to sketch fly patterns in the margins. Armed with this feedback, you can then look at these two sentences and ask yourself: what did I do there that was different from what I did here? And how can I do that more often?