What is Good Writing?

Concepts relating to creativity are sometimes slippery, hard to define. It can be difficult to strike off on a mission to become a ‘better writer’ when there really isn’t a definition of what that means.

In essence, to me, good writing can be broadly defined as words that create images in readers’ minds and captivate them. To go even further, one of my own measures of writing quality is what happens when I reach the end of something I’m reading. If I feel listless and can detect a vague sadness that the story is over, and can tell that I’m wondering where to look to find something else like it, the quality was beyond good. That doesn’t happen often enough.

Every once in a while, you come across something that helps wrap your arms around the creative process, slippery as it remains. The other day, while reading a piece online about the evolution of self publishing, there was a link to a commencement address by Neil Gaiman, given recently at the University of the Arts. It’s titled, “Make Good Art,” and even though it’s about 20 minutes long, if you are interested in working as a writer, photographer, videographer – or in virtually any facet of the arts – it’s worth carving out the time to watch it.

He addresses writing more than other pursuits, and one passage having to do with voice really struck a chord with me, given that I believe development of a signature voice is the brass ring writers should reach for…

“The urge, starting out, is to copy, and that’s not a bad thing; most of us only find our own voices after we’ve sounded like a lot of other people. But the one thing that you have, that nobody else has, is you. Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision. So write as only you can.”

Here is the link to the video: http://vimeo.com/42372767

Fishing for Memories

Sometimes the water is so clear that it looks like you and the fish are part of the same world, which you are. Fishing can become a stabilizing force through all the changes in your life. No matter what, if you like to fish, there’s always something to look forward to.

It was a Sunday morning, about 8 o’clock, in midsummer. I’d driven all night to get where I was, not to fish, but to interview for a job. Harry and I sat and talked for two hours in a little cafe, one of those places with petrified lemon meringue pie and coffee capable of brain damage.

Now after the interview, I was on a different mission.

Traveling sort of east and sort of southeast on a winding gravel road (I can still feel the stiff manual steering on that Chevy pickup, dulled down from its halcyon days as school-bus orange), right into a blinding sun, behind me a rooster tail of light gray dust billowing, then filtering away in the Wyoming wind.

About 10 miles out of Lonetree, I pulled over where Harry told me to, when I’d asked, right in the middle of the interview, where a guy could find some trout water in this local area. Prairie grasslands as far as you could see in one direction, baby mountains in the other. I had just been graduated from the University of Minnesota journalism school, and because I was a trout fishing fanatic, had done the unthinkable in the minds of my Minneapolis classmates: I’d sent resumes to every podunk newspaper in every podunk town in the Rockies, letting them know I’d be making a personal visit sometime in early summer, to see about any openings in their newsroom.

After working my way through Montana without any bites (unless you count trout), I was faced with an offer from Harry at a weekly paper in Mountain View, Wyoming. Wanted me to handle their sports and a little town council, which I could do with my casting hand tied behind my back.

Before I said yes, though, I had to have a look around.

I pulled over and got out of the truck and for the millionth time tried to straighten the burnt orange, plaid seat cover. It sure had looked good in the Sears catalog.

I put on my old hockey jacket and hiked over the hill. There was supposed to be a trout stream that flowed down in this meadow, below the row of hills that hid it from the gravel road. Sure enough, there it was, over the second rise, gently flowing crystal clear water, a long stretch of transparent riffles that tailed off into a deep, dark pool, bending away from me into the waving grass. I sneaked in a crouched position (a move taught by my father during childhood trips, that had long since become natural), slowly and smoothly, to a vantage point on a side hill. I eased myself down onto the brittle grass.

Not much happening in the stream, but I had plenty of time.

After who knows how long, a flicker of something caught my attention, down and to the left. Moving out from the sanctuary of an undercut bank, an enormous brown trout, probably three pounds or more – bigger than any I’d ever seen, much less caught – was taking up a feeding station.

With almost no effort, the grand fish held in the first available current lane, from where it could disappear back under the bank with one pump of its broad tail. As long as I didn’t move, the fish would surely stay there, and I could watch it. Whenever a food item would come into the fish’s view, I knew by how the body would tense up in preparation. With a focus bent on survival, the trout’s body would rise and tip to meet the hapless insect, sucking it in with a sound so loud it made me jump the first time. What was it feeding on? I couldn’t see anything coming down the current, or any hatch of adult insects swarming above the water.

But I took it as a sign, and decided to take the job.

It was sunny and windy and Sunday, and so inspiring that I didn’t even think about going to the truck for my rod. Besides, this fish was impossible to reach; unmatchable. To get where you could make a cast to it, the fish would see you for sure. There was no way. All I could do, and what I gladly settled for, was to sit and watch this trout carry on with its life.

A lot of us rearrange the fabric of our lives to allow fishing free access. We move closer to it, spend disposable income on it, daydream about it when it’s temporarily impossible to go without losing our job or damaging personal relationships. I’m not one of those people who can remember my first fishing trip, because I probably went fishing in a backpack, wearing cloth diapers, strapped to my father’s shoulders. I enjoyed going to my parents’ place and flipping through pictures of us holding up bass in the front yard, or baskets of sunfish.

I guess everybody goes fishing for different reasons, but my theory is that we all go through pretty much the same phases, and that fishing becomes a stabilizing force through junior high, high school, girlfriends, and other turmoil. In the eight months that I lived in the Bridger Valley of Wyoming, I caught a lot of trout, waist deep in freezing water, casting for hours by myself, after staying up all night to put the paper to bed on time.

As trauma and change rock your soul, as you’re struggling to get that job or get through college, no matter where you are you can always go fishing for something.

Sometimes, in the course of events, priorities do get foggy. I lost more than one girlfriend by going too often. Jack Ohman, a friend I met in college, used to say while we were walking into our favorite stretch of the Kinnikinic: “When I go fishing, all I think about is girls. But when I’m with my girlfriend, all I think about is fishing.”

So, I guess it comes down to a very simple struggle that rarely gets reconciled. We get fascinated with fishing, we become infatuated with it, then we get inexorably sucked into it, and we fight the rest of our lives to maintain balance between going fishing and honoring other, seemingly less compelling social obligations.

We all fish for our own reasons, and those reasons assume different positions of priority as the years roll by. We love seeing fish, and we learn to look around, and even to sit and watch ‘the show’ or watch other people fish for a while.

I remember big bluegills when they weren’t such a rare item, and carp on doughballs, and my brother Matt sitting out in an eight-foot rowboat all afternoon to catch a northern on a big sucker minnow. It was impossible to appreciate those times for what they were, because we were so young, and we never thought much about why we went fishing every day. We just did, because we lived on a lake and there was a dock off the end of the back yard.

Those days pressed fishing under the first layer of my skin. Then, I fell into the belly of the whale when my parents bought an island on Lake of the Woods when I was about 12. From that point on, we (two brothers, two sisters) grew up cruising the big lake, weaving in and out of islands until we knew the water and had muskies grab our little lures when we would have been excited over a two-pound smallmouth.

Thinking back, opportunity has everything to do with becoming fascinated with fishing, and I count my blessings that my parents took time to create them. Nowadays, I fish with about half the intensity I had in the old days, if that, but I love fishing as much as ever. I guess it’s up to you and me to hang on to this sport as we get older and our lives become more complicated. I don’t know what works for you, but it helps me to go fishing for memories.

When I was a kid, I liked to sleep on a cot set out on the floating portion of the dock at our cabin on Lake of the Woods, rocking with the water and listening to loons and glimpsing falling stars that left vapor trails. I’d often wake up in the soft light before sunrise, stand on the edge of the dock and look for fish in the clear water.

Perch and rock bass would poke their dark heads out from between the cribs that supported the permanent dock. You could catch them on a tiny jig if you felt like it, like ice fishing in the summer. My brothers, sisters and I used to do it for hours. My kids do it for hours now.

But there was also a huge fallen tree, now mostly gone, with a tangle of branches, a cast away from the side of the floating dock. It held bigger fish.

I remember well, one morning, picking up a rod rigged with a yellow spinnerbait (about the time spinnerbaits were invented, so they were the hot new thing). Even though I wasn’t authorized to use that rod, I walked over and held it while studying the water around that sunken tree. I took the rod back and arced a cast beyond the tree that landed with a plunk, the first real sound of the day. I reeled the spinner just under the surface until it got over a crevice between two branches and let it flutter gently, dangerously, down.

The bait disappeared from view and, for the first time ever, I set the hook like I meant business, like I knew what I was doing. A firm, stubborn resistance came back, sort of the same feeling as being hung up, but I knew better, and the telltale shine of a fighting bass lit up the water around that tree. The battle moved out into open water, featured one good jump, but soon I clamped my thumb on the fish’s lower jaw, unhooked it, and sent it back to the tree.

A little lightbulb went off in my head. I took the 14-foot boat around the corner to a bay guarded by a white whale rock entrance and pulled the boat up on shore. I walked around the edge of another island with my own rod, and used a CountDown Rapala (another hot, new bait at that time) to probe other sunken trees that I knew about. In my mind, I can still see the bait rocking left and right, as it dropped on a slack line between perilous underwater tree branches, and big smallmouths rising out of the darkness to take me for a ride.

Can you be a writer without being a reader?

The short answer to this question is yes, of course, you can be a writer without doing a lot of reading. But the complete answer is that you will be a better writer if you are also a reader.

Think of it this way: can you be an athlete without practicing? Sure. You can get by (even fairly well), if you’re blessed with talent. But you can never be the athlete you could be unless you eat well, train, stretch, rest, and learn everything you can about the sport you play.

If you are or want to be a writer, reading should be part of your practice schedule. There is great learning that takes place when you read. Your mind is naturally drawn to certain writers, because you like their style, their voice. Reading what they write makes you want to write, and can put you in the mood to start writing before you even finish the reading.

Think about what you enjoy reading most, because it can often be an indicator of what you should probably write. In other words, if you subscribe to In-Fisherman and devour the meaty how-to stuff, that might be a good place for you as a writer. If you subscribe to Sporting Classics and love getting lost in good adventure writing, that could be your place.

A perfect world would have you reading what you love to read, and writing what you would love to read. Follow that path as much as circumstances allow, but as a practical matter, writers who come to depend on paychecks from it have to pay attention to what sells best, too. In order to write well outside your primary areas of interest, reading others who excel in popular categories can be a difference maker.

Reading is fuel for your writing. It’s hard to go to the well of words day after day without pouring a few gallons of fresh treatments in the tank. Find writers that you like. Read what they have to say. Your own work will be better for it.

Can Writers be Made?

The question of whether artists of any kind – and writers in particular – can be ‘made’ through coaching and training, or whether you’re “either born with it or you’re not” has always fascinated me.

I do believe, to a large degree, that each person’s talent level is determined, more or less, by natural forces. But I also believe that there is far more creativity, storytelling ability, writing potential, in most people than they would think, and that it can be brought to the surface. I think a high percentage of people interested in becoming writers can do it, but it takes a weird combination of conscious effort and creating the right surroundings to unleash the words living inside each of us.

Perhaps the key ingredient is desire. If you want to be a writer you will put forth the effort it takes to see if you really have it in you. Combine that with coaching that can tap your voice and you have a powerful combination. Yes, there are technical aspects to the craft, but that’s the easy stuff. The real emphasis should always be on getting at the quality. If you can mine your own creativity, learn to put yourself in a time and place where you work best, it’s amazing what comes from that. It’s the essence of the training I have developed for those who want to be outdoor writers, or who are already outdoor writers but want to be better writers. Helping people discover their voice and bring out the writer they can be is extremely rewarding to me, and that’s why I created the Emerging Outdoor Voices writing course. If you dream about being a writer, or improving your writing, let’s work together, one on one, and make it happen for you.