When I learned to fly fish, my instructor suggested I keep a notebook in the car.
Wherever you go, he instructed, make a note about where you fished, what fly you used and how many fish you caught. I rolled my eyes.
After fishing one of my favorite lakes each day after work, I began to lose track of those details. Which color leech worked best at what depth? Where was I when I caught that silver salmon? How’d I do last time it was this cold?
So I reluctantly bought the stupid notebook. Looking at my first entry, I was a little discouraged. Scout Lake. One trout. Leech pattern. Highway side, rocky cove near house. Dusk. Kind of bland.
So I got back out of the car, walked down to the lake, sat on the bench and wrote a haiku.
Rainbow trout excites
Olive leech pattern ignites
A clear moonshine night
And so my hobby of writing obsessively about the outdoors began. After every trip, I sat and forced myself to write about my experience. Sometimes those ideas remained buried in my notebook. Other times they made their way into my newspaper writing.
The best part, I soon discovered, is that when I read what I wrote, I could instantly remember how it felt to be where I was. It didn’t have to make sense to anyone else. I could remember the deeper meaning of “rooted and raw.” That’s how I felt after hiking deep into Alaska’s Russian River area seeking sockeye on a hot summer day.
The phrase “earth’s bones” came to me on a snowshoeing trip. I would have forgotten this gem had I not scribbled it down. It turned into a column a year later for the Times-News outdoor section. Also, the phrase “river rodeo” came to me on a drive. I wrote a column about that, too.
I talked about my new hobby with a Kenai River guide. He said he wouldn’t know where to start. Here’s the advice I gave him, along with a few other tips I’ve picked up along the way. Your writing doesn’t have to be about fishing, obviously. It can be about hiking, skiing or snowshoeing. Any outdoor event you’d like to reconnect with, really.
5) Just start. When you are surrounded by greatness, it is sometimes hard to find the words to begin. Hemingway always advised writers to start by inking the truest thing they know. It’s easy, even if it’s just, “I fell in the lake today. It was refreshingly wild.” (That was from three summers ago.)
4) Write what’s unique. Don’t write what you think others want to read. Don’t write to impress. Write how you feel. Write with that voice in your head. Insist on yourself, as they say. Know that no one else sees the world as you do, and that’s worth something.
3) Don’t be embarrassed. Sometimes it sucks. Sometimes you want to spray paint it on the side of that mountain. (Only slightly joking.) It’s all part of getting better. You learn more my writing into dead-ends or crafting sloppy prose than you do not picking up the pen.
2) Focus on details. What did you see? What was that guy’s name? How did it smell? How did it sound different than last time? Being mindful of your surroundings outdoors is its own reward, but you’ll be very surprised by how it helps your writing. Also, be specific. Don’t write “fly.” Instead, write “size 20 pale morning dun” or “hopper pattern.”
1) Let it come. It’s easy to want to hop back in the car and turn on the air conditioning or check Facebook or send that text. Don’t. Focus on the moment and stop when you’re satisfied with what you’ve written. If it’s one sentence, fine. If it’s a novella, well, godspeed.