Spring/Summer 2008, Volume 24.3
On Writing and Being Written About
Gierach is the best-known and most widely read fly fishing author today. He has a philosophy degree (Findlay College, Ohio) and has written 15 books on fly fishing. Gierach became a favorite of fly anglers with the 1986 publication of Trout Bum, of which a 20th anniversary edition was published in 2006. Among the early books that sparked his popularity are Sex, Death, and Fly-Fishing (1990), Even Brook Trout Get the Blues (1993), Another Lousy Day in Paradise (1997), and Standing in a River Waving a Stick (2000). Gierach also is known for his columns in the magazines Fly Rod and Reel, Field and Stream, and Sports Afield, and in two Colorado newspapers, the Longmont Daily Times-Call and the Redstone Review. He has also contributed essays to Fly Fisherman Magazine.
Read an interview with John Gierach published in this issue of Weber.
One of the things that happens when you gain some small measure of notoriety as an author is that strangers begin to write about you. In the beginning it’s book reviews, which both you and your publisher are happy to see. Good reviews are naturally better than lukewarm or outright bad ones, but bad ones aren’t the worst thing that can happen. The worst that can happen is dead silence.
But although a merciful percentage of my reviews have been favorable, it never seemed to me that the reviewers got it entirely right. The problem was that they never quite saw me as I secretly see myself. Of course there was no way they could, but I was still always a little disappointed when they didn’t.
The interviews and profiles that came later should have been better because I was allowed to speak for myself, but then I was thinking on my feet (something writers aren’t typically good at) and if I was in the proper state of mind for being interviewed, I was eager to please, so there was the temptation to come up with glib, easily digested sound bites.
This is encouraged, especially in the broadcast end of the business. Once, five seconds before going on the air, a DJ said to me, "Remember, this is talk radio, not an intelligent conversation." I began to understand what William Kittredge meant when he said that the lies told by the media are "truths twisted about a quarter turn." He might have added that you quickly learn to do the twisting yourself, if only to keep someone else from doing it for you.
I write books of personal essays that are ostensibly about fly fishing, although as far as I’m concerned, they’re about grace, acceptance, sport as metaphor, the relationship between technological humans and the beleaguered natural environment, and how to live well in an imperfect world. Still, when I once quoted the poet Gary Snyder, a reviewer said he thought that might be "a little too high-brow for the beer and bass crowd." When you write what are considered to be genre books—as opposed to literary novels or dense tomes on foreign policy—you’re expected to color inside the lines.
But then in the course of book promotion tours over the years, I’ve met thousands of readers, some of whom seemed to understand the books as I intended and others who didn’t, although they all liked them. I’m not bragging; it’s just that those who don’t like the books rarely line up to have them autographed.
One of the beauties of books is that, at their best, they’re not so much manifestos as blueprints for a reader’s participation. The author says some things outright, suggests others and probably reveals a thing or two unconsciously, while the best readers bring nearly as much to a book as the writer did, and if they like it they make it uniquely their own. The real end of a truly successful book comes when the author and one particular reader walk off together into the sunset after sharing an adventure. It’s the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
The first time Larry Morgan interviewed me for his doctoral thesis, there was a slight disconnect. I was flattered that he wanted to do real academic work on my books and I tried to be helpful, but he wanted to know about my use of science and nature writing techniques, and that was an aspect of my writing that I’d never paid much attention to before.
That is, I knew I used both cold science and Victorian-style first person naturalism in my writing and I knew why, but on a day to day basis it comprised the stuff that wrote itself, as writers like to say. The bare facts are there to be seen first hand and/or researched. They can end up being crucial to an essay in one way or another—to steer the narrative, as imagery, or just to put the reader in a particular rather than a generic place—but gathering, editing and arranging them isn’t the hard part of the writing, it’s just a solid foundation.
Of course accurate details are important because writing should always be specific. You’re not sitting in the shade of a tree; it’s a cottonwood, an aspen or a ponderosa pine, each of which look different, grow in different habitats, sigh differently in the wind, burn differently as firewood and, for that matter, throw a particular quality of shade. Details.
I may have always instinctively understood the importance of particulars in storytelling. While playing cowboys and Indians as kids, the carnations we hid behind in Grandma’s garden in Illinois became sage brush or mesquite to fit the scenario. (Neither Roy Rogers nor Hopalong Cassidy would be caught dead hiding in the carnations.) Later, during the usual adolescent scientific stage, I caught frogs, snakes, turtles, butterflies and fish, all of which I had to at least know the names of, if not their entire life cycles. I dutifully studied what the Boy Scout handbooks of the time called "Indian lore," and when I was old enough to hunt and fish with the adults, there were all the arcane rules of safety, etiquette, and respect for both the sport and the quarry.
Still later, as a young, idealistic writer, I lost sight of details for a while. I wanted to look over the tops of mundane things toward the Big Picture, but I eventually learned that the big picture was a work of pointillism: a coherent scene from a distance; a field of distinct dots up close. Now, as an older writer, I mostly go around with my nose to the ground like I did as a kid, only now I have to bend over farther.
At the end of his thesis, Larry (now Doctor Morgan) published a transcript of our interview in which I was only occasionally articulate. For the main text, he wisely went right to my books, as well as dozens of other sources, to prove that there is now a new kind of writing about the natural world that combines traditional science writing and nature writing and that my work is a prime example of the genre. It was a classic case of what every writer secretly hopes for: that although he may sputter and contradict himself in person, the books will ultimately speak for themselves.