Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Dec 4: Morgan Sherburne on Pete McDonald's Fishing Jones

Fly fishing blogs are weird. Or can be. They seem to be a brave new territory, a flock of people testing the market and audience for writing about fishing. Most of these blogs are pretty straightforward: "I came, I fished. I caught/didn't catch fish. I thought about it, then I wrote a blog post-cum-essay." These exist because fly fishing is a cool sport, a lifestyle for a lot of us, and a way, sometimes, to establish bragging rights. I suppose they exist for the same reasons blogs about niche anythings exist.

My favorite fly fishing blogs are the ones that aren't pretty straightforward, that have one toe in poetry. One of them, I'm fairly close to, so writing about that one would be pretty nepotistic.

But another I've been reading recently is "Fishing Jones," a blog by a guy named Pete McDonald. He's a magazine editor and Columbia journalism grad, so I think, in addition to the fishing connection, I like his writing because it seems, on a sentence level, almost like reportage.

Because I've been a reporter for a few years now, and did my last degree in essentially journalism, it's been a while since I've been in the creative writing world. So Craig's point about Joni Tevis's description of cacti versus Jon Krakauer's description of cacti was an idiot moment for me. Oh yes. That's what I loved about nonfiction. And of course, that's it. The difference between essaying and reporting. I mean, I think you can have beautiful prose in reporting. But emotive, beautiful prose is harder to come by. So Krakauer's "towering saguaro and flame-tipped octillo," v. Tevis's "the ocotillo in bloom is a god's hair ablaze with fire, or blood," is a pretty great example of how nonfiction writers can arm-wrestle journalistic rockstars like Krakaur and come out on top, sans heavy breathing. As Craig points out. I've even met Ms. Tevis. She's pretty nice. And gave me a copy of Holy The Firm.

And as Brenda Miller says in Saturday's post/excerpt from The Writer's Chronicle, short short essays leave "little room for abstract thought or cliché or long-winded setups."  In short shorts (not a term to Google, I learned a long time ago), the pontification and the image are the same thing. I like it best that way, in my own writing, but wonder if I'm being lazy, or just am not very good at pontification. I think that's the hardest thing. To pontificate, and be right about the stuff about which you are pontificating. (That right there is what you call setting up an unreliable narrator. But trust me about Pete McDonald.)

Both of these things — remembering what I love about nonfiction and flash essays — are things I find in the most rewarding of these fly fishing blogs. In particularly, obviously, is McDonald's blog. Some of it is as beautiful as any strange prose poetry or flash nonfiction/fiction.

A lot of his posts are mini essays, those short shorts Miller was talking about. I like the post, More to the Point: "The air cooled. The water cooled. We took a boat. We caught fish. We liked it." That's it.

Another post's title, "F#!k I Love Steak," bleeds into the post itself. "My brother said that aloud once at a dinner table in the Adirondacks. I wish I had said it because it's true but I'm the quiet brother less likely to make profane announcements in social situations." The post cycles through a memory of a cow the family helped raise when McDonald was growing up, and he was present (and ice skating) when the butcher killed the steer. In the third paragraph of the short, five-paragraph post, McDonald alludes to a frequent criticism of our food system: that we are disconnected from origins of the meat we eat. McDonald ends the fourth paragraph with "We went back to playing hockey." Yes, connection with your own personal food chain is good, the post is saying. But it can also be matter of fact, unlike so many of these books lately about the transformative magic that is killing the meat you eat.

My favorite post so far starts with something you might not highlight, usually: "I was standing on a rock and I fell off of it." That sentence has been banging around in my head since I read it in August. Not much room for pontification. Something charming and beautiful in listing the things that happen to you. I'm not sure why, but that listing seems to make your experiences stand on their own and say something about the world you're living/fishing in: I fell off a rock. Someone laughed at me. I fished again, and did not fall off a rock. These are fish that I fished for, and they, and fishing for them, are both beautiful. I will not tell you why, but you will see why.

That post reminds me a lot of the novella/long essay-memoir that is the book that many fly angling writers aspire to — A River Runs Through It, especially because, in reference to a fellow angler who laughed, McDonald wrote, in a parenthetical "(He was a plug fisherman.)" Which is to say he wasn't a fly fisherman, just like Norman Maclean's slimy brother-in-law who, the Maclean brothers note, shows up to fish with a red Hills Bro. coffee can filled with worms. Jerk.

Writing about fishing is hard. Describing an outing or trying to describe what it feels like to hook and fight a fish (it fought like a bus in rush hour/like a train/the reel screamed/rod was bent to the cork) is tough. It's tough to avoid nature-writing pontification. Which is great — Annie Dillard is someone I wish to be — but difficult to do well. This flash essay way of writing about it, writing about fishing by eliding it, by writing around it, by connecting a memory with another memory of fish, and writing about fishing by backing into the experience. Well. It's pretty good.


Morgan Sherburne is a reporter at a newspaper in Northern Michigan. She has a few pieces forthcoming in a magazine, The Flyfish Journal, that publishes both weird and good photography and weird and good writing. She hopes to only pontificate safely.


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  2. Very interesting. I think that this highlights one of the things that I really enjoy about fly fishing writing in general. It's also something that I sometimes strive towards in my own writing, while other times I prefer to paint the entire scene.

    Very nice essay about a man who writes work outside of the box, a place most of us dare not go.