February 05, 2018

Episode 53: John Gierach, Fly Fishing & Writing

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John Gierach has long been a fly fishing hero of mine.  What I didn’t know, but came through clearly in this Paleo Treats Podcast interview, is that he’s also a writing hero.

We start the interview by talking about one of his major influencers, his Uncle Leonard.  Leonard was “just good at things in a duct tape and baling wire kind of way.  He didn’t always do things right, but he always got things done.”

That practical bent of making sure things got done “so that they worked” has certainly rubbed off on John.  His writing (18 books in total and about 800 articles, all on fishing) has the unusual ability to drop you into a story without realizing you’re not listening to him tell it around a campfire, or on a long road trip.

There’s no better example of this (in my mind) than his short story, “Headwaters” from the book Trout Bum

John talks about how writing in the second person gives the writing immediacy, even though it’s an unusual perspective.

John wrote that first book, “Trout Bum”, in 1985, coining the term and  realizing that, “I wanted to do what I wanted to do.”  Like many great artists and most of my favorite people, he wasn’t willing to let anything get in the way of that, least of all the judgement of others on a lifestyle that to him made complete sense.

We talked a little about fishing, what he calls a “pre-existing condition”, but mostly we talked about the factors that shaped him and his drive to make things that worked well.

We explore how fishing and writing share characteristics that reinforce each other; the mystery of landing a fish and the unknown of beginning to write a story both hold that desire to explore and somehow master the unknown.

John is a master craftsman both as a fisherman and a writer, and we talk about what it takes to gain that status.

From his book “Fishing Bamboo”, we discuss this quote.

“In fact, the best work is still usually done in the oldest tradition of craftsmanship:  You learn to do the thing the way it is:  as the end product of generations of collective genius. […] Those who strike out on their own without first mastering the craft can end up on some pretty thin ice.”

Some of what John said in this interview spoke deeply to me as a writer and lover of excellence at its base:

“When you first start writing, there’s this sense that you’re going to be great right away.” 

“…it turns out that the higher the pitch of your emotion the less objective you are and…it tends to hurt you.”

“If you can get fascinated with it, which I did, it's almost as much fun as fishing.”

“People who are good at anything and who are happy about it,” are people who have learned to do something they once saw as difficult, and it brings them great happiness.

Of course, we turn to some of my favorite subjects; loneliness, hardship, and danger.  I was relieved to realize that I’m not the only one who wakes up every day thinking I haven’t experienced enough of any of those. 

John talked about an essential element of telling the truth about mistakes, and how powerful that is.  I’ve seen a general push towards this lately in the wider world, this “sharing your vulnerability”, and John does this (and has been doing this) for decades in a superb way.

His writing tips regarding when to write and the importance of telling it how it was, not how it could have been, well after the emotions of an experience have faded, were incredibly insightful for me.  “The temptation to try and make yourself look good is tremendous, and you have to back off in the interest of being honest with your readers.”

We talk about friendship and imperfections, how it’s hard to find someone you can spend time with, a long time with, and that’s the value of a great friend.

John’s been lucky (and good) enough to fly into and fish some exceptionally remote and wild places, including some places where [probably] no one had ever fished.  “That’s just awfully exciting, and of course, everybody has a thing for wilderness, most people don’t actually get into it, but there’s a tension […] if you’ve flown a float plane into someplace and get in trouble, the response time can be days or weeks instead of hours.”

“The other side of that, [my] home water, I’ve fished every year for 40 years, has something really comforting about the familiarity of it.”  John’s perspective on enjoying whatever is in front of him, whether it’s the wildly exotic or the well known familiar, is inspiring. 

John took up fly fishing “not for the sport but as a possible path to enlightenment”, and his determination to follow that path to enlightenment and to share it with the wider public comes through clearly in this interview. 

We finished up with the advice that he wouldn’t give to anyone, knowing that we each have to have the experience in order to learn and grow from it, and no amount of useful advice will save us from making mistakes which we need to make.

John's latest book is A Fly Rod Of Your Own.  

Enjoy the show!

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Nik Hawks


Nik Hawks helps run the show at Paleo Treats. Fascinated by humans in all their strange glory, Nik is harnessed in and pulling hard in pursuit of excellence with the rest of the PT Crew. Enjoy!

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