Fishing for Beauty in Writing

This is a piece that I wrote a while back.  I really liked it, and I thought that maybe someone else would too.  Sorry about the odd spacing.  I just don’t understand WordPress sometimes.

Photo By: Elizabeth Preston

Photo By: Elizabeth Preston

I believe that beauty is inherent in the majority of the written language that we use. Most of the instances that come to my mind come from fishing books. Perhaps this is because of my own affinity for fishing, or maybe it is because of the spiritual nexus that comes together when fishing, fisherman, water, and nature meet. The beauty does not even have to come from erudite language that moves circuitously through meaning like a winding mountain stream. Henry Winkler’s (yes, the Fonz) writing perhaps best demonstrates the beauty in simple language.

In his semi-autobiographical book, I’ve Never Met an Idiot on the River, Winkler reveals his passion, and even obsession, for fly-fishing. I should note that Winkler states that he is not an expert fly fisherman. He is simply someone who is captivated by fly fishing—an activity that always hovers around the line between sport and art. Winkler does not even keep the fish he catches; rather, he bears the badge of catch-and-release fisherman, which is a mark that I have come to associate with those who truly appreciate the animal and the craft. Winkler writes the following after he has caught the trout of a lifetime:

For me, fly-fishing isn’t about capturing or conquering or owning the fish. It’s about sharing a moment in time with a wild creature, feeling its power and merging with its life force for just a brief period. I release my fish so that others might have the pleasure of engaging with them. And I always express gratitude for the moments we had together. I never eat them because they are too majestic and beautiful. (I would never eat a labradoodle, either, by the way.) I want all of my trout to live on so we can play again one day. (Winkler 105-106)

Winkler’s writing is not flowery or abounding with complicated words or phrases (the word with the most syllables—four—is “labradoodle”). It is simplistic and colloquial. Yet, his voice and style of writing (which is always conversational) shines in his prose with his joke about the labradoodle, and readers can feel his deep respect and admiration for the fish. There is almost a breezy beauty in the passage, particularly when Winkler writes, “It’s about sharing a moment in time with a wild creature, feeling its power and merging with its life force for just a brief period.” Not only is there a sense of vulnerable honesty in the sentence, but many fishermen (including this fisherwoman) can identify with Winkler’s sentiments. In that moment when the fish connects with your line, you can feel the power of the animal. Even when the fish is no bigger than a tube of lipstick, you feel admiration for the little creature fighting so hard for life.

Despite Winkler’s easy, conversational tone, and the simplistic beauty of his sentences and descriptions, I realize that the crafting of such sentences was most likely anything but easy for Winkler. Creating simple, effective, and clean sentences that convey meaning, and even truth, is oftentimes difficult for writers. However, Winkler has another challenge that he faces each time he puts word to paper—his dyslexia.

How seemingly contradictory it is for a dyslexic person to be a professional writer; and yet, Winkler has written (not ghostwritten) several children’s books in addition to I’ve Never Met an Idiot on the River. Why does a dyslexic person choose such a career though? The question is not thoroughly addressed in I’ve Never Met an Idiot on the River. Winkler treats his writing career as a personal triumph and proof to his teachers and parents (whose pet name for him was “dumb dog” in German) that he is not dumb, nor is he a waste. Perhaps this “oh yeah” moment was what originally drew him to writing. However, I hypothesize that there is another underlying reason—I believe that Winkler recognizes and understands the beauty of language.
I should explain what I mean by “beauty.” There is an aspect of physical beauty—perhaps the words look “pretty” on the page. Authors, such as Ben Fountain (who wrote Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk—a finalist for the National Book Award), play with the spacing of words to create feelings and meanings within a text (“Billy”). This spacing can be beautiful.
The sound of a sentence can also be pleasant to the mind’s ear and to the physical ear, and this can create beauty. Norman Maclean is one of the masters of making music with words. One of the most melodic passages in his book A River Runs Through It and Other Stories is the following:
Of course, now I am too old to be much of a fisherman, and now of course I usually fish the big waters alone, although some friends think I shouldn’t. Like many fly fishermen in western Montana where the summer days are almost Arctic in length, I often do not start fishing until the cool of the evening. Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise.
Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.
I am haunted by waters. (104)

Maclean knows how to make his words sing with rhythm. His description of all that he is surrounded by in the canyon slows with his multiple phrases and long sentence. Time is unhurried for Maclean in that moment as he feels everything inside of him melt and mesh with everything that has been and is. The reader can feel this slowing and can feel the melancholy in Maclean as he fishes and lives alone. The second paragraph is also rhythmically beautiful. The words sound soft and mimic the flow of a river. It is almost as if Maclean has written poetry into prose. Then, the last sentence in the final paragraph (indeed the sentence is the final paragraph) continues with the soft sounds by avoiding hard consonants, and the soft, short sentence haunts the reader just as Maclean is haunted.

In addition to sound and rhythm contributing to the beauty of language is the meaning behind the language. Again, the above passage from Maclean is an excellent example of beautiful meaning behind the words. Without meaning in prose (this does not necessarily stand for poetry), it is difficult to have beauty. The meaning allows the reader to connect with the author—to feel his emotions coursing through his own veins and heart. When the text comes alive in this way, beauty is created through language. Many people can connect with Maclean being unable to forget all those in his life who have now been taken by death. Like Maclean, those of us who have lost someone are also “haunted by waters.” Surely, in this connection created by language and meaning, there is beauty.

Whether it is through the relatively simple language of Henry Winkler, or the poetic prose of Norman Maclean, language can convey beauty through aesthetics, sound, rhythm, meaning, and connection with the reader. Fishing may simply be the vessel for the aforementioned two writers’ words and stories. Indeed, the beauty of an art, such as fly fishing, may beg for the beauty of language.

Works Consulted
“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk: A Novel.” Barnes&Noble. N.p., 2014. Web. Sept. 14. http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/billy-lynns-long-halftime-walk-ben-fountain/1106580295?ean=9780060885618&gt.

Fountain, Ben. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk: A Novel. New York: HarperCollins, 2012. Print.

Maclean, Norman. A River Runs Through It and Other Stories. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976. Print.

Winkler, Henry. I’ve Never Met an Idiot on the River. San Rafael: Insight Editions, 2011. Print.

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