Fish Tales and Other Stories

fish 4I once knew a boy who was swallowed by a fish.

I was in the wasteland of my tween years, every day like every other day, blended into semi-eternal summer months where the terror of school was a distant nightmare waiting at the entrance of a long, dark tunnel called winter. I was an experienced outdoorsman, having learned to fish and shoot and camp as a toddler. I needed no help baiting a hook or landing my own catch on the banks of any river or stream. So confidant a fisherman was I that I usually only baited my hook once at camp before spending up to half an hour teasing the pools and currents with only that first worm until snagging and landing one of the silvery mountain trout I so often fished for in my youth.

My family and I were deep in the middle of a summer camping trip somewhere in the Sawtooth Mountains of southern Idaho, parked beside an ambiguous river whose banks varied in width by narrow inches and broad feet, the same for its depths, and it was shocking for us all earlier in the weekend to chance upon an occasional spawning salmon or two in the narrow lanes of the waterway, their great scarlet bodies slithering up stream – yards of fish so gigantic in the narrow river they seemed to be mythological. The sight of the creatures created in me a fisherman’s lust so strong that I planned to spend the next day casting my line at any wild thing that would take the bait.

It was late morning as I prepared to set off alone, down river from camp, to try a new hole I had found the evening before. I stood under a shady pine and baited my hook with one half of an earthworm before heading for the water.

The pathway to the fishing spot tailed along the water’s edge over smooth stones that made the footing uneven. To add to the challenge there were branches everywhere, cloying mountain brush that I had to navigate through and around while trying to avoid catching my line. When I finally arrived at my destination I squatted low at the edge of a wide and shallow spot on the river where a small, black waterfall dropped into a deeper pool. I steadied my baited hook over the water, then swung it like pendulum several times, releasing the bail so the line fell at the top of the fall, and watched as the patch of fleshy worm disappeared into the current, my line swirling into the deep.

It didn’t take long before I felt the strong tug of success, and in victory I yanked my pole skyward in an attempt to set the hook. Instead of the familiar resistance of the fierce weight and struggle of a fish on the other end, my hook came flying up out of the water, and immediately sailed weightlessly through the air until momentum spun it repeatedly around the tip of my pole, tangling it into an almost hopeless mess. That clever fish had stolen the worm and left the hook.

I had been bested before and though somewhat frustrated I made the delicate journey back to camp, retrieved another dying worm half from the bait box, and returned many minutes later to try again. I swung the line, dropped the bait, and watched it fall satisfactorily into place. In moments I felt another strong tug, which I answered with a setting motion, and again my hook flew gleaming and bare up out of the water to wrap itself without further ceremony around the tip of my fishing pole.

I felt a granite cloud of anger in my gut, and I scowled. Once again I returned to camp, baited the hook with a fresh worm, and made the treacherous journey back to the magical spot. I was determined to catch that fish, more determined than I had ever been before about catching any fish. Deftly I sent the line flying into the fall, and expertly I set the bail. The line jumped, the hook flew out of the water, and once again it danced around the tip of my pole.

I raged under my breath. I could feel the hot seizure of fury creep over me like a rapidly rising sun, a heat so consuming it was sinful. And as the heat rose my mind turned inward, to the dark center found in every man. I was so mad at the fish, the river, the worm, at everything in all of creation that I turned my anger explosively toward heaven – I got angry at God Almighty Himself. Back up river I turned, every step and stumble a curse. I mumbled under my breath, uttering swears I had only heard on television. I began to chastise God. “Stupid fish . . .” I said. “Might as well have stayed home . . .” I muttered. “All Your fault . . .” and then, as I broke from the brush, my fury at its crazed peak, seeing red everywhere, I glanced skyward and said loudly, “You might as well throw me in the river!” Instantly I pivoted, my arms flying into the air, my fishing pole sailing to the left, back toward the cursed fish as I stumbled forward and fell, spread eagle, only a moment to cry out in terrible desperation for my mother before landing with a great wet splash in the unrelenting river.

I had the bizarre sensation of floating, arms and legs still spread, like a big, pale water bug on the surface of the water. My voice went hoarse, and I kept calling out, “mom, mom, mom” but it was a gruff, chest deep croak, not even loud enough to carry over the gentle trickling sound of the river, and I imagined floating there for the rest of my life, unable to drown, unable to get out, my suggestion taken wholly to heart by Great God Almighty and His accomplice, the Devilfish of that smooth dark pool at the base of a glistening waterfall.

But my cry in the air had made its way up river. Through the forest my mother came wending, the look of fear on her young face, and there she found me, drifting in a foot of water like a paralyzed floaty thing. She scurried to the river’s edge and helped me stand. She held my arm as, sobbing, I retrieved my fishing pole from the below the water’s surface.

Back at camp I lay trembling in the tent, naked and terrified and ashamed, stunned by God’s audacity. I shivered on the floor of the tent, wrapped in a bath towel, with no dignity remaining.

“He almost drowned,” my mother said.

“Probably he didn’t,” my father said, and looked in on me with a soft humor in his eyes. “You all right, tiger?” he asked. I supposed I was even though I wasn’t sure. I spent the rest of the weekend close to camp, and God and I did not talk for the rest of the trip.

I never did catch that fish. Never returned to that spot again. I wouldn’t call it “the one that got away” because I doubt that Devilfish was half as big as it was clever. It swallowed me, though, or part of me. My pride most likely. But I got a story in exchange, and one I’ll never forget. For a writer there’s no better catch than that.

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Why It Doesn’t Matter That All Stories Have Been Told

a windowI used to host a movie group called S.N.I.F.F. Snotty Independent Film Fans. Our once-a-month meetings were for the purpose, among other things, of gathering together to view what my SNIFF friends eventually referred to as a W.A.M – Weird-Ass-Movie. The films I chose were deliberately fringe. I sought story lines that were outside the standard plot, usually featuring unknown or foreign actors, and shot in a way that was fresh and unexpected cinematographically, and/or portrayed the human experience in substantially diverse ways.

Similar to my taste in movies, I also gravitated toward unusual music, particularly singer-songwriters who have a rich talent for lyric writing and an unusual style of singing and composing. I’m thinking of artists like Elliott Smith, Jason Molina, Bill Callahan, Vic Chesnutt and, especially, Will Oldham.

I don’t know exactly where my penchant for fringe came from, though it was enforced in later years by some of my peers. We all knew that person in school who was fashionably different from everyone else. Not only was their style of dress unusual but they had broad knowledge of certain things the rest of us did not. They cited Henry and June and Rumble Fish among their favorite movies. They listened to bands you didn’t hear on the radio and smoked clove cigarettes instead of regular cigarettes, or were vegetarian before the virtues of vegetarianism became widely known.

I won’t deny that some of my initial draw to WAMs (movies as well as music) was influenced by a youthful desire to be fashionable. I liked those odd kids and I wanted to know what they were discovering in their weird-ass pastimes. I didn’t realize that I had always been drawn to this sort of aesthetic. Even as a young child I had somehow crossed paths with movies like The Deer Hunter, Midnight Express, and Taxi Driver – movies that shocked and moved me in ways that standard fare never had. What I learned by delving deeper into the interests of my peers is that the richness I had discovered on my own was a bona fide thing. People actually made art like this all the time.

The other day a fellow writer complained that “it’s too bad all of the stories have been told” but he was going to “write on anyway, whether anyone liked it or not” (I paraphrase). When I heard his lament I knew immediately what he thought he meant. Yes, all stories have been told, this is true. Furthermore each story runs on one of three themes: man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. himself. These facts have been true since very early in mankind’s storytelling efforts.

The thing that this writer doesn’t yet see, and that all writers must remember, is that while there are no new stories to tell, there are always new ways of telling old stories. In fact, the axiom that “no story is so good it can’t be ruined in the telling” exemplifies the critical importance in telling. Telling a story is all that matters, and it has to be told well. That is all.

The point of my interest in fringe movies and music, the WAMs of those genres, is that this is where I find the most original forms of storytelling. I am inspired by these ways of telling things that are otherwise familiar. This phenomenon exists in writing, too. Examples in recent stories I’ve read include “The Drowned Life” by Jeffrey Ford and “Proper Library” by Carolyn Ferrell. Stories that are unusual, unsettling, fresh.

When we paint with words there are standard things we have a very hard time moving away from, and the page is among these most substantial, permanent elements whether it’s made of paper or a digital display. Until we can pipe our stories straight into our brains via microchips we will have the page. What we put on the page is by necessity some aspect of the human experience. We are limited creatures in what we can experience, and thus we are limited in topic. But beyond that there are infinite variations to what we tell. So the goal is not to write a story that has never been told, but to write a story that has never been told in quite that way, individually our own, better because it is ours. It is the fresh in our eyes, the original in our minds that allows us to tell stories that are interesting to others. Interesting because they are told in just such a way.

That, you know, weird-ass way.

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Lucky Versus Good and the Simple Secret to Success

shadow fixLefty Gomez is credited with saying “I’d rather be lucky than good.” When it comes to success as an artist that sentiment may be even more true than it is in baseball. The secret to success as an artist lies within this idea, a secret that isn’t as mysterious and elusive as it first seems.

Every new project an artist undertakes is approached with the same general drive, inspiration and intent as the one before. When the idea comes to us we go for it with the goal of making the best product we know how. When the work is finished and we are happy enough with it, we send it out into the world and there it is judged, loved, hated, and then eventually becomes replaced by the next thing in a cycle that goes on and on forever. Except that sometimes a thing we do sticks, and the resultant stick makes us stand out, perhaps for the rest of our lives.

Naturally we would like everything we do to have this lasting effect, but it doesn’t and we can’t force it to happen no matter how hard we try. What we must do instead is create the best content we can while also creating as much of it as we can. The secret to success is more often quantity combined with quality. With quantity comes a sort of luck. The odds are that with enough effort something will stand out and get you noticed. Often it takes example after example of a certain style before people “get it,” but once that happens years of toil can come to fruition almost over night.

Not that we rely solely on luck. While it may be better to be lucky than good, the artist must still be good at what they do. A whole library of garbage will always be garbage. But a substantial collection of quality work, and a little luck that some of it gets noticed and celebrated, is the most likely scenario for success for today’s creative person.

So often it seems that a young prodigy comes out of nowhere with a single piece of fiction that suddenly takes off and makes them the new hot thing. To believe that some people wake up one day and pen a single story, as though having an innate store of perfect stories in their minds, one to write following another, is a great illusion in the world. No creative person that I am aware of ever created quality work without practice. For every first fiction there are dozens of stories that never made the cut, usually never made the light of day.

The secret is to work fast and work often. Let the stories inside you come together and slip out of you like tears and gasps and great big laughs. There is nothing gained by trying to create one perfect piece. The goal of perfection is deceptive – to assume that perfection can be achieved and should be the goal is to restrict the pathway to success with the briars of a lie. Simply create, prolifically, and let the results of your work lead the way to whatever success may come. None of us are only as good as one thing we do – we are the sum of all of our parts.

Keep working.

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What Colonel Kurtz Contributed to My Library (Or, How creative people watch movies)

snail I watched a snail crawl along the edge of a straight razor. That’s my dream. That’s my nightmare. Crawling, slithering, along the edge of a straight razor . . . and surviving . . .” Colonel W. E. Kurtz, from the movie Apocalypse Now.

When Marlon Brando uttered these words over the voice-recorded tape of a reel-to-reel machine in the epic Coppola movie Apocalypse Now I was immediately engaged in discovering who this mad man was. I knew he was mad for two reasons: because I had been told through the perspective of Capt. Ben Willard by the U.S. military that Kurtz was mad, and because years before seeing the movie I had also read Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the basis for Coppola’s film, and had likewise been informed through the person of Marlow that the merchant named Kurtz had been lost in the dark recesses of a foreign landscape. I had expectations of Kurtz’s madness.

And in my eagerness for the revelations of the story I discovered some truly tantalizing details in the movie Apocalypse Now, none more profound than those found in the books stacked about Kurtz’s dark den: Goethe, The Bible, From Ritual to Romance, and The Golden Bough. What had begun as a journey to discover the madness of Kurtz suddenly became a research project into the madness of myself. Though a fictional character, Kurtz expressed thoughts and ideas that made me wonder what the definition of madness really was. And when, toward the end of the movie, the camera panned over his stack of books, the details revealed in that momentary glimpse excited my curiosity beyond the end of the story.

What I discovered by paying attention to the information on the screen made me realize the critical and deliberate purpose of information in storytelling. What we are told in fiction writing 101 is that the details propel the story. Undoubtedly this is true. It cannot be argued. But what really makes the reading experience worthwhile is the way the story takes us beyond the confines of the moment. When the story ends on the page it does not yet end with us. After Kurtz’s death and Willard’s return to “civilization” the credits roll and the movie is over. But what has not been completed in us, if we have the mind to ask, is the question of what it was that Kurtz discovered in reading those other books?

Like a hidden bibliography the texts revealed in Apocalypse Now weighed in my mind like answers to previously unasked questions. Why those books? Did they make Kurtz insane? Did they make him a genius? Would they make me insane or a genius? Would they make me rich? Would they make me disintegrate into a pile of ash?

Although I did add the books to my library, and I even half read them, it isn’t important that I had these specific questions. What is important about those books, about that detail, is that I paid attention to it in the first place.

The creative person is deliberate (or should be) in what she adds to the story. The details need to do more than just propel the story forward, they need to carry the reader beyond the border of the page and make them think, make them spend money, research, or travel. Art is about ideas. One would hope that all people pay attention to the details so that the ideas can be communicated. This is the purpose of telling stories, whether through words, music, or visual arts. Look closely and see what is on the fringe. There is where we find the secrets to understanding the characters and actions exhibited in the work. As a creative person each of us stands to benefit from finding and contemplating these details, in allowing ourselves to be taken beyond the borders of the page and carried into the research of our own madness.

 

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“You Can Hit Off This Guy!” – On line drives and creative home runs

baseball

The following event is a true story.

It was the bottom of the ninth with two outs and the tying run on first – a typical nail-biter scenario for baseball other than the fact that I was the one next up to bat. The significance of my being at bat was tri-fold: 1) I hadn’t had a base hit all season; 2) therefore my teammates had no confidence in me and; 3) subsequently I had no confidence in myself.

At the plate I faced a kid rumored to have a weak arm. With a little luck maybe I could get a hit, see what happened after that. This was a straw to grasp for. Maybe I would get lucky.

The first pitch zinged over the plate and the umpire shouted out a definitive, “strike!” Familiar, and anyway what did I expect? I hadn’t even swung the bat.

The next pitch flew at me and kind of hovered. This time I did swing, and the metallic echo of the aluminum as it contacted the hard white ball manifested in a shiver down the handle of the bat. The ball careened overhead and out of play. Foul ball, strike two. Things were going as expected.

The third pitch whipped through the air and dove outside the plate as the umpire shouted, “ball!” and the runner at first bolted for second. The ensuing bounce and bobble at home assured a stolen base. Suddenly things grew tense. Everything hung in the balance. Chance was floating above the field, apparently drawn by the cruel irony of my situation. We were halfway home, and halfway finished, and it all depended on how I swung my bat.

From the dugout someone shouted, “You can hit off this guy!”

The bulky plastic batter’s helmet was hot and heavy on my head. My scalp itched and there was sweat running down my face. The sun felt like a spotlight. The crowd was silent but for a few children squealing across the lawn behind the bleachers. The inevitable was about to happen.

The fourth pitch whizzed through the air. To my eyes it was growing bigger, spinning, the white orb of it filling my vision like an asteroid on a collision course with the planet of my head. A sensation appeared and then grew inside my chest. It spread with electric resonance into my shoulders and through my skinny little arms. Reaching, I swung the bat in an awkward arc and knocked the ball straight down the third base line.

Chaos ensued.

The runner at second skittered halfway to third as the baseman scrambled to find the ball. Coaches were shouting and waving. The road to first stretched out before me like purgatory. When had the distance become so great? I quietly contemplated. Who in the world had decided that such a distance was reasonable in the face of these urgent circumstances?

I jammed my foot into the soft dirt and almost stumbled. My legs had become incredibly soft, boneless, barely sustaining the weight of my body, the enormous batting helmet tugging backward on the dome of my head. My feet were spinning but I was going nowhere fast.

After an impossible delay I made my way toward first base. The third baseman had found the ball and sent it across the diamond like a speeding bullet of destiny. Long before I arrived the ball sailed past my vision, off the glove of the first baseman, and out of the field of play. The runner at second was rounding third and I was on my way to second. As the tying run crossed home plate an errant toss to second from first sent the ball to midfield. The coach at third waived me on, and exasperated, because really I wanted to be done for a moment, I bolted for third, glad at least that some feeling had returned to my legs. And upon reaching third I was sent toward home, the impossibility of pulling off this tiniest miracle looming before me like a great cosmic joke. I had nowhere else to go, however, and so I rambled on. The ball, that most egregious device of pain and frustration in my childhood, pursued me like a hornet as I hurtled home.

I don’t recall whether I slid, dove, and ran through upright, but the fact is, if I didn’t beat the ball I tied with it – and the tie goes to the runner.

The elation was surreal. All manner of bouncing, waving, jumping teammates converged on the plate. I was half lifted into the air and carried away. I don’t remember the sounds of the crowd, no flash of bulbs, and no pre-teen girls swooning over my accomplishment. I don’t think I looked back to where I had just been. For all I remember that was the last baseball game I ever had to endure the agony of playing. Probably not, but it was the most memorable.

The creative life is full of strikeouts. No matter how much practice one puts in there are going to be a lot of whiffs. While none of us set out to swing and miss, we also know we can’t hit many homers – even if only in-field homers – without taking swings. Let this be a shout from the dugout for your creative life. “You can hit off this guy!” Once you get that in your head you’ll be fine. Swing away.

Tell me more: is there a childhood experience that influenced your call to creative living?

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Proper Perspective When Your Pet (Project) Dies

gerbilFritz was, in a manner of speaking, a very good friend of mine. He had come into my life after the untimely demise of William Jr., a mouse I had caught in a live trap, relocated to a hamster cage, and befriended before he escaped and later had his neck snapped in a regular trap. So distraught was I over the murder of my friend William Jr. that my parents, no doubt grief-stricken and ashamed, promptly replaced William with a more suitable rodent – Fritz. Fritz the gerbil.

Fritz lived in the same rodent cage that William had occupied, but being a gerbil he was incapable of escaping the narrow bars that William had so deftly Houdinied through and remained safely in my care. In hindsight I can’t say much that’s positive about keeping a rodent for a pet. Maybe rats. Rats are smart. Gerbils, not so much. Perhaps that is why one day, many months after Fritz had joined my pre-pubescent world (a world in which animals were superior to humans in every way), he inexplicably attacked my little brother, scurrying at the finger my brother offered through the narrow bars and biting clean through little toe-head’s fingernail. I’m sure that whatever prompted Fritz to bite my brother was related to the fact that the next day, much to my shock and horror, I found Fritz laid out as if stretching after a great sleep, eyes squinted closed, long rodent teeth exposed in a grimace, legs reaching fore and aft. A stretch he never recovered from. Fritz was dead.

I was a sensitive child. Fritz’s death broke open the flood gates of my lament in a torrent. First William Jr., now Fritz the Gerbil. Sobbing, I carried my deceased rodent out to the edge of the field where William had once lived. A golden field of weeds and mouse holes and dirt stretching a quarter mile to the next neighbor’s house. There I dug a shallow grave in the chalky earth and chunked Fritz in the hole. It was as unceremonious as that. My grief passed relatively quickly. In a few weeks the hot summer days cooled toward fall. The winds picked up. Life returned to normal.

We had dogs. These dogs were only a little wild, being otherwise fairly well-mannered, and it must have been by these manners that they allowed Fritz to rest in peace for a proper amount of time before excavating his remains. I had no idea they had been at the grave until one, wind-swept afternoon I spied the flat, papery corpse of my former friend quivering on the grass tops of the yard. The discovery did not shock me. To see the shell of what I once held in such esteem now little more than a cardboard replica of that ideal was an epiphany of hilarity. Fritz the finger-nibbler had become Fritz the Frisbee . . .

For the next several weeks Fritz circulated the yard like a discarded ad, making the rounds in a swirling wind, at times near the edge of the electric fence that penned in the neighbor’s horses, at other times next to the brick patio where the family often enjoyed its evening dinner. Fritz was no longer what I had hoped he would be – a great friend and lifelong pet – but his presence continued to serve a purpose. His remains became an unexpected source of humor about the nature of life.

A different story: in 2012 I completed a 560 page novel that was going to be my great overture. A masterpiece on the first try. When I brought the printed baby home and laid it heavily on the kitchen counter I felt such a sense of pride. A living masterpiece of such girth and depth that I had no doubt it would live of its own accord and carry me along to experience all the dreams I had eagerly appointed it.

Novel

Alas, this pet project died, too.

Like Fritz the gerbil and William Jr., I put a lot of expectation on a thing that was never going to hold up.  My book was unfinished, and I didn’t have the vision at the time to know how to make it stand up. I was still seeing rodents as the king of the jungle.

Here is an important lesson I’ve learned over time. We must never go into a venture dreading the outcome. Many things we engage in don’t meet our initial expectations. When we create art we are attempting to give real world presence to the things that live inside of us. When at first they don’t succeed, we grieve. And that is fine. But the ghosts of our deceased endeavors still linger, and when we later catch sight of them they usually make us laugh. We laugh because we have changed. This is the purpose of the creative life – change and growth, and once in a while great hilarity.

My book failed because it is not right yet. One day I plan to try that story again. I may never get to it. It will toss around in the yard meanwhile and I will laugh when I see it. And if somehow I never see that book again then, well, it will have gone to the place it was meant to go.

I never owned another rodent. I continue to own a lot of stories, and I expect to have a new book coming out soon. These things, these new pets, are perpetual in the creative life. We can expect some of them to die. With proper attention to what we are supposed to learn about the process, however, I think it’s possible to finally meet some of our expectations.

Maybe you already have.

 

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