Tag Archives: The Millions

Fishing for Failure: On Writing’s Pain and Gain

2014-07-10 05.47.34

“Writing and fishing are both art forms built for optimists.” So says Nick Ripatrazone in a wonderful essay at The Millions. I’m inclined to disagree. Writing and fishing, though art forms indeed, feel more often like science projects built for masochists.

Writing and fishing are laborious. They take a lot of time, most of which is spent on the vast empty spaces between brief moments of glory. Often they reward great pains with very little reward, and yield results so infrequently and inadequately that they make their doers question the worth of doing them altogether. Writers and fishers have to be optimistic in order to sit down at the computer, to get into the boat, but they also have to, at the minimum, be ready for pain, and at the maximum derive something of value from it.

I know Ripatrazone knows this, so I’m not trying to criticize something he didn’t say; but as a professional amateur in writing and fishing, I’m much more familiar with the daily, taxing grind of trying not to fail too often than with the exhilaration of encountering true success and beauty.

On the yearly summer fishing trip I take with my dad, we get into the boat every morning and afternoon hoping that it will be a successful day, but knowing it’s possible to strike out completely. We know because it has happened. We pick the perfect bait, motor to the perfect spot, at the perfect time of day, and then—nothing. A ghost lake. We putter along the shore hoping to stir something up, and still—nothing. Cast after cast after cast ad infinitum. Insanity, as the saying goes, is doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results, but people who fish call that Thursday.

And yet, we go out again. And the next day. We’re not exactly doing the same thing over and over again since we continually adjust, but we’re still out on the boat, roasting in the sun, throwing out cast after cast after cast ad infinitum. Why? Because we love it, and we have to do it. We don’t expect to haul in huge walleyes with every cast. To do so would rob us of the joy of the experience itself. The joy comes in the hope, the anticipation of the subtle nibble on the leech, which becomes a hooked fish, which becomes a battle to the boat.

But failure can arrive at any time. The fish might not nibble at all, or they might nibble but never bite (or worse, steal the bait). A hooked fish might get tangled in the weeds. A fish being reeled to the boat, fighting for freedom, might snap the line. A fish at the boat and about to be netted might wriggle off its hook and disappear into the water.

Failure, failure, failure. And yet, we do it again.

Kinda sounds like writing. Every sentence can fail. In fact, almost every sentence does fail at some point, deleted or rewritten or slightly adjusted for grammar or effect. And yet we write another sentence and another and another ad infinitum, hoping in the midst of constant defeat that the pain and boredom of these failures will eventually yield something good. A great phrase becomes a sentence. A good sentence leads to another one. A few good ones in a row form a solid paragraph. Cast, cast, cast; write, write, write.

I write because I love it, but I also hate it. It’s hard to fail and fail often, just as it is to cast often and into nothing. But I write because I have to, because as a means of self-expression and self-discovery it comes more naturally to me than most anything else. Because hands on the keyboard for me is as smooth as a paintbrush on canvas for others. And because I’m just enough of a masochist to enjoy it.

(Photo: my longtime fishing lake in northern Wisconsin)