think writing is a great deal like fishing. Ive had some
small triumphs in both, but in the eyes of the fishing world,
as in the eyes of the literary world, Im pretty much a complete
failure. Somehow, it doesnt matter. I will keep going back
to the typewriter, and I will always go once more, as E.B. White
could not stop doing, once more to the lake.
Fishing for me is like this. It starts at Wal-Mart. Every spring
I go there and buy a fishing license. Then I get a kit that includes
bobber (white/red plasticthis, the bobber, is the most important
part of fishing); a small packet of lead sinkers; an assortment
of hooks, all designed to be taken carefully out of their small
packages and spread over the carpet on the floor of the car trunk,
where they will become stuck, requiring much effort to get them
out; a knife (partially to cut tangled fishing line, partially
to cut the hooks out of the carpet in the trunk of the car); and
whatever other small bits of equipment I happen to need.
Then I go to a filling station and buy a small carton filled with
moist dirt and big fat night crawlers, which are, for the novice,
worms. Also to be purchased at the filling station: Vienna sausages
(one can), cheese nips (small packet), Three Musketeers bar (tried
Snickers once, wasnt quite right), and Wild Cherry Pepsi
(one can). Its important of course to keep the worms separate
from the food for what should be obvious reasons, except when
you really think about it and check the nutrients, poisons, and
chemicals, you realize it
would be healthier just to eat the worms.
And then once more, I go once more to the lake. It has to be a
partially hidden lake, not impossible to get to, but also not
just sitting there for the whole world to see. It can be in Georgia,
TexasIm a southerner, but Im sure I could fail
to catch fish in the north, too. Ideally, the lake should be ideal.
No boats, but if there must be boats, then let them be canoes
or paddle boatssmall, non-arrogant craft paddled if by more
than muscle power then by no more than chugging ripple-motors,
laboring quietly to attain two miles an hour.
I myself will not have a boat. I will sit down on the bank. No,
thats not right: first I will get my rig together, and then
I will have earned the right to sit down on the bank. Tie on the
sinker. Six inches below the sinker goes the hook. Thread the
line through the top of the bobber, then around and around and
around again, through the bottom of the bobber, clamping the line
so it cannot move. The worm must be dangling five feet or so below
floating white top of the bobber.
There is the bobber, absolutely still.
And surrounding it, immense, glasslike, seemingly unpopulated
with anything living and especially with anything that might care
about methe lake.
Now: open the tin of Vienna sausages. Put the metal topcurved
back now, sharp-edged, dangerousin the plastic sack from
the filling station. Turn the tin over so that the juice runs
out on the grass. Wurgle somehow the middle Vienna sausage out,
almost destroying it in the process. Eat what tattered remains
of it there are, realizing with some contentment though that the
rest of them are free to be taken out easily with thumb and forefinger.
Snap open the can of Pepsi, drink a long slurp of it, and let
the carbonated cherry mysterious cola otherworldly taste mingle
with the only other absolutely unique (and indescribable) taste
in the worldthe taste of a Vienna sausage.
Time then collapses upon itself.
And the bobberfor one split-seconddisappears beneath
the surface of the water.
Fishing has happened.
This one momentthis disa immediately followed by
reappearance of a plastic sphere, cheaper than the
cheapest toy, too small for a Christmas ornament, too useless
for a childs playthingthis one moment is the essence
To me, it is the essence of a great many things.
Think about it: how is it possible that a fish swimming, doing
its thing, out in the middle of that immense lake of which I know
and understand nothing at all, could make contact with me, sitting
at the end of a few odds and ends bought at, of all places, Wal-Martand
yet it has happened.
There! Look! Bobber gone!
Whether I catch this fish is hardly of much importance.
I have communed with it.
Or ratherall the more astonishinglyit has communed
with me, because I havent moved one inch since getting here
(except to eat my sausages), while it has had to come from God-knows-where.
No, Ill be happy to go to the trouble of catching it, studying
its magnificent blue gold pink aqua colors (since it will almost
undoubtedly be a perch/brim/sunfish), and the trouble to
wurgle it off the hook (wurgling is an essential fishing verb,
for both the sausages and the fish), apologize to it and get it
back in the water. But all of that is an afterthought.
Just as is the newspaper that I read upon my return home. The
sports page. Pictures of trophy-winning fishermen. Bass tournament
winners. Long strings of huge fish, two pounders, twenty pounders,
two hundred pounders, two thousand pounders. Hemmingway fish.
with baseball caps and grins. And exotic names of fish. Muskelunge.
Walleye. Atlantic Sheephead. Silver trout.
THE GREAT NOTHERN LARGMOUTH BASS DERBY!
Those men (and sometimes women) are not like me. Are they really,
though, any more essentially fishermen than I am? Especially when
the bobber disappears? For all their equipment, sonar, bass boats,
stringers of huge dead fishare they really more fishermen
than I, with my Vienna Sausages?
Maybe. But if they dont take time really to look at the
colors of a sunperch, as it swims awaythen I dont
think they are.
They are not like me.
are the great writers. Ive spent years as an adjunct English
teacher first in the Atlanta area, then in community colleges
around Dallas and Fort Worth. In the halls of the English
department, wherever I happen to be teaching, I study the bulletin
boards. Creative writing bulletin boards. Poetry contest winners.
Sometime I think I should bring the fishing pictures up here and
THE SARA TEASDALE PRIZE IN CREATIVE WRITING.
THE DAWSON PRIZE FOR LARGMOUTH BASS.
I have found it immenselyimmensely immensely immenselyhard
to get anything published in my life. Just as I have to cast out
a million times for every one bite I get in fishingand that
one a very small bite, a nibble, from a bream or perch, just so
I have to send out a million stories for every one acceptance
I getand that one a very small acceptance, a non-paying
one, from magazines called not The New Yorker, but something
like Nocturnal Ooze.
But herelook! Look at this bulletin board. Look at these
THE SUGARBREAD WALNUTLOAF WRITERS CONFERENCE. To be held
inSTUNNINGLY BEAUTIFUL GREEN MOUNTAIN VILLAGE OREGON. OR
VERMONT. Whichever, doesnt matter, just
ALL THE GREAT WRITERS WILL BE!
Conrad Darbner will be there. Conrad Darbner has:
Won the Cynthia Epworth Prize for best novel seven years
in a row. Published a hundred and seventeen novels, sixty of which
have been best sellers, and still are. Occupied for three decades
the Sylvester Weasel Chair of Creative Fiction at both Harvard
and Stanford Universities simultaneously."
And hes just one of the writers who will be there. Jacob
Trimrock (three hundred and seventy eight novels) will be there;
Arnold Barnoldblog will be there (author of the sixty-eight-part
series on the life of Amelia Earhart, two million pages in all);
and four hundred and sixty eight other authors, published authors,
tenured authors, writers of hundreds and millions of novelswill
And live, and livewell, that kind of life.
In Silver Maple Horn, New Hampshire, at the base of the Raggletrop
And yet, and yet
One of the characters in Salingers Franny and Zooey, a graduate
student in a spiffy English department, tells his girlfriend how
many famous poets the department has, to which she shakes her
head doubtfully and says:
But theyre not real poets, are they?
He doesnt know what shes talking about.
Theyre published; they go to conferences; theyre tenured.
Of course theyre real poets.
But I wonder like Franny: are they all real poets?
Look at how many of them there are. If all of them are real poets,
then there must be so much great poetry out there, tons of great
poetry, books and books and books and books of great poetry.
And if thats trueif theres that much great poetry,
so many tons and tons and tons of great poetry
then why are so many people out there in the world who hate
guess I could go to these places (SUGARBREAD) and introduce myself
to these people.
Hi, Im a writer, too.
And that would be that.
Except that I would have seen the Trebelhorn Mountains and met
a great many people with facial hair (some men writers have facial
But for that matter, I could go to BASSMASTERS, and shake hands
with the man who just caught four hundred and sixty-eight largemouth
bass. Maybe even at the same Trebelhorn Mountains. It just wouldnt
No, I have caught as many big fish in my life as I have had novels
The first novel was published by a small house in Lubbock, Texas.
The novel was called Katie Dee and Katie Haw: Letters from
a Texas Farm Girl. It was a book about an eleven-year-old
girl growing up on a farm in Texas in the 1950s. It got
a couple of nice reviews, and then it disappeared.
Except it didnt completely disappear.
Someone from an elementary school called and asked me if I would
come and be the visiting author. I didnt really feel like
I was an author, but I said yes and showed up, not knowing exactly
what to do.
I pulled up in the school parking lot and looked at the entrance.
Above it hung a huge banner, reading: WELCOME JOE REESE, VISITING
Well, there it was. If the banner said I was an author, then who
was I to question it?
The bobber, after innumerable casts, had disappeared.
I walked into the hallway. A class of kindergarten kids was being
herded from one room to another. They saw methen all of
them, as one, unprompted, ran as fast as they could and hugged
me around the knees (which was as high as they could reach); all
of them, as one,
looked up at me and beamed. Didnt say anything; just beamed.
It took a long time for the teachers to pry them off me.
Finally, they toddled off down the hall, looking back at me and
waving. Isnt that, as Willy Loman would say, a remarkable
writing and fishing make sense of things.
Maybe not the tournaments, maybe not the conferences, but those
are not the essentials of either activity.
Real writers, like real fishermen
When communing is so hard.
So, I will type once more a thing that I hope will make form out
of no-form, and send it out.
Just as I will prepare to cast out my Wal-Mart rigging
And once more with E.B. White
go once more to the lake.
Reese is a novelist/storyteller/adjunct English teacher, based
in Athens, Ohio, but originally a southerner (born and raised
in Texas, long a resident of Atlanta). He has two novels: Katie
Dee and Katie Haw: Letters from a Texas Farm Girl and Dear
Katie Dee: More Letters from a Texas Farm (website: www.katiedee.com).
Hes just finished a novel called TAAS: A Novel of the
Standardized Examination, which deals with one day in the
life of a Texas high school driven insane by the desire to be
EXEMPLORY rather than just excellent. Hes also written plays,
short stories, and articles, and put in thirty-six years of English
teaching, during which time hes been fired by almost every
institution of higher learning in the country. In spite of this,
his wife Pam still says she loves him, as do his kids, Kate, Matthew,