Fishing for the Right Words

My grandfather loved the sea. He’d built a sailboat, but what he enjoyed even more was the small cabin cruiser on which he spent the happiest days of his retirement fishing for flounder. An introvert and engineer, he was a patient, soft-spoken man. I imagine he liked fishing in large part because of the quiet it afforded him to think his thoughts in peace.

My father also loved boats, but did not have the same high tolerance for passively waiting in solitude as did my grandfather. My grandmother was fond of repeating the old saying: “Patience is a virtue, have it if you can; seldom found in woman, never in a man.” Although I didn’t perceive it at the time, she was probably looking straight at her son when she said it.

After we kids were grown and gone, my parents sold their home and followed their dream.They bought a ramshackle marina at the Jersey shore, where they sold bait and tackle and rented little fishing boats called Garvey skiffs to the summer tourists. Although Pop loved his long dock on the bay and his life revolved around fishing, I don’t really believe he personally enjoyed the sport as much as he lead you to believe. He’d occasionally go out in his Garvey for part of the day, but sooner rather than later his patience— and the beer— would run out and he’d head straight back to the dock without much to show for his investment of time.

Clamming, however, was a different story. Back when Barnegat Bay was teeming with hard shell clams, he’d found a way to acquire fresh seafood that was much more suited to his energetic personality. Rather than the tedium of waiting for fish to bite, clamming involves hopping out of the boat into shallow water and scraping the bay floor with a clam rake. When you hear a clunk, you begin vigorously scooping up the hard shells with giant tongs by the dozens. Pop could easily gather up the limit of 150 clams per day in just a few hours and return home with his baskets brimming.

It was perfect for him. No waiting around for the fish to decide to swim up one at a time and either bite your line or not. As a clammer, you were in control, not the fish. The clams, buried there in the sand, minding their own business, had no say in the matter. You showed up with your tongs and by the next morning they were clams casino. Unlike all the messy rigmarole of fish cleaning, all it takes to prepare them is to hose them off and heat them up. They open their shells, you give a little tug on the membrane and there’s your dinner. No fish guts, no tiny little bones.

My father and his fish

In the picture, my father proudly holds a rare trophy- a bluefish. That was one day when he’d apparently mustered up the patience to fish. But between waiting on the bay with his line stretched out and enjoying a delicious fresh fish dinner, there were quite a few steps, some more odious than others. Cleaning a fish involves cutting the head off, slitting the belly, using your fingers to sweep the guts out, scraping the scales off, and finally filleting away the bones. Time-consuming and unpleasant.

For me, writing is like fishing—very hard for someone fettered by the feeling that every moment must be productive. It is just as frustrating to me to spend hours throwing words up onto the screen and then deleting most of them as it is to sit in a bobbing boat with an empty hook. I just wish I could figure out how to make writing more like clamming than fishing. Wouldn’t it be great to grab for a bunch of words with a pair of mighty tongs, bring them up to the surface, pile them into a basket, and head for the shore?

Just like my dad proudly displaying his big fish, I’m holding my own trophy in the picture below. To my great surprise and delight, The San Diego Christian Writer’s Guild honored me with an award for Best Published Nonfiction Book of 2013 just last week. But as in the sport of angling, between the initial vision casting and the moment when you hold your finished book in your hands, there are a lot of long hours requiring patience and craft, and then quite a few odious steps to turn that draft into a final product.

San Diego Christian Writers Guild Awards

At this point, I raise my glass to my critique group. They got in the boat with me, pointed out where I need to scrape off more scales, or slice out more entrails, and where to separate the flesh from the bones. If you are a writer, you need a critique group, one that isn’t afraid to take the filleting knife to whatever fish you bring them.

Now that I am on the other side of my first book, I could tell you that writing isn’t hard at all, and that I just love sitting at my desk and watching a torrent of elegant words flow effortlessly forth like the swiftly moving water in a trout stream. But that would be a fish tale.