As this blog, and my writing ventures turn the corner after over ten years of essays, short stories and vignettes I sat down to reflect back and think about what Classical Angler means in both the literary sense, and the bigger picture of what the writing is stating. I also wanted to detail the creative process as well. How to do this?
I decided to interview myself.
Happy anniversary! Many have found a richer world of fly-fishing and inspiration here. I hope for much more. Writing, like a fine wine gets richer with age.
Question (Q): “Introduce yourself and describe your work.”
Erik Helm proprietor of Classical Angler fly-fishing and the writer best known for being long-winded… just kidding… I live in the Driftless region of Wisconsin where I guide anglers for trout and teach fly-fishing classes and schools, produce fly-fishing related leather craft, and write the Classical Angler Blog of literary explorations into fly-fishing.
I started all this in 2008. ‘Classical Angler’ came from a study of classical music I was undertaking on my own at the time, as well as an appreciation of ‘Classic’ fly-fishing… an era roughly from the late 19th century through the 1970s… the time of the great authors, books, and magazine articles. Sounds all planned out, but I really had no idea it would blossom into a side-hobby of writing short stories and essays. Some friend or another just suggested I start a blog. What’s that? I thought. Well, beginnings are sometimes tender and innocent things like childhood. The future is an open book, and you never know where it will go or take you.
I think of my writing as a blending of examination, philosophy, humor, nature and the essential spirit of fly-fishing as a sort of literary sport if you will… I don’t want to just write ‘How to’ or ‘Where to go’ articles. For me writing is all about the creative process; finding art and meaning in words and expression of the greater meanings of life seen through the looking glass of the sport of angling.
I see somewhat of a vacuum out there in this genre. Articles and books with actual literary content have been on the decline for the last 40 years, and I miss reading the stories and articles in the outdoor magazines I picked out of my dad’s library and curled up with for hours on the floor before the fireplace in long dark winters. Later, after writing for several years (sometimes appalling poorly), I started collecting classic angling books and articles by such authors as McQuarrie, Gingrich, Lyons, Haig-Brown, Atherton and many others, and discovered a sort of symbiosis between my ideas and thoughts and their explorations… an echo with or of what I was trying to say and how I was trying to say it… an affirmation at least for me from a past where creative writing could stand on its own without as many imposed limitations of commercialism. My blog began to provide the perfect vehicle for that freedom of expression. Freedom means not having to confine the realm of artistic expression to less than 750 words or something like having a picture inserted between each paragraph to hold attention span.
Q. “Can you describe your creative process?”
(Chuckling and shaking head while smiling)… Well… I think each process is unique- each work different in its journey. I guess if I had to categorize them, they would fit into several vague paths…
Some works, like ‘Ephemeral’, are like giving birth. The idea is born and it just grows until it comes out all raw and screaming and crying and shouting with joy. The works that develop like that often require little note-taking or planning. Instead, they are born on the spot like Jazz Improv, and are both exhausting and exhilarating to write. Also, with pieces of this type I don’t like to disturb them by over-editing afterwards. The mood, mindset, or passion of the voice of the piece… its soul… if that doesn’t sound too hokey, can be upset and actually ruined by afterthought and picking and poking about. I would almost rather scrap a piece entirely, which does get done, than ruin the fluid thought process which makes it unique. Some pieces are very unique… like something cooked up on the stove without any recipe, and should not be fussed with by adding, subtracting, or even trying to coax it in a different direction. Each piece has a growth process that should not have me forcing any pre-conceived ideas upon it. Each word, sentence, or paragraph effects the one following… each turn bringing new discoveries and influencing new thoughts and ideas. I guess every artist has a different method… Mozart wrote everything down straight out of his head with little or no corrections. He saw and heard the piece in his mind. Beethoven, on the other hand was a meticulous editor, scribbling and erasing and adding and annotating until his scores were often notoriously undecipherable, yet they both produced beauty.
I have had several pieces take me a month or more of note-taking on thoughts and ideas before I actually sat down and wrote the piece… so yea… there are endless paths to the fruition of an idea. It all starts with the idea… the inspiration. Sometimes those ideas came to me all at once… at 3 in the morning while lying in bed, or while fishing or taking a nature walk. Sometimes the ideas are a dead-end or a failure. I keep several notebooks full of ideas for essays and writing. On occasion I will page through them and find a neat idea that remained an orphan and adopt or merge it with something else and it turns out better after sitting a year on the back burner. I guess one never knows…
One trap I have fallen into several times is taking too big a bite or too wide a view of a subject. Often the ideas get all muddled up and clarity is lost. It’s like a soup with one too many ingredients… it loses its unique taste trying to be too much…. Too many blended ideas and the individuality is sacrificed. I usually try to scrap these and approach them later, but most of my works, including the short stories are actually composed or written in one session at the computer.
Q. “Why the essay? Why do you find this so compelling versus developing much longer pieces?”
Great question! I guess I feel that the essay, long or short, offers a completion, a framing if you will, of an idea, and is accessible to the reader. I like to compel thought with my writing and weave themes in a more artistic expression than possible with chapters or some other format. Maybe it has to do with my personal creative style, but I like to create and then more on to contemplate another work or creation. The essay allows the writer to examine things and proffer an argument even if it is hidden. Often my vignettes have hidden subject matters. Take ‘Gas Station Flies’ for example… ostensibly a piece about history and nostalgia, the hidden subject emerges as the author as a child peeping through the trees with his father at a famous river… it is a piece on growing up… a piece about memories and change. These themes sometimes emerge from nowhere as I am writing… and I love that process! I like not knowing! Let the piece tell me what it is all about. Sometimes the actual subject matter shifts right before my eyes. I find that so amazing and fulfilling… at least when it works…
Q. “And the short stories?”
The short stories by necessity are far more planned. I usually have a framework written down as to the theme or themes and where I want it to begin and end… the subject too and some of the detours, but the writing process still tends to be eclectic. I do like to add mystery and a bit of horror at times as well as local history. It seems to draw in the reader when a story begins innocently enough, but then becomes far more than one thought after the first few paragraphs. I am a very avid reader of the genre of the short story, especially 19th century and early 20th century authors such as H.H. Munro, Somerset Maugham, and others like Checkhov who have the amazing talent to start their stories not always at a definable point or beginning, but in the middle of nowhere and travel through the story in non-linear directions. My chosen wider subject matter, that of angling, can only accept so much pushing at the boundaries of convention, and I do try to push as hard as I can sometimes. I think convention is dull or boring… repetitive and stale. How many stories can you read where a man catches a fish? Hemingway pretty much owns that! But… what about a story with masked themes where the reader forgets all about the fish? That speaks to me.
Q. “I notice you switch voices and moods in your writing between pieces. Is there a reason for that?”
All artist are nuts! (Laughs) or just human…
Well… the mood of the writer and their voice can change… must change I believe. Many writers in a genre like this have one established voice, be it humor, philosophical, romantic, serious, happy or sad. Established voices work. They are predictable. Read some authors out there and after awhile one becomes kind of lost. Each piece is the same. We go fishing, then a reflection and philosophical detour, we come back to the fishing, another reflection, a laugh, and a predictable conclusion. I like to vary the mood. I never want to write two similar pieces in a row. Two pieces of humor for example… I try to include a different tonality in each piece. I often write to a background of classical music, and choose the music or composer based on the piece I am trying to develop. For passion I might play Beethoven, for jazz madness… Mahler comes to mind… Poetic subtlety… Bach… We are getting back to my pre-natal stages of development as a writer. Why, by accident I coined the term ‘Classical Angler’… because the various moods and passions govern music and our interpretation of music. They mimic our humanity. Instrumental music mimics the human voice that expresses our existence. Often I find writing about fly-fishing as satisfying or even more so than actually going fishing. When ideas flow like rivers the catch becomes more permanent and the journey is its own reward. Fishing can often be kind of one-dimensional, but writing can be almost four-dimensional… More freedom to go beyond the rivers into our own existential being…
Experiences on the stream have moods as well: frustration, elation, reflection, joy, wonder at nature, fear of nature, centering and mindfulness…The themes I develop should reflect those moods if crafted properly. Formulaic writing may be successful in many instances, but it bores me.
Q. “What are some of your favorite pieces you have written?”
The next one! (smiling)
Seriously… I don’t know. What I like and what the reader likes are often very different. Some pieces stand out to me, but fail to inspire the reader or miss the mark. I aim too high or too low or simply obscure too much… I am told, or have been told that I am at my best from or in a free-form mode… like jazz. I like ‘Dear Theo’ for that reason… for its sheer uniqueness of subject matter and framing. One current author wrote me concerning it that he thought it “Amazingly inventive.” “The Stand” is possible my favorite short story, and short and eclectic pieces like “Depression and Blue Winged Olives” keep coming back to me as compelling. I sometimes wonder what went into it… what drove it when it was written… or other pieces as well, but have to just say… “Well, there it is!” I can never recapture the mood so to speak. “Water-Putting” is a neat little journey of humor and truth as is “Its Complicated.” That last one I never remember writing… It just seemed to appear before me already written… I don’t know…
Q. “They say no writer is ever born a writer, instead they have a hundred lives before they begin to create.”
I agree. I was never a writer until middle age. In fact, although a notorious book-worm, my grammar and spelling was so poor that it drove my parents nuts! I guess I was always creative though… it’s in the genes. My dad was a classical pianist and history buff. Mom was amazing artist and painter of regional acclaim in Wisconsin. She produced thousands of oils, watercolors, sketches, pastels, drawings, etc. So many varied styles and explorations. Amazing artist… I think I got the creativity from her. That and I am an only child, so I was left to entertain myself often enough. There was always music and art in our house on the East-Side of Milwaukee. We had a saying, or my parents did… “Bored? Go mow the lawn!” That could translate as ‘There are a million things to do and explore in life… Boredom is a sin.’
I first tried writing in college. I had an amazing creative writing teacher… a gal who back in the day smoked in the classroom, looked like a cleaned up version of Janice Joplin, and urged us to always explore. I loved writing poetry. She hated it as it was awfully contrived, and she was right. However, she found my creative stories to be very original. She said I knew how to tell a good story.
But I never did anything serious with writing until after both of my parents passed away. As a form of catharsis I wrote a long memoir entitled ‘Up on Downer,’ referring to the street we lived on in Milwaukee, and a play on words. Yikes… it would require a year of editing for subject and consistency if it were ever to be publishable, but it taught me about writing, especially the voice, and how important it is in relaying a feeling or a mood underlying a subject.
It wasn’t until a year or so after starting ‘Classical Angler,’ that I sat and re-read some of the pieces I had written and realized they had some promise. What I lacked was freedom. The pieces that failed were too contrived again: too methodical. The works that sang were less constrained. I began to find my voice or voices. I began to write with confidence. That was a long process, and I still struggle. However, producing something that can be read and enjoyed is the most fulfilling thing I have ever done. I spent much of my adulthood for some reason trying to be a business guy… to prove something to myself… from Information Technology to retail management and everything in between. Funny if we find ourselves back at our own roots sooner or later. I guess writing makes me happy, and that I am thankful for, even if the process of general acceptance can be naked at times, and people don’t read in depth anymore, the creative process has to come out. I write for the few people who will appreciate it. I feel lucky to be able to create.