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How fishing helped me learn to write

Years ago, when my father was a commercial salmon troller here on the southern BC coast, he’d anchor near a school of herring which swam neatly in a predictable circle around the boat. To keep my sister and me from getting in the way and probably being shoved overboard, he taught us how to jig for herring. A herring jig was a light line with lots of little hooks spaced about a foot apart, baited with bright strands of embroidery thread the herring thought were food. No, no one ever said herring were smart, but they were attracted to the colors, and thereby got hooked.

That’s when things got fun–and troublesome. When I  had a line full of small, flipping herring, the trick was to pull them in, hand over hand, and unhook each one carefully and slide it smoothly into the live-tank. Apparently live herring were much preferred by salmon, and a full tank of live bait was much preferred by Dad. But they had to stay alive–and healthy. Every herring going into the live-tank needed gentle treatment, so as not to disrupt the fish already there, swimming in a sedate circle, mimicking the main school they’d come from. If I tossed my new catch in instead of sneaking it in, it disturbed the others. Therefore, I had to be careful. Hah! “Judy” & “careful” did not belong in the same sentence. Each time my clumsy little eight-year-old fingers unhooked one herring, the other fish on the same line had to spend a few seconds flipping around on deck getting all excited. When inserted into the live-tank, they caused caused chaos. Not only that, when my hooks were all empty, the line lay in ugly snarls by my feet. Before I could put it back in the water, I had to untangle it. Most important, though, while untangling it, I quickly learned, was not to let the loose end with all those bright little hooks drop into the live-tank. There lay disaster. I too often caught fish already caught and in the tank.

This is where the writing comes in. Untangling is a necessary part of novel-writing and I’m glad I learned it while young. When I start a story, I usually have a whole bunch of little hooks decorated with bright threads hanging from a loose line. Call this my Plot Line.(I’m what’s known as a “Pantser” not a “Plotter”, hence my Plot Line is usually a loose and nebulous thing.) Hanging from my Plot Line are any number of brightly decorated little hooks. Call these Ideas or Scenes. Each one has to be captured and tamed and put into the Live-Tank where it should begin to blend neatly and seamlessly with the others already in the Live-Tank school. However, even with that Scene or Idea  sliding into place, there are eight or ten others flopping around on deck in an unruly manner, dangling from the Plot Line, and turning it into a sorry snarl.

It takes time and finesse to winkle each one out, place it in the Tank then go back for the next. Each time I let go of that line, whoops! there’s a new coil,  another mess that has to be tinkered with, a loose end needing to be weaved in and out through a series of loops, this way, that way, back and forth, until it can all be laid straight.While doing this, I’m also trying not to get stuck on the other hooks because if I do, I inadvertently jerk, which causes me to make new, unexpected loops in my Plot Line. Once those are untangled again, I’m sure to discover one or two of those shiny little Ideas and Scenes have splashed too vigorously into the Live-Tank, mucking up the neat circles the others have been swimming in.Then, there they all go, darting this way and that, interfering with the smooth pattern of the Tank. If I let the line slip by accident into the even tenor of the school, all the little fishies (Ideas and Scenes) get stirred up again, and before you know it, everything’s in coils and snarls all over again. But no one ever said Pantsers, or herring, are smart. We all go blindly after brightly colored bits of bait (Ideas) and then struggle to undo the tangles in our minds, AKA Live-Tanks. At least, as a fisherman’s kid who learned about knotted and looped lines, as well as escaped Ideas I have muscle-memory of how to straighten them out and get everything in the Live-Tank circling smoothly and coming out right in the end.Most of the time.

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2 thoughts on “How fishing helped me learn to write

    • One of my fondest memories, learning how to untangle lines. Dad was of the opinion that if a kid was big enough to fish, she was big enough to take care of her own line. He also said if I couldn’t figure out a way to crack a Brazil nut, I wasn’t old enough to eat them. He didn’t mind me taking a hammer to them on the kitchen counter, but Mother did. I soon learned to use vise-grips.

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