Thursday, October 16, 2008
Good Outdoor Writer Is A Love Of Mine
I’ve been in this outdoor writing business for 41 years, and over those years I’ve met most of the greatest outdoor writers of our time.
Men like John Amber, Erwin Bauer, Havilah Babcock, Nash Buckingham, Chuck Cadieux, John Cartier, Russell Chatham, Ben East, Corey Ford, Ben Hur Lampman, Lea Lawrence, Nick Lyons, John Madson, Arthur Macdougall, Jack O’Connor, Edmund Ware Smith, Norm Strung, Ted Trueblood, Charley Waterman, and many others. All had one thing in common: they loved the outdoors.
It wasn’t so much they loved to kill fish or game, but they enjoyed being out there and matching wits with game. Things were a good bit different in those bygone days. Outdoor writers wrote stories that people loved to read. The how-to or where-to story weren’t in style.
They called that brand of writing “Me & Joe stories.” If a reader reads real close he could spot some how-to and where-to stuff in such pieces, but what gave these stories legs was the writers had the ability to pull the reader into the story and making them read it.
We felt as if we were hunting sheep with Jack O’Connor, catching big trout with Joe Brooks, shooting ducks or geese with Lynn Bogue Hunt or Van Campen Heilner. We hung on the words of Robert Ruark as he sat at the Old Man’s knee and absorbed some of the wisdom that old-timers used to hand down to the young ‘uns.
Corey Ford was another favorite back in the 1950s and 1960s, and his Tales of The Lower Forty were funny but also shared some fishing or hunting wisdom.
Ben East, who lived near Holly, Michigan, was a good friend and I spent hours watching him work his red pencil over a story, cutting and splicing, turning words of some wisdom into pearls of wisdom. I thoroughly enjoyed my many conversations with John Madson.
Madson did a great deal of work for Winchester and the Olin Corporation, and he could make the ingredients of breakfast cereal read well. He was a master of turning phrases, of setting scenes, and of working his brand of literary magic on a story. When he finished, the piece was a gem.
Madson was arguably the finest true outdoor writer of the mid-1900s, and we spent many hours together before his death. I have a healthy-sized stack of his letters, and a common letter from one buddy to another became a piece of art when Madson put his hand to it.
There seems to be something that has gone missing when an article just tells the reader how to catch fish or shoot deer, or even worse, where to do it. The old-time outdoor writers did all of that but they also told readers why they should do it.
They wrote from the heart. They stroked our five senses and why they should be important to sportsmen, and they knew how to drag the reader into a story and leave them wanting more.
Outdoor magazines no longer have strong editors. I sold my first “Me and Joe” story to Outdoor Life magazine in 1970, and back then, editor Bill Rae was a hard-nosed editor that people respected. Editors below his lofty position could offer their opinion, but Rae was a one-man editorial staff. If he wanted a story, he got the story, and suffered no nonsense from other editors.
I sold a number of stories to Bill Rae, and he happily bought them because I could give him what he wanted and what he knew his readers wanted to see. Now, it’s different; there is such a thing as “editing by committee,” which doesn’t bode well for the writer because many editors don’t know what they want. Many want two or three rewrites from a professional outdoor writer. Things have changed and not for the best.
I sell many fishing and hunting books, and some old outdoor magazines on my website (Scoop’s Books), and I figure if a book is a good read for me, it will probably appeal to my readers. I enjoy going back to some of the earlier writers, and although some of their copy could be stilted at times, they knew how to grab the reader’s attention.
It’s always been my intention to write from the heart: to drag readers into the story; to offer them something that is nearly impossible to find today in the how-to, where-to world of outdoor writing, and I’m not ashamed to admit to a mistake. I tweak my readers five senses, and them seem to enjoy it.
What comes through in my writing is a deep and abiding love of the outdoors and of fishing and hunting. I know our natural resources needs some restraints, and I know that being afield is part of why we go fishing or hunting.
We share the outdoors with others, and those of us who love these outdoor pastimes, are perhaps the last of our breed. And just think: all of this rhetoric tonight is about our respect for the fish and game we catch and kill, and a deep love for being outdoors.
And it has all come to pass because of another love. A love of reading is what makes the long wait between fishing and hunting trips bearable, and that is why so many people visit this site every day.
I may be the luckiest person of all because I have a deep urge to write what people want to read. And for that, I’m genuinely thankful for my many readers. Keep reading and I’ll keep writing.