A Fish Story by Mary Volmer
(From a talk given at the 2018 Festival of Women Authors — Berkeley, CA)
This is a fish story:
It’s late May in the sierra foothills, and I’m five years old, determined to catch a fish. My first fish. A big fish. And I’m not going to use my brother’s hand-me-down fishing rod, just my size. No. I’m determined to use my mom’s rod, three times my height, amber brown with a fitted cork handle, and this beautifully complicated casting mechanism, which can’t be that hard to use. Mom made it look easy.
Besides, I’ve already dreamed my success. I’ve already stood triumphant on the lake shore, holding my fish aloft in one hand and my pole in the other — Annie Oakley, Calamity Jane rolled into one. I’ve already basked in phantom glory, and I’m ready for the real thing. It’s early, just past dawn when my mom, brother and I set out from the camp ground bundled in layers. Scrub jays heckle back and forth, and the shadows of the cedars move with us; there’s the lake, clear and still — I can all but see the fish — and the water is snowmelt cold.
I know how cold because a moment after I set my feet on a raised rock ledge, and with a heroic heave, throw my weight behind that first cast, I find myself, hook, line, and pole, in the lake.
I can’t escape this story. My mom tells it on me every year or so. Maybe she’d quit if I’d ever outgrow my childish attraction to fantasy and yes, self-aggrandizement. But the story remains relevant and true and points to a pattern of behavior I have never escaped, even if my focus has shifted. Even if I dream now catching stories, beautiful, necessary, difficult stories, I inevitably find my plans, at some point in the process, soaking wet in the lake. My abilities have always, in every instance, come short of my dreams.
I’ve been lucky. After that first of many spectacular failures, I had someone to fish me out, dry me off, warm me up and, after my pride had scabbed over a bit, to point me back to the lake side with a smaller pole and hard won humility to try again. What I discovered (in retrospect, of course), what you’re bound to discover in any activity — like fishing or writing — requiring as much patience and persistence as skill, is pleasure in the process, and the transcendent, perhaps spiritual state, achieved when finally you surrender what you thought you wanted — the fish, the championship, the publication — and discover purpose.
The fact that I seem doomed to relearn this lesson, again and again, doesn’t make it any less valid, I don’t think. I don’t know many people who grow out of who they were at five years old. And the fact is, I need that five year old alive and well within me. I need the dreamer, and the egoist, to stand with bold oblivion on the lakeshore. I need her to cast herself in.
Every book worth writing (and reading) is too much to handle for the writer on the day she conceives it. It doesn’t matter how many books she’s written before. New vision (vague though it may be), is intoxicating and compelling so that even if she’s knows better — about the labor involved, about the limits of her own abilities — she returns to a state of stubborn naivety. I think this is why having children is so often used as an analogy for writing books. No matter how well informed or seasoned, you will never be prepared for the pain, joy, labor, and love required of you. The only certainty is that somewhere along the way you will find yourself overcome and shivering in the lake. The only certainty is that to succeed you have to try again. Rediscover joy and humility. Fail better.
I began my first novel by accident. I was living in Wales as Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar, giving lectures on California Gold Rush history to Rotary clubs up and down the Welsh coast. In college I’d been an English major and a basketball player, no historian; I was from California. This fact seemed proviso enough for my Welsh hosts. I did my best, filling my talk with dates and names of important men. Yet my audiences, older and mostly male, remained politely uninspired. So was I. Until one day a lady — one of the wives, I think — raised her hand and in the bored silence asked, “What about the women? Weren’t there any women in the gold rush?” The most shocking part about that question, looking back, was that I had never thought to ask it.
I shelved the text books and popular histories from which I’d cribbed my facts. I trashed my talk and went back to the library. I went looking for women and found them in journals, letters home, in newspaper accounts and marriage records. The sources were sparse and fragmented. Beyond three poles of existence — birth, marriage, and death — the stories of 19th century women remain largely undocumented and inconsistent; a fossil record of heirlooms, which borrowing Virginia Woolf’s lament, “lies at present locked in old diaries, stuffed away in old drawers, half obliterated in the memories of the aged.”
But to a budding novelist discovering her subject nothing is as attractive as a lost or untold story. She has freedom to fill with imagination what the record leaves out; freedom to speculate and create fully conceived characters from an amalgam of people about whom little might be individually known. My first novel, Crown of Dust, about two women, one who disguises herself as a boy, in a ramshackle Gold Rush town grew out of this research. And when the book was published, though I had never claimed the title before, I began to think of myself as a writer.
Now, you have to imagine the title WRITER written in that heavy white marquee movie-house lettering, all caps, to appreciate the foolish burden of self-importance that word placed upon me. I wasn’t daunted, at first. Because I had an idea for another book, a big book, my book, and for the next five years I failed, and failed, and failed again to write it.
I was trying to catch a fish, you see, a big fish, my fish. I’d somehow forgotten the point of writing, and the reason I loved to read, was to connect with other people. And if I had a story at all it was not mine, but ours. A story of us: about mothers and daughters; about the women left behind and the children born in the long shadow of the Civil War. About the divisions that ripple though communities large and small and the glacial pace of social change. About the plight of women, and the unheralded and imperfect efforts of the people who fought for the economic, political, and sexual freedoms we enjoy and dare not take for granted. Out these slow revelations my second novel, Reliance, Illinois was reborn.
I’m stubborn. It took me years to strip away the sodden layers of my ambition and to settle into the satisfying work of discovery, which I had embraced on instinct with the first novel. I had to learn to listen, again, to translate, not dictate. I needed to put myself, my plans and intentions aside and recover the ability to feel with and for and through other people. Baudelaire understood this necessity: “How do I make you see,” he said, “that when I speak to you of myself it is of you I am speaking?”
You can’t eat a story as you might a fish. It has no value unless shared. Good writers know this: good writing, regardless of genre, is communal. Whatever else the story, or poem is about, it is about us.
You can say the same of good readers. Good readers are willing to feel with and for other people — willing to listen. “Reading is a means of listening,” says Ursula Le Guin. “[It] is not as passive as hearing or viewing. It’s an act: you do it… and though you’re usually alone when you read, you are in communion with another mind…you’ve joined the act of imagination.” You have helped create what poet Matthew Zapruder calls an “imaginative space,” allowing us not only to empathize, but to “acknowledge obvious [even if not convenient] truths.” “People,” he writes, “do not disbelieve in inequality or racism or global warming because they have not been informed: they disbelieve because they cannot or choose not to imagine. They are cruel because to them, others have become an abstraction, and cannot be truly imagined.”
Back in 2014 Ursula Le Guin warned us “that bad times were coming and that we’d all have to work to imagine some real grounds for hope.”’
This is the task laid out for writers, readers, teachers, and community leaders. This is our big fish. While the ideals we pursue may not be achieved in the manner we imagined, while we may find ourselves shivering in the lake, as many of us did on election night 2016, we pick ourselves up, dry ourselves off, and try again. Because if we can use our imaginations to write the story of us then, by God, we can change it too.