When my wife is away at the coast or on a quilt retreat, it’s the go-to movie I watch alone: A River Runs Through It, Robert Redford’s masterpiece of the equally masterful book by Norman Maclean about fathers and sons and fly-fishing — and the deeper things beyond.
As we honor fathers this month (June 16), I do so with the admission that my dad, who died nearly 17 years ago, was not a perfect man. (Nor was I, of course, a perfect son.) While watching River the other night for perhaps the tenth time, however, I finally figured out who my father was: Paul Maclean, the younger brother played by Brad Pitt. Flawed — he dies in a gambling dispute — but, as Paul’s father said of him, “beautiful.” An artist with a fly rod. And despite obvious shortcomings, kind-hearted with a sort of rough-hewn integrity. A lover of family and a despiser of bait fishermen, politicians who ignored the environment, and motorcycle riders who rode illegally on wilderness trails.
When I wrote Cascade Summer: My Adventure on Oregon’s Pacific Crest Trail, my heart kept pulling me toward memories of my father that I felt compelled to include. But my mind kept saying: Don’t go there. It’s too dangerous. It’s too personal. Stay on the main trail, pal.
I’m glad I listened to my heart and wandered off the trail — figuratively and, as you’ll see in a moment, literally. Writing is an act of courage. And part of courage is being real with readers, being real with ourselves, and being real about our loved ones.
Whenever I want to wimp out about telling something personal, I remind myself that of the 2,000-plus newspaper columns I’ve written, almost without exception the ones eliciting the most reader response have been personal ones that tugged on readers’ emotions. The ones where I got real. The ones where I shared a vulnerability — my regret, for example, of having accepted $1 to play two-square with a kid who had no friends back in elementary school. As an adult he committed suicide, making me wonder how his life might have turned out if people like me had simply said, “Forget the buck. You serve.”
Tom Hallman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter at The Oregonian in Portland, puts it best: “Feelings are more important than rules … Make the reader feel something. Writers are insecure. Every time we draft a story that includes emotion, we’re crawling out on a limb. Our insecurities tell us to crawl back to safety, but doing so eliminates the story’s heart and soul — what makes the story work. Emotion lives in nearly everyone, though it’s sometimes asleep. The writer must awaken it.”
So, in the end, I’m glad I included the anecdote about wandering off trail, through the forests of the Cascade Mountains ten years after my father’s death, in an attempt to find Comma Lake. As a teenager, I had scoured the woods with my dad, looking for that lake. It appeared on maps but there were no trails to it. And we’d never found it.
But, alone, a decade after he was gone, I did. I wanted to whoop and holler, but it didn’t seem right amid a quiet punctuated only by a few birds and bleached-white trees rubbing against each other in death. On the dried mudflats, I made my way up the comma—a writer literally in his element—toward the lake’s center.
I had thought of bringing something to leave in honor of my father, but he was big on leaving a camp better than you found it, so I nixed that idea. I looked around. A half dozen softball-sized stones lay scattered near me. So, I built him a poor-man’s pyramid. I knew by October, the lake would fill from autumn rains. By November, the monument would be encased in ice and covered in snow. Regardless, it would be my little reminder: we were once here. We found Comma Lake — my father and I.
Sons, I believe, cut wide swaths for their fathers. At church men’s retreats and marriage workshops, I’ve heard men lash out at their fathers, but nevertheless pine for their respect — even after the old man is gone. Indeed, it is a strange dance between fathers and sons. Part of us vows to never be the man he was, part of us feels quietly proud when we realize that, in some ways, we are.
In the final scene of A River Runs Through It, the story’s narrator, Maclean, now an old man, fishes the river and thinks, “I am haunted by waters.”
As men, we are also haunted by our fathers, whose approval seems as important to us now as it did when he watched us catch our first fish. But as writers, we cannot be haunted by the thought of trying to explore such complicated relationships.
As Hallman suggests, if we’re not crawling out on the limb, we’re not writing in the heart spot from which readers are reading. So, if you feel the branch start to bend, don’t panic. You’re where you need to be.