Norman Maclean was a splendid writer best known for his semi-autobiographical novella, “A River Runs Through It And Other Stories.”
Here’s what a 1981 Esquire magazine profile on Maclean had to say about the novella:
“It is a story about Maclean and his brother, Paul, who was beaten to death with a gun butt in 1942. It is about not understanding what you love, about not being able to help. It is the truest story I ever read; it might be the best written. And to this day it won’t leave me alone.”
The novel describes Maclean’s relationship with his brother Paul and their upbringing in early 20th-century Missoula, Montana. Their father is a Presbyterian minister who teaches his boys the art of fly fishing. Theirs was a family in which, “There was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.”
A Being With My Soul
The novel and motion picture capture the zen-like pleasure of fly fishing. It reminds me of the joy I experience outdoors, painting along the Big Sur coastline and up among the redwoods. Where all I can hear is birdsong, the wind rustling through leaves, and the soft cadence of my breathing.
Listen to Maclean here, as he describes fly fishing as an old man:
“Like many fly fishermen in western Montana where the summer days are almost Arctic in length, I often do not start fishing until the cool of the evening. Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise.”
We are assailed in life by so many demands. Pressured to find success. Love. Respect. Not to mention the all-encompassing pursuit of “winning.”
We fasten on superficial things. For example, does increasing the number of “likes” on our Facebook page bring us happiness and fulfillment? Or are these things merely distracting us from truer, deeper experiences that matter more?
The Mop-fly Debate
Competitive fly fishing was once embroiled in a debate between traditional anglers and some innovative rivals. The entire ruckus was over something called “the mop fly.”
Professional anglers typically employ meticulously crafted flies, made of materials like seal fur and rooster neck feathers. They mimic the look of real flies, such as metamorphosing caddisflies. But then, along came the mop fly.
The Wall Street Journal ran an article about the mop fly. Ten years ago, a 72-year-old chap named Jim Estes spotted a chartreuse mop with thick microfiber nubs on sale in a North Carolina dollar store.
He got the idea he could cut some pieces off the mop, tie them to hooks and weigh them down with metal beads. Turns out the trout devoured these cheaply made flies.
Jim Estes invention caught on and other anglers have been winning competitions with their mop flies. Before the mop fly, everything was equal. Anglers all used traditional flies. But now, these inexpensive, brightly colored sponge mop flies are cleaning up (pardon the pun) at competitions.
Before the mop fly there was the “squirmy wormy,” another “trash” fly that inventor David Hise made with the rubber from balls. However, as the Wall Street Journal noted, “The Czech fishing union banned the squirmy wormy from competitions after a U.S. team used it to win a European contest.”
Bottom line, the mop fly is a brilliant invention. Fish eat it up. But as Simon Cooper (who owns a fly fishing school) said in the Journal article:
“If you were fishing to eat, you wouldn’t be fly fishing.”
In other words, there is an art to this sport that transcends shortcuts.
Introducing artificial mop flies to fly fishing is sort of like fine artists using a projector to trace images onto a canvas. It’s a short cut that makes rendering easier but is generally viewed as a “no-no” by serious artists. The question is, is it?
Norman Rockwell and the Art of Shortcuts
There’s no question that renowned illustrator and painter Norman Rockwell could render and paint well. Yet he used photography and a Balopticon projector to trace images onto his canvases.
For Rockwell, photography and a projector were simply an expeditious means to an end.
The fascinating book “Norman Rockwell Behind The Camera,” is the first book to explore the archive of over 18,000 black and white photographs used by Rockwell.
As the book notes:
“A natural storyteller, Rockwell envisioned his narrative scenarios down to the smallest detail. He carefully orchestrated each element of his design for the camera-selecting props and locations and choosing and directing his models-before beginning to paint.”
Rockwell’s photographic reference material is what provided a high level of authenticity and realism in his work. Further, his orchestration of the people and props in his photographs is part of his artistic accomplishment.
No doubt the use of these tools accelerated Rockwell’s process and allowed him to produce more work and meet publication deadlines. Never the less, Rockwell was quoted as saying, “I still feel guilty about it.
As a fine artist myself, I recognize that many of the great painters used aids for drawing: the camera obscura, the camera lucida, mirrors, et cetera. So, what’s the harm with taking shortcuts, if they get the job done faster?
Shortcuts: The good, the Bad and the Ugly
There is a stark reality about the business side of life. Everyone looks for efficiencies and hacks to move forward.
Commercial fishermen use tools like nets to maximize their catch. For them, it’s about making a living.
Same with many commercial artists, who employ computers and digital aids to craft their work. A fair number of fine artists use photography and projectors to save time with rendering.
This is the “good” of shortcuts. Finding more efficient ways to complete one’s work and improve one’s livelihood.
But we must be ever vigilant not to lose the art of it all.
What’s the “bad” of taking shortcuts? It denies us the hardships, detours, and lessons of the long road. The deep ruts and bumps that hone our skills, deepen our abilities and make us true artists as opposed to tinkering craftsmen.
“When we sidestep our deeper being and true artistic expression to fill a quota, meet a deadline or gallery preference, we betray our artistic soul.” -John P. Weiss
Lastly, the “ugly” of shortcuts can be found in “artists” who never learned how to render or paint in the first place. They rely completely on cameras and projectors to produce their work.
Their art is usually stiff and forced. All mechanics and no poetry. They lack the ability to perform a live painting demonstration.
People in any creative profession who embrace shortcuts at the expense of deep practice, shortchange themselves on the deeper satisfaction that comes from truly learning one’s craft. They are denied the pleasures of honest effort, and the fulfillment of reaching new levels of expertise.
The short bridge across the roaring river of masterful skills may be inviting, but swimming across the rapids is how we truly learn and grow.
Ask anyone who succeeded in completing a marathon. Secret shortcuts may be tempting, but there is no satisfaction in gaming the race.
Deep down, we know when we skirt the long road. Our conscience must carry the lie, and the aching question, “Who could I have become if I only stayed the course?” What’s the fun in achievement and winning if we’re a fraud?
A Sacred Practice
For Norman Maclean, fly fishing wasn’t about shortcuts. It wasn’t about mop flies and winning competitions. It was about the art of the sport. It was a sacred practice of skill and communing with nature. Being in the moment. Taking one’s time. Truly living.
Shortcuts may have their place, but they are not what our work, passions, and art should ultimately be about. The end of Norman Maclean’s novel concludes:
“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.”
So it is with our passions and art. When we are outside with our easels in nature, we feel it. When we are at our writing desks, lost in the splendor of the words and prose, we feel it.
These are the surprising benefits of the long road. The satisfaction of effort and achievement over shallow hacks and superficial shortcuts.
It’s a sense of deep peace and contentment, running through us like a river. The feeling of being at one with ourselves and the universe. Maybe it’s how we inch closer to the divine?
Slow down and take the long road more in your work, passions, and creative pursuits. Think of it as a sacred practice. It will reward you deeply.
Before you go
I’m John P. Weiss. I paint, draw cartoons, and write about life. Get on my free email list here for the latest artwork and writing.
This post was previously published on Medium.
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Artwork by John P. Weiss