I’ll tell you a secret that I learned a long time ago. It is a secret that is only a secret because most people don’t take the time to think it through. Very simply put, writing isn’t about the words. It can be, and often becomes so, because you can drive a finishing nail with a sledgehammer if you are very careful and aren’t really concerned about your fingers.
But if you do it right (something I’m still learning), then people shouldn’t even see the words, and barely notice the mechanics behind what you are saying with those translucent bits of ink. The goal of writing anything, after all, is to give someone a gift of information. And you don’t want to make it difficult for the reader to accept that gift.
I met a man over a decade ago who understood this, perhaps better than I do. He understood that the goal was to engage and inform the reader rather than attempt to impress them with his own mastery of vocabulary.
“They have to feel something, or what’s the point?” he told me more than once. When reflecting back over a prolific career writing about the outdoors (especially fishing), he would always tell me that he wanted people to be as excited or more excited than he was about the best fishing spot or the next fishing trip. I would smile and agree, but I never told him that I thought that was impossible. It wasn’t impossible because he failed in any way to persuade them, either.
The reason it wasn’t possible is because I have never met anyone more passionate, more purely excited, about the outdoors than Soc Clay.
But Soc was like that with most things. If it mattered enough to get his attention, he gave it all his attention with the single-mindedness of a bulldog working a bone. And heaven forbid that you’d even think about taking that bone away from him, because he was also that stubborn with anything he set his mind to. He wasn’t the slightest bit bashful about telling you exactly what he thought about a subject, either. This wasn’t because he was actually inflexible or unreasonable, though, because he would give you the opportunity to change his mind — he just made sure you knew at the start that you were in for a lot of work.
Those qualities were what allowed Soc Clay to basically build his own genre of writing. He didn’t invent outdoors writing, but he had a hand in making outdoors writing something everyone could enjoy; and it was that last part that was the key to him. Most of what we discussed was his writing about fishing and his pictures of the same, and he told me he was always concerned about what the readers liked or wanted to know more about. What were their favorite spots, what fish were they catching (or not catching, as frequently happens), and what new thing he thought they would like to try. He was also interested, for their and everyone else’s benefit, about pollution, conservation and good resource management.
“Pictures aren’t enough,” he would tell me, though his photos made him famous. “I want our children’s children to still be able to see a bird in flight and hear them sing. And I want them to be able to catch a fish that isn’t too diseased to eat.”
Soc Clay was also an accomplished oral historian, a title which would make him laugh and say that it just meant he liked to talk … a lot. I was fortunate enough to be invited to sit in his barn a few times with him and Sam Piatt, and once at Sam Piatt’s home. It was a wonderful experience on several levels, but it was also like hearing an audio book of regional history in stereo. Not the boring kind, either, not the kind that drones on and covers your ears with layers of dust. Listening to the two of them talk was like discovering a window you didn’t know existed, and the world beyond was as real as the one where you stood. I am really going to miss that.
“Roman,” he said, leaving the “s” off my last name on purpose, “you should write more about the outdoors.” He told me this after he read a story that I had written years ago about morel mushrooms. “You did a pretty good job with that one,” he said, then smiled. “But I noticed you didn’t get them to tell you their favorite spots to hunt them.” This turned into a 45-minute discussion on how fishermen and hunters never like to give away their “favorite” spots, but most would point you in the general vicinity.
“Outdoors people love to share the outdoors,” he laughed. “We just like to share the best stuff with ourselves first.”
I guess that’s when Soc and I first became friends, because he never mispronounced my name again, and I was Charlie after that. Countless conversations, telephone calls, and emails followed after that — but it wasn’t enough. We discussed current events, education, politics and, of course, everything to do with the outdoors. If I had a question about anything in this area, Soc had an answer or at least could point me in the right direction — and even after getting the answer, I knew there was more that he could tell. Now, with his passing, I suppose he never will.
But as I think about all we have lost, including a wonderful friend, I can’t help but think what he would say about it. Though these are just my thoughts, I believe he would say that his life wasn’t perfect, but it was the one he wanted. He would say that he had successes along with the failures in good measure, a family to love, and friends to share his life with all along the way. That’s something to which we all should aspire. And as for the questions I will no longer be able to ask him? Well, I can just hear him say that the answers are out there if you just go out and find them. And while you’re out there, spend some time on the river, because nothing beats a good day of fishing, and the river has answers all its own.
Reach CHARLES ROMANS at firstname.lastname@example.org.