Knowing When to Shut Up

First and foremost I’m an outdoor writer. It was my outdoor column that led to a 17-year journalism career — which in turn led me to write novels and occasional poems. The truth of the matter is that I’ll write anything. But more than twenty years later I’m still writing the outdoor stuff.

One of the things I’ve learned along the millions of words is that there are times the writer needs to just stop, shut up, and let the reader participate in the creative process. One of the best ways for an outdoor guy to express this is to tell you about a recent spring turkey hunt.

At daybreak on a misty, foggy morning that big tom shouted in the day by gobbling, repeatedly, from his roost in a mixed hardwood forest. I used my box call and a slate friction call to produce a little hen talk, which seemed to get him excited. I was careful not to talk it up too much, because often the tom will stay up in the trees waiting for that hen to appear below. This is the thing about spring gobblers, they like to have the hen come to them. It’s unnatural for them to go to the hen. This is part of what makes turkey hunting so challenging.

True to form this guy flew down about a half hour after the day got good and light. And he walked away! I called to him and called to him, but the best I could do was to get him hung up about a hundred and fifty yards down the forested hill. He gobbled and gobbled and gobbled, but he wasn’t coming. He was waiting for that darned hen to show up.

This went on, off and on, for about forty minutes. I could see him in my mind. He was down there in the woods somewhere displaying his finery. His tail was all fanned and he was strutting and pirouetting, dragging his wing tips on the ground. But he just wasn’t coming. Time to do something different.  Because what I was doing so far wasn’t working.

So I shut up!

Ten minutes went by and then he boomed out a “where are you” gobble. I resisted the temptation to answer. And he gobbled again – closer. His curiosity got the better of him and he was searching for that hen he’d heard, coming to the last place he’d heard her yelping, clucking and purring. Coming right to me.

Sure enough, there came his red head and white cap as he crested the hill and walked out in front of me at twenty yards. I pulled the shotgun stock tight to my shoulder, lined up the red and green fiber optic sight beads and tightened my finger on the trigger.

And right here I’ll just shut up. I can do that because just like how my silence drew that big tom right to me, it will also draw you, the reader, right into my story. Now I’m going to share the creative process with you. Can you hear the shotgun blast fill the woods and echo away? Did you feel the jolt of the recoil? Can you smell the cordite that’s drifting away, blending into the fog?

Most importantly – was it a hit or miss? You tell me. You’re in charge of the story now.

Because I’ve gone silent.

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