Thrift and the Art of Writing

When I want to wax nostalgic, nothing fits the bill quite like watching “A River Runs Through It.” This story of life in turn-of-the-century Montana continues to hold a mystical appeal, its tragic melancholy resonating with age.

As a writer and editor, I’m drawn to an early scene where the fly-fishing narrator speaks of his childhood education.

“Each weekday while my father worked on his Sunday sermon, I attended the school of the Rev. Maclean. He taught nothing but reading and writing, and, being a Scot, believed that the art of writing lay in thrift.”

As you’ll see in the clip, the spectacled Presbyterian minister – red pencil in hand – does a number on his son’s assignment.

“Half as long,” he admonishes.

After a rewrite, the boy returns, waiting rigidly for approval – and the ensuing freedom to fish Missoula’s Blackfoot River.

“Again,” his father says. “Half as long.”

Eyes rolling and teeth clinched, the young man gives it one final try.

“Good,” the reverend tells his son. “Now throw it away.”

A peculiar directive. But as the years pass, I appreciate its wisdom all the more.

Rob Humphreys is a senior writer and editor at Costa Communications Group. Watching “A River Runs Through It” as a 17-year-old, he dreamed of moving out West to – as the Rev. Maclean puts it – explore “the natural side of God’s order.”


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