John Madson: Words for at Least a Thousand Years

By Gary Lantz

John Madson came into my life out of a filing cabinet on the first day of a job that I’d applied for without the slightest expectation of advancing much further than the receptionist. Yet, somehow fate and my rudimentary writing skills had creased the cranky armor of a boss that was notoriously hard to impress. Following a whirlwind sequence of events, a 22-year-old newspaper reporter suddenly found himself writing releases for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation and articles for Outdoor Oklahoma magazine.

I stayed late that first night to rummage through the magazine files. He was hiding out in the “A” file, where I found his words in the pages of Audubon magazine. The writer’s name was Madson, and he could make a story sing.

For days thereafter I read another John Madson story, and another. About the cottonwood trees that shaded Western rivers, the big hollow sycamores that sheltered wilderness travelers, about a little park down in Oklahoma where farmers came after harvest to divest themselves of a summer’s layer of dust and grit in the cool waters of a dozen gushing springs.

No matter what he depicted through his magical way with words, from ducklings in a cattail marsh to the carnivorous advance of a prairie fire, Madson used words like brush strokes, played them like chamber music. His facts and science were sound and sturdy, no doubt about it. But it was the poetry, the sheer artistry of his work that made all those facts and all that science so delightfully palatable. Madson carried nature to the typewriter in both his notebook and his heart. There, with the help of the English language, he brought it back to life one keystroke at a time.

From the moment I first read his work, Madson became, and remained, my hero. I’ve never been very sentimental in that sort of way, but on my desk remains a photo of me and this man I grew to admire. In the background is a broad expanse of native grass, a fitting stage for the prairie’s finest chronicler. Every time I look at that photograph, I remember the vow I made before the altar of the filing cabinet, under “A” for Audubon: “Someday I want to write like John Madson.”

More than a quarter century has passed and I still haven’t made the mark. But there are a few years left, a few more rivers to sit beside and a few more sunsets to watch the crows fly to roost. Still time for the words to connect just right. Still time to strive, even if it should prove to be an unattainable vow.

The first time I met Madson I was as flustered as a teenager in the presence of a rock star. But later, over the years, I came to know him as a very warm, sharing and caring man, as well as a writer of letters who could sit down at a keyboard and pour out personal correspondence with the same flair and poetry that flourished in his books and magazine articles.

I truly believe that Madson put more work into his personal correspondence than many of us inject into our work for hire. His words of encouragement could cure the blues better than a daily dose of Prozac, especially for a young writer lost in the despondent, lingering professional fog of queries returned unread, junior editors who can’t seem to grasp that the difference between good writing and today’s average television fare are those transitional sentences they routinely chop off, and of course the daily drill of burrowing through the bills in search of that check that never comes.

Madson could, with a deft phrase or two, make it all seem worthwhile, and I still return to his letters like some sort of writer’s aspirin when the checks are late and some smug editor butchers another perfect sentence in my precious prose.

The reason why, of course, is that Madson’s letters remain good medicine. What follows are just a few gems gleaned from among several personal pages of priceless Madson at his best — good advice for young writers struggling up that slick wet bank towards professional accountability, and also wise words still for some of us slovenly old buzzards to remember as we rant and rave, fume and froth at the mouth while working at a job we’re supposed to love.

Madson on writing how-to articles: “Don’t knock how-to or where-to quickies. As an old friend used to say, ‘It all depends on the execution thereof.’ ”

“Years ago, when I was hacking away on the little Iowa Conservationist for Fish & Game, I had the job of doing a profile of a state park every month. This was supposed to replace a very dull series on state park geology that was being done by a geology professor. I fought the job to begin with, much preferring to do fish and game stuff. But when it became apparent that I had no choice, I began hyping myself with such as ‘Godammit, Madson, there’s . . . to be more there than meets the eye! I wonder what it is. . . .’ I started poking under the obvious, down in the roots of the park, and all sorts of things began coming to light. It was just a matter of adding some color to an otherwise black-and-white subject. Hard thing to explain — but there’s always a helluva lot more to a subject than first meets the eye. Even a fishhook or a night crawler.”

“A while later, one of my editors on the Des Moines Register summarized it beautifully with one of the most trenchant lessons in journalism I’ve ever had. I was puzzling over a particular assignment (it had to do with the opening of a new resort hotel at a northern Iowa lake) and wondering just where in the hell the story was in this particular assignment. The editor cold-eyed me and said: ‘Young man, one of your functions on this newspaper is to make sugar out of shit. Go do it.’ And that must always be our prime directive. To make sugar out of shit — or, if we start with sugar, to be damned certain it isn’t the other way around. Sometimes that’s even harder.”

Madson on the human element in outdoor stories: “I’ve learned some things about writing during the past 35 years or so, but the trouble is, I keep forgetting them and having to relearn them (It’s not easy, going through life being Norwegian). And one of the things I keep forgetting and have to relearn is the deep necessity of having people in articles and stories. People would rather read about people than anything else, and outdoor people invariably have stories that other people — indoor or outdoor — want to hear.”

Madson on versatility: “It pays to have more than one arrow in your quiver — and more than one subject area in which you’re interested and involved. Variety is the spice of life, from the writing or reading standpoint. (I have sworn to never write another piece about pheasant hunting. Enough is enough!)”

Madson on magic formulas for success: “I gave several talks a year ago at the University of Iowa J-School. Subject: writing in general and free-lancing in particular. And in putting it all together, I was shocked to see how little I really knew for sure. And there was even less that I knew for damn sure. I think the kids and their profs were disappointed, and they had a right to be. They wanted some magic formulae on how to write and sell marketable stuff, and I couldn’t give them any absolutes.”

Madson on reading: “Another thing I’m sure of is that no one can be a good writer if he doesn’t do a lot of good reading. The reading has to come first in the cycle — the refinement of tastes, a cultivated awareness of the swing and rhythm of good sentences. Of course, exposure to good reading is no guarantee of being able to execute good writing — but I can’t imagine how anyone can be a good writer without having been exposed to good reading. One of the things that a lot of good reading will do is to refine taste and judgment, and hone the ability to self-edit. And the first and most important editor any writer can ever have is himself.”

Madson on when to turn off the lights: “I am also sure that it is never wise to quit a day’s work at a hard place in the writing. I do my best to never leave any knotty little problems until the next morning; it’s hard enough to go down into the basement and face this computer screen each day without having to take up some problems that I gave up on the day before.”

Madson on leads and concluding paragraphs: “I also tell the J-schools that, from my point of view, the closing paragraph of any story is at least as important as the lead paragraph. Hard news stories excepted, of course. But even in straight news writing, there is room for expression. I remember an AP story from years ago, about a gas explosion under a little Texas schoolhouse that killed the teacher and all 12 kids. The entire lead paragraph consisted of the dateline and one sentence: ‘A generation died here today.’ ”

Madson on his work: “Anyway, one of the few things I’m damn sure of, after 35 years in this game, is that I would rather be in it than anything else I know of. It can be lonely, frustrating, skimpily-paid and often tedious — but always, just around the corner, is that special flash of color, that fine piece of information, and that just-right set of words that knits it all together. Bringing those units into conjunction is a lifetime job. You and I are among the luckiest writers in the world — among the luckiest of all time: we are working in English. It has to be the broadest, most expressive, and most superbly equipped tongue of all time. No other language can match it for the sheer depth of vocabulary. Its potential is infinite. I just looked up above my screen to the worn blue spine of my Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary. The words are all up there, within reach. If I can just put them in the right order, in the proper sequence, the writing will be read a thousand years from now. It won’t happen, of course. But that’s my fault, not that of my mother tongue.”

Well, a thousand years haven’t passed quite yet, but we’re still reading Madson prose . . . over and over and over. Reading for information, for inspiration, for instruction concerning how to craft those rhythmical sentences he preached about so eloquently. The words were masterful, and they should linger for a long, long time. Not only under the John Madson byline, but also in the writings of others whom he encouraged and inspired. The Madson touch lives on there, too, for as long as we, the people, continue to love our native land, and for as long as somebody struggles to put that love into words — and get it right in the process.

Gary Lantz, a new OWAA member, lives in Norman, OK. Lantz writes for many state, regional and national publications.

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