Thursday, March 14, 2013

How The West Was Won (apparently)

Westerns. They hold great appeal for many reasons. The cowboy is often alone—a solitary figure out on the range, sleeping beneath a midnight field of blooming stars. In the lineage of the Romantic noble savage, there is, indeed, a nobility inherent in this lone sojourner. And this nobility always seems to find a way to rise. To meet evil head-on in the dusty street and draw his six-shooter to silence the sneering renegade, cattle rustler, or hired gunman.

Many a Saturday morning of my youth I spent watching “The Lone Ranger,” “The Rifleman,” and, of course, “Bonanza.” For a few seasons I relished (and religiously recorded on my VCR) episodes of “The Young Riders” so as to watch and re-watch the valiant band racing on their faithful steeds to defend the helpless.

Yes, that is a VERY young Josh Brolin 

I consumed, with voracious appetite, the works of Bret Harte and Ambrose Bierce and Louis L’Amour. And, when Leif Enger came out with his novel So Brave, Young, and Handsome which fell into that same Western vein, I dove into it (and wasn’t disappointed).

As a child, when I used to think of bravery and heroism in the abstract, it was alluring and tantalizing and something I hoped (and, at times, even assumed) I would have access to when in need of it. As an adult, I now realize that courage isn’t as simple as mounting your horse or strapping a gun belt to your hip. The courage comes long before I enter the fray of a gun-fight.

Tim O’Brien, in his Vietnam War novel The Things They Carried, puts it like this:

            All of us, I suppose, like to believe that in a moral emergency we will behave like the heroes of our youth, bravely and forthrightly, without thought of personal loss or discredit . . . If the stakes ever became high enough—if the evil were evil enough, if the good were good enough—I would simply tap a secret reservoir of courage that had been accumulating inside me over the years. Courage, I seemed to think, comes to us in finite quantities, like an inheritance, and by being frugal and stashing it away and letting it earn interest, we steadily increase our moral capital in preparation for that day when the account must be drawn down. It was a comforting theory. It dispensed with all those bothersome little acts of daily courage; it offered hope and grace to the repetitive coward; it justified the past while amortizing the future.

Okay, that passage alone is a feast to digest. I think it’s worth the effort—and indigestion—and I’ll let you do that in a moment. But first, I want to draw your eye to one small part of O’Brien’s statement: “little acts of daily courage”. When I think of courage, I must admit that mine has not been tested. Not really. Okay, yes, there was a mouse in my hotel room in Paris and I freaked out, jumped up on the bed in a panic, and screamed (with a few choice words slung at the wee creature itself as it scurried on its way.) But these “little acts of daily courage” go beyond tolerating (and I'm not sure I even managed that) a mere distaste for rodents.

Courage is tasting a real, bitter, paralyzing fear and acting in spite of it.

Now that I have a toe in the writing world, I’m starting to understand the gumption needed to survive here. It’s a solitary business. Courage is required. To decide everyday to give up small indulgences in order to find writing time. To explore new characters. To try new techniques. To leave pieces of myself on the page. To release my words into the vast expanse of the literary Wild West and hope they survive. To open myself up to criticism, to rejection.

This is what I’ve started to call “doorlessness.”

Courage cannot be cultivated if we hole ourselves away behind the safety of our doors—like the quailing townspeople slapping the “closed” sign into the Mercantile window and hiding behind the stolid wooden counter covered with bottles of whiskey and calico fabrics, trembling alongside the other fearful citizens.

“Little acts of daily courage” are required. And it’s important that we recognize these moments when we see them, so that we might condition our courage to arrive when beckoned.

Because at some point, the big gun fight begins. When your worst critic, composed of your own weaknesses and limitations, stands with a vile sneer in the dusty street hollering, “You—your words—are not enough. No one will ever take you seriously. You’re wasting your time. You’re indulging a childish fantasy. Give up, before you make a fool of yourself!”

When your courage is at its lowest ebb—you go outside, look at the midnight sky spread with stars, and say (or scream, if necessary), “I am a writer!”

Then shake the dust from your feet, blow the smoke wafting from the barrel of your revolver, and get back to work.

Because courage found in the small things comes more easily when the stakes are high. And I think any cowboy would agree—it was over time, with daily acts of courage, that the West was won.

top image from / 2nd image from

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  1. "I am a writer!" I am, I am! Great post.

  2. Loved the post, Anna. We don't ever know if we can do something until we try. And I agree, it takes a lot of guts to put our writing out there. I wish you all the best with yours. I'm rooting for you! :-)

    1. Thank you, Danni - I'm rooting for you as well! Keep the writing coming!

  3. Awww, geez, you tapped right into my cowardly weakness! Great post, I think I should print this one out and read it daily. Thanks Anna!

    1. I think I might need to read this daily myself, Kristi! i would add, however, that weakness is not cowardly so long as you don't use it as an excuse for not acting. And from what I know of you, you are not a coward. (Not just anyone can move to Alaska, while keeping up with grad school and mothering and writing!) You've got the gumption - so keep writing, Kristi! I have always loved the words and stories you create!

    2. Thanks Anna, you're too kind!


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