Talk of the Muse: I Flippin’ Love Westerns

I’ve been writing a lot of genre fiction for my weekly flash fiction challenges. When I started out on this crazy writing journey, I really thought that Lit Fic was going to be my region of choice. I love to read genre fiction, but I just don’t know if I’m up to writing genre fiction. I don’t necessarily love world/culture/language building. It doesn’t turn me on creatively.

But I was reminded this week about a genre that I really do love: Westerns. I love westerns.

Now, don’t freak out, I’m not saying that all of my books and short stories are going to be set on the dusty trail…I’m just saying that there is something about Westerns that make me happy, and I’ve been spending the day thinking about it.

The thing that is cool about the “Wild West” setting, for me, is the following:

1) The newness and potential of life. Every person in these little towns is contributing to a brand new society, with new rules and traditions, and that is very potent.

2) Trampling on something ancient: These towns were created on land that was traditionally used by tribes that had been there for eons. The encroachment and disrespect of the many, many newcomers is palpable, and makes for interesting conflict (and strange bedfellows)

3) The solitude of the cowboy is something I’m jealous of. Maybe it’s because I have two babies and I can’t even take a crap alone right now, but I love the idea of waking up alone (but for a horse, maybe) and going to bed alone and being pretty much alone in between.

4) The land is unspoiled. It’s dusty and bare, but it’s unspoiled. No pollution, no trash, not urban sprawl. It’s you, the sky, the land. That is beautiful, even sexy.

5) There is no ocean, either. I’ve never in my life lived more than 100 miles away from the Atlantic ocean. It is my anchor. It is a bit of a muse for me (next week’s post!). The thought of being landlocked, no water in sight, no roaring ocean nearby, is unsettling to me…and that feeling gets me creative.

6) Lawlessness is sexy. I love law and order. I was a political science major in college–policy and law are hobbies of mine (as I write this, I’m watching analysis on today’s SCOTUS rulings…). The thought of pieces of land where law, real law, has little influence is incredible to me. The Wild West is the State of Nature…and that is fun for me.

7) It’s freaking dirty, grimy, gross… dust everywhere, no one takes a regular bath, no one is really washing their clothes, there is barely any teeth brushing…I mean, come on…

8) It’s quite integrated: I mean, yeah, we know that there were a lot of White people in the west, but there were also Chinese immigrants, Black former slaves (and Buffalo Soldiers, and cowboys), immigrants from Germany and Ireland, Mexican citizens (who were technically still in their land until after the Mexican-American war), and other folks who wandered into that area (like some French folk…and others). What a rare mixing bowl! Must have made for interesting conversations over poker.

I could sit and watch a Western at any time. They are just entertaining to me. I don’t necessarily want to write westerns, but if I could distill these elements that make up westerns into something else, something in my voice, something in worlds that I create (in any genre…maybe even lit fic), then something powerful may come out of it.

As a matter of fact, I’m going to see if I can add one of these elements to my flash fic, due Friday. Be there or be square!

What genres do you love? Do you write them or do you use them for inspiration? If you could distill a genre that you love to read but don’t love to write, what elements would you get?

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Writing Themes: Justice and Virtue

 

I have been taking two classes on Ed.X, a wonderful free learning collaborative that started with Harvard and MIT (and has now expanded to many other wonderful universities), for the past three months. The first class is called Justice, which is an undergraduate course given at Harvard by the wonderful Dr. Michael Sandel, who presents the course beautifully. The second is The Ancient Greek Hero, another undergraduate course given at Harvard, delivered by the equally interesting Dr. Gregory Nagy. I was excited to have the opportunity to take both of these classes together, as I think they feed off of each other: Justice is a political philosophy course that speaks to contemporary moral problems, but must draw from the great thinkers of the past. The Ancient Greek Hero is an indepth study of Achilles through The Iliad and the Odyssey, 
along with other ancient Greek literature. I really hated the Odyssey in high school, but really enjoyed reading the Iliad through this course. 

I feel like the best thing that I can do as a writer is to keep reading and to keep thinking. I don’t want to rehash ideas of old, but I do want to apply great virtue and wisdom from the past into my own writing. 

When was the last time that you read a book that imparted a bit of wisdom on you or expanded a bit of your virtue? When was the last time that you read a book that expanded your idea of justice or moved the way you thought about something? I love reading books that move the mountains in a reader’s mind, and I must admit that I haven’t read a contemporary book that has been able to do that for me in a really long time. 

As a middle school teacher, I read a lot of the books that my students were reading in class. Of course, we read the classics and the classics serve to make us think or wonder…but the books that my students were reading for pleasure…the Harry Potters and the Hunger Games and the Twilights of the world…what virtues were they bestowing upon my students? Does it matter if they were or were not conveying a message, lesson, virtue? Should be ask authors to write for depth of humanity? Should we ask the children of today to seek virtue in books that aren’t an explicit religious text? Do virtues even matter in the context of our current world? Have they, possibly, changed? Should we reevaluate what we teach? 

This goes beyond what our young people read–I don’t think that I’ve read an adult book that has made me think and wonder for a long time either. 

I love to write in a way that makes a reader think and wonder. Maybe it is the teacher in me, but I like presenting my readers with a problem that makes them think and then conclude it in a way that makes them think harder. While I haven’t been able to do this in flash fiction per say (1000 words is a HARD confine. I’m getting better every week, though!), I have been able to achieve this in a lot of the longer short stories that I’ve been writing. I’m encouraged by the reactions that I’ve been getting–some of them quite visceral, some of them more subdued… I love using my little passion for words to make people think for a few moments. 

The best way to get me thinking about Justice and Virtue is to continue to learn more and more about it. I absolutely love politics and philosophy. I love discussions of humanity and morality, the body politic and religion. I love history, especially early American history when we were grappling with the philosophies around freedom and liberty. There was also that little bit of hypocrisy (which I loved to teach to my former students). 

I hope that you are choosing to keep learning and striving as a writer. While I love to read about the craft and art of writing, I much more so enjoy learning about other things and then applying that learning to my work. Learning makes writing more interesting. Thinking makes writing worth reading. 

I hope that you, my writing friends, go off and learn something new today!