Slowing Down My Pretty Horses

During the spring 2020 semester I’m taking a three-hour, on-line class—WRIT 6342: Writing Workshop Fiction II. One of the course objectives is to articulate how various stylistic choices shape a work of fiction. An assignment last week forced me to slowdown my reading and consider the effectiveness of a single sentence, word by word, phrase by phrase, clause by clause. When I teach again, I’ll use this assignment. Each week I have two to three assignments due. Once I submit my work online, my classmates read my work, and I read theirs. We discuss by commenting back and forth to each other.

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All the Pretty Horses Homework

From my professor: For this response you need to read All the Pretty Horses and the chapter on language in How Fiction Works. Find one sentence you would classify as baroque (highly ornate and extravagant in style). In 300 or more words, consider what makes the sentence effective. Yes, I’m asking you to write 300 words about one sentence.

“When the wind was in the north you could hear them, the horses and the breath of the horses and the horses’ hooves that were shod in rawhide and the rattle of lances and the constant drag of the travois poles in the sand like the passing of some enormous serpent and the young boys naked on wild horses jaunty as circus riders and hazing wild horses before them and dogs trotting with their tongues aloll and foot-slaves following half naked and sorely burdened and above all the low chant of their traveling song which the riders sang as they rode, nation and ghost of nation passing in a soft chorale across that mineral waste to darkness bearing lost to all history and all remembrance like a grail the sum of their secular and transitory and violent lives” (McCarthy 5).

After his grandfather’s funeral and before we even know our protagonist’s name, John Grady Cole reveals himself as a sentimental dreamer by riding on horseback out to the old Comanche road coming down out of Kiowa country. In this place, he hears the horses and the riders of the past. Narrated in the third-person, each “and” represents an echo of the rhythmic gallop of horses from a time when Indians roamed the land and fought to keep it. Nouns follow the repeated “and” provide more details of the place where Cole grew up, the land he is losing, like the Comanches and Kiowas did, and the unfairness of it all. We hear and see, the horses, their breath, their hooves shod in rawhide, rattling lances carried by the natives for hunting and protection and the drag of travois poles for restraining horses and dragging loads over the land. In this case McCarthy compares the sound of the drag and the image in the sand to “the passing of some enormous serpent.” In Native American cultures, the serpent is a fertility symbol, and others believe the serpent symbolizes the umbilical cord, joining all humans to Mother Earth. Even the word passing makes a hissing sound.

The young boys on wild horses are not much different than John Grady, “jaunty as circus riders and hazing wild horses.” We later see John Grady confidently break sixteen horses in the course of four days. An audience gathers, he performs, and they are mesmerized by the act. McCarthy likens “all remembrance” to a “grail” and in this case a search for a romanticized life. This highly ornate sentence concludes by setting up John Grady Cole’s secular, transitory, violent quest, leaving his dead grandfather’s land behind to be sold and passing from Texas across the Rio Grande in search of adventure as a cowboy in Mexico.

By the way, I watched the Matt Damon movie with Penelope Cruz before I submitted my assignment on Wednesday. Then I finished the book. What can I say? I was a little distracted last week. 

Meanwhile, my daughter Lauren journeyed the six or so miles from her apartment to our house and brought over a box of six puzzles she picked up from Walgreens. We, too, slowed down. We started a 500-piece kite puzzle, revealing the bigger picture, piece by piece, and enjoyed our mother-daughter time—one conversation, one meal, one YouTube video at a time.

This past week reminded me to slow down. I paused long enough to consider puzzles and stories and relationships and priorities. We never know for sure what our weeks will hold, but for this one, I have high hopes as always.

The Tale of the Unwanted Letter Jacket

Once upon a time (okay the ‘80s), in a land far away (actually Oklahoma, far at least from me, now, in Houston, Texas), there lived a high school cheerleader named Crystal. Her parents had both been cheerleaders. Her older sister had been a cheerleader. Her older brother would go on to Oklahoma State University and become the school mascot Pistol Pete, a cheerleader of sorts.

L-E-T-S-G-O.
Let’s go. Let’s go.

The thing is—Crystal was a quiet girl. She liked reading books. She liked boys too much. And although she liked dancing and gymnastics and performing, she didn’t like yelling, and she lacked an interest in contact sports. But there was a family tradition to uphold, and Crystal tended to be good at things she didn’t like, like math and cheerleading. Crystal also tended to be a people pleaser, and so she was a cheerleader.

L-E-T-S-G-O.

More than thirty years later, Crystal’s dad would be cleaning out his own house, the one where she grew up, and getting rid of things he didn’t need and things that didn’t belong to him. He gave Crystal her high school letter jacket, the one that identified her as the cheerleader she never cared to be. The vinyl sleeves had begun to sweat a waxy residue over the years of hanging in a dark closet. The jacket was a hot sticky mess, and besides where does a fifty-year-old woman wear the too-small letter jacket of a high-school girl? And why would anyone need an oozing, never-to-be-worn-again jacket to hang in a closet for thirty more years? The jacket was not worth saving, but it was worth a story. And so Crystal snapped a few photos and wrote one, and she lived happily ever after.

Going. Going. Gone.

 

Wild Improbability Continues

“I’m working on my memoir,” I typed on my laptop and scoffed, an audible huff through my nose. I feel like a fraud to say it—still I plan to persist. During the summer of 2011, I attended a two week summer writing institute through Plano Independent School District, where I taught sophomore English at the time. I wrote a piece about my son Drew’s paranoid schizophrenia diagnosis and how that came about during his first psychiatric hospitalization. This episode begins the story I must write.

I attended this same professional development opportunity nine years earlier in 2002. At the time I was a novice seventh grade English teacher and hardly a writer, but the course required a final written piece to be shared with our class on the last day. In all truthfulness I lacked the vulnerability to share anything real and the creativity to write believable fiction, so I wrote about writer’s block. Isn’t that ridiculous? Looking back, I would give anything to have written a slice of life involving Drew and Lauren. They were twelve and ten at the time, a cellist and a soccer player. But no, I wrote about writer’s block. In my defense, my piece was connected to my teaching and learning empathy for my students who struggled with their words on the page. And this course transformed my approach to classroom writing assignments—more mentor texts as models, more creative opportunities, more choices, and portfolios to track progress.

By 2013 I landed an opportunity to launch a Creative Writing elective class at my high school. While developing lesson plans, I adopted the philosophy that writers must be readers (and we took time for that) and that writers must write—every day. I remember feeling like a hypocrite, not unlike now, and forcing myself to write—(almost) every day, journaling bits of dialogue and scenes, keeping notes in my phone for later, and writing each assignment alongside my student authors. I’ve taught some truly gifted kids over the years, and my efforts often paled in comparison. Still I persisted. I started my memoir in secrecy during class and in my spare time and as inspiration struck. At some point, I knew I had a story to tell although the words written in 2013 remain really rough. Tell it I did, much more than showing. At the moment I have 53,834 words, single spaced in an 11 point font, on 101 pages, but as Anne Lamott would say, “It’s a shitty first draft.”

In the summer 2016, a job transfer for my husband brought us south from Dallas to Houston, I lost my beloved Creative Writing class and the convenience of good friends nearby, and I discovered a void. I didn’t write much for a while, instead drinking copious amounts of alcohol to fill the growing hole. Fast forward to August of 2017, Harvey, the hurricane, flooded my family out of our house and into a pet-friendly La Quinta for the next ten months. Not only had I saved my laptop, but my laptop saved me. I typed the story of our evacuation and sent my words for the first time into the blogosphere. I typed other stories, too, and again and again, I tapped the blue button in the upper right corner, the one that says Publish. Seventy-nine posts later, I see growth, and this growth encourages me to return to those shitty first drafts.

And in 2020, at age 50, I went back to school for a graduate program in Creative Writing, and my professor wanted to know what I plan to work on this semester and why. So this is it. “I’m working on my memoir.” And still, I shake my head and laugh.

The struggle is real.

It’s a New Dawn

One day this past summer I found myself alone with my thoughts in Galveston. From my beach chair near the shore, I soaked in the sun to the crashing cadence of the surf until I couldn’t take the heat. I stood up and walked into the waist-deep waves and said, “Take me down, Motherfuckers! You can’t fucking do it.” And I laughed out loud in the face of wave upon wave and walked in a little deeper.

It’s a new dawn.

Galveston saved me, and this week I return. This week’s writing retreat begins my new MFA program at a beach house nearby. Each morning through the sliding glass door of my condo bedroom—the golden orb rests for a moment on a blanket of orange and yellow and then rises into the blue. The waves advance on a new day and a new life. Each new dawn reaffirms my decision to be here. Each new chance to begin again—a gift.

It’s a new day.

I have a story to tell, and I have to tell it. For so many years, I thought the story was about my son Drew and his severe mental illness. I realize now it’s a story about me. It’s about my reactions and my coming to terms and what I’ve learned and how. It’s about my reality and my hope. It’s about sharing to help others and letting people know they are not alone.

It’s a new life.

So now I face the waves that crash into me. I stand my ground and let them hit, and I laugh out loud because I’m still standing tall with a smile on my face and a “fuck you” for anything that tries to take me down.

And I’m feeling good.