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Wednesday, October 02, 2013

A Possible Cure for Writer's Block




I have always been fortunate as a writer because I've never experienced writer's block. I attribute that to having always worked under deadlines as a columnist. Deadlines force you to make something happen. I've always said I could write 500 words about anything.  I once had one of my creative writing students challenge me. He picked up a candy wrapper off the floor and put it on my desk. "There," he said, "write about that." I ended up writing a short story that I sold to Seventeen magazine.

One of my techniques for coming up with ideas if they're coming slowly is to interview someone, almost anyone. There is not a person out there that doesn't have a fascinating story in them if you can get them to tell it (and most people enjoy telling it to someone who is truly interested). 

Take my mother, for instance. She grew up on a ranch her parents homesteaded in Arizona in the late 20's-early 30's. They weren't pioneers in the Conestoga wagon sense of the word. Instead, they came from Illinois to California in a Model T Ford in a time when roads were primitive, gas stations were few, motels were non-existent and tires blew out at the drop of a hat.

At first the family settled in San Francisco. My grandmother was happy. She had a nice house. My grandfather's business was to go to all the better restaurants very early in the morning in a dump truck to collect the leftover food, which he then fed to 2,000 hogs he and his partner kept at a farm outside of town. 

Then Grandpa got a burr to move to Arizona to homestead a ranch so the family moved to the high desert and staked their claim. At first, they slept out-of-doors and Grandma cooked for her family of five on a campfire. A house had to wait a'while until Grandpa dug a well and grubbed out enough clear land to plant a garden and a small crop. When he did construct the house, it had railroad ties at the bottom and screening on the top along with a mud roof and dirt floors. 

Grandpa became a U.S. Marshal and a mail carrier, which meant Grandma was often alone with her kids, far from the closest neighbor, with only a German Shepherd, named Troy, for protection. (You would have never recognized that tough woman in the dainty little lady she became in her later years). The mail came by way of the Southern Pacific. The trainman threw the saddle bags of mail over a pole with a hook as the train roared by, then Grandpa picked it up and delivered it to recipients.

My Grandpa's parents eventually moved to prove up a claim to a ranch next door. My Grandma thought her grandchildren needed milk so she bought a cow. She also thought they need some culture, so she had a player piano shipped in on the train. That joyful sound created quite a stir! 

Cattle were, of course, free-range then, which meant branding. Ranchers got together and helped one another. It was a tough job. When the work was over for the night, Mom loved listening to the cowboys playing their guitars and singing, their music drifting across the desert. The cowboys were the glamorous figures in that society because they were tough and independent and brave and they drifted on as the inclination moved them, not willing to be captured by land or family. 

When the neighboring area had a party, they actually built a dance floor from scratch and roasted whole cows. People traveled miles to come join the celebration. Local talent made the music so that everyone could dance. When it was over, they took the dance floor back up until the next time.

When anyone needed a horse, they simply lassoed one from the vast herds of wild mustangs that roamed the high plains. Mom's horse, Bill, was caught that way though he had a Mexican brand so he must have once been domesticated. He wouldn't let anyone ride him but my mother. At one time, she disliked her teacher. When they had a barbeque at the school house, the teacher imperiously insisted she wanted to ride Bill. Mom simply handed her the reins. Of course, the teacher was promptly bucked off. My grandmother gave Mom a whipping for not warning her but Mom thought the satisfaction was worth it.

The kids rode their horses to school, which was in a railroad car. An Anglo child and a Latino child each shared a desk and in that way, the Mexican kids learned English and the Anglo kids learned Spanish. (There was no big deal about "Americans" learning Spanish because the Mexicans had been their first!) Mom almost always had a soup bean sandwich on homemade white bread. Meanwhile the Mexican kids had a refried beans wrapped in a tortilla. The children looked forward to trading their lunches for the taste of something slightly more exotic than their usual fare.

It was a different kind of life than kids know now and hearing Mom tell about it, it sounds adventuresome and free. Parents seemed to barely pay attention to their kids. They didn't worry about them riding half-broke horses or running across rattlesnakes or wild bulls or getting lost. Certainly, they never worried about people. That wild land was peopled with characters running from one thing or another. Some had murdered and some had stole. Many of them were living under false names so no one ever knew their histories but no one thought of any of them being child predators. 

When my Grandma needed something from the grocery, she sent Mom off on Bill to the nearest store in Aztec about 7 miles away. 

Grandma had an abortion while she was in Arizona with Grandpa's agreement. She simply couldn't face the thought of yet another child to care for under the circumstances of her life. Grandpa took her to Yuma for the procedure and she almost hemorrhaged to death on the 70-mile trip home. 

After they'd proved up their claim to the ranch, my grandfather died of tetanus. Immediately after the funeral, Grandma put her kids on a train and head back for the civilization of Illinois, abandoning the ranch and the stock and the vehicles and the furniture to her in-laws. It was eventually bought for back taxes. 

That's my Mom's story. Pretty interesting, huh? I guarantee you, there's not one old person in a nursing home who doesn't have one equally as compelling. So, if you're stuck for an idea, go talk to them.


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