Friday, December 6, 2019

Playing the slots.


Southern Utah is a red rock wonderland. Soaring cliffs. Plunging gorges. Pinnacles and buttes and mesas and canyons. There are more places that can take your breath away than you can possibly see in a lifetime—let alone a couple of days.
A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of once again teaching at the Kanab Writers Conference. While I have been fortunate to be a part of several conferences in several places, Kanab is always a favorite.
After the conference, we made our way across the Arizona Strip, dropped off the mesa back into Utah and St. George, then drove north of town a few miles to Snow Canyon State Park. We had been there before, and it was time for another visit. An unforgettable recollection, Jenny’s Canyon, surpassed the memory.
A short, easy path off the road leads to a red rock cliff and into a small slot canyon. The photo above shows the entrance. The canyon walls, that can be spanned with both hands in places, reach skyward, limiting light to a narrow strip of sky. Much of the rock is “honeycombed” with fissures and holes and clefts and crevices that inspire wonder.
It’s a small wonder, as wonders go in this part of the West. But it is still wonderful.


Thursday, November 28, 2019

Giving thanks.

Today is the day set aside to do something we should do every day—give thanks for all the blessings we enjoy just for being alive. Things that are ours through no effort of our own. Things that should remind us that while the world may not owe us a living, it provides one anyway.
I am grateful today, as always, for the alphabet.
The twenty-six letters, symbols, scribbles, given to us who use American English have provided me a long life of education, employment, and entertainment. Numbers and I do not get along. But the alphabet, and all that comes from it, is an ever-present friend and companion. Just think of a world without the ability to share thoughts, feelings, ideas, knowledge, and more through a written language. It is beyond contemplation.
Despite the occasional quirks and complications inherent in using our alphabet, and despite the hatred, lies, and cruelty some fashion from it, I am thankful today for the wonder of the alphabet and the many miracles it lavishes on my life.
I hope I remember that tomorrow.





Wednesday, November 20, 2019

My Favorite Book, Part 21.


A couple of weeks ago, while driving somewhere, I heard on the radio that Ernest J.
Gaines died. Hearing his name immediately called to mind A Lesson Before Dying, a novel I have read and re-read.
Most of what I write about relates to the American West. I make an exception here because this book is an exception—in that it is better, much better, than most of the books ever written in the world.
It tells the story of a man accused, tried, and convicted of murder, and sentenced to die for a crime in which he played no part, other than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The man is poor and uneducated, and the attorney assigned to defend him did so on the basis that the defendant’s ignorance and mental capacity made him little more than an animal.
Well, two old women are not having it. They want him to die like a man, not an animal. So, they convince an unwilling school teacher to visit the prison and educate the condemned man. The two men become friends, more than friends, and strengthen one another as execution day draws ever nearer.
A Lesson Before Dying is a gripping, heart-wrenching book more than worthy of the acclaim and awards it earned the author. It will haunt you for years. At least it has me.






Monday, November 11, 2019

See page 48.

The Winter 2019/2020 issue of range magazine is hitting the streets. On the cover, among other things, it says “One Heart” and “Gauchos & Buckaroos.” Both refer to a story I wrote that opens on page 48 of the magazine.
Featured in the article are two artists: Carlos Montefusco and Jeff Wolf. Carlos is from Argentina, where he has enjoyed a long reputation as a painter of the gaucho, the cowboy of his country. Jeff is a sculptor famed for his works of art depicting the buckaroo culture among American cowboys.
The two have become friends, brothers even, as they have explored rural life in their respective countries, and shared knowledge and history and meaning.
Find a copy of range and read all about it. It is an inspiring story of two artists who share one heart.


Thursday, October 31, 2019

Really Stupid Words, Chapter 9.


With the Major League Soccer season wrapping up, Major League Baseball wound up, the NBA ramping up, and the NFL in full swing, sports broadcasting is everywhere. Outside of soccer and rodeo, I am not that big a sports fan. But you can’t escape the stuff.
Sports are, and always have been, a hotbed of buzz words, clichés, and meaningless commentary. So, in a sense, picking on them for that sort of thing isn’t fair.
Then again, stupid words are stupid words, and deserve to be made sport of.
There are two particular stupid words (one of them is actually two words, but some of the people enamored with them are writing them as one word now) that are particularly annoying.
First of all, when was the last time you heard a sports organization referred to as a team? Not lately, would be my guess. Now, it’s a “franchise.” Not that sports teams bear any resemblance to the actual meaning of “franchise.” But, “franchise” has two syllables, whereas team has but one. Plus, it sounds highfalutin and important to the people who say it. They probably pat themselves on the back for their facility with language every time it comes out of their mouths (or keyboards).
Then, there are fans. No team has fans anymore. Now, always, it is a “fan base.” Again, it is meaningless as used. True, a team may have a base of loyal, through thick-and thin, season-ticket-holding fans. But, now, everyone with even a casual interest is part of a “fan base” it seems.
Stupid.


Tuesday, October 22, 2019

A look into the future.



Five Star, publisher of several of my books, just sent the cover design for my forthcoming novel, Pinebox Collins.
It’s about a one-legged itinerant undertaker in the Old West.
From the battlefields of the Civil War, Jonathon “Pinebox” Collins wanders the West seeking his place in the world. Cow towns, mining towns, boomtowns, small towns, growing cities—he tries them all.
Along the way, he witnesses what, where, and how the West changes America and the world. And he sees who makes it happen, crossing paths with pivotal people of the times. Among them, “Wild Bill” Hickok, whose trail repeatedly intersects with Pinebox’s.
Pinebox Collins offers a unique view of the Old West, through the eyes of a man who looks death in the eye every day.
The book is due for release in March 2020. Put it on your “to-do” list.


Monday, October 14, 2019

14 reasons (minus 12) I write about the West.


1. It is my homeland. I was born and raised in the West. After leaving my small Western hometown for good after graduating from college, I have lived in half a dozen or so other places. But all of them are Western places, either on one edge or the other of the Great Basin, or on the Snake River Plain. Raised among sagebrush and cedar trees (western juniper, if you’re a botanist), my eyes are accustomed to far horizons and wide skies. And while I enjoy visiting forested places and the confinement of wall-to-wall green-tinted shade, it is direct sunlight and hard-edged shadows that tell me I am at home.

2. The story of the West is the story of America and the American people. For centuries, the stories of the West were told by the many tribes and bands of Indians who were, and are, here. Later, the story took on a Spanish accent with the arrival of Spanish and Mexican colonizers. French inflections arrived with the trappers. And, since Europeans arrived on the east coast of the continent, there has been a yearning to go west, and west they came. The resulting clashes and collaborations that continue yet today created a place unlike any other on earth.

Whether it is writing history, fiction, poetry, or reporting the stories and lives of modern-day Westerners, there are stories to be told about the American West—and those stories will never run out. And, I believe, those stories can and will say more about the world than any other stories can tell.



Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Remembering.


No one becomes a writer alone. Although it is a solitary pursuit, the pursuit of writing requires saddle pals to blaze the trail, to lead the way, to lend a hand.
There have been many writers I consider saddle pals who have ridden off into that sunset of the great beyond. In one way or another, in ways large and small, they have helped me in my attempts to be a writer. And I will never forget that. Or them.
Here are the names of some of those saddle pals. Some you may recognize, some not. But all are heroes in their own way—at least to me, and, I suspect, many others.
·         Dale Walker—historian, writer, and editor extraordinaire
·         Elmer Kelton—gentleman and all-time great Western writer
·         Dusty Richards—made a career of helping other writers find a career  
·         Frank Roderus—ever encouraging, ever helpful, ever informative
·         Don Kennington—kind and considerate, talented beyond measure
·         Pat Richardson—rollicking rhymester steeped in wry humor
Even though they are gone, for me they will never go away.




Sunday, September 22, 2019

Lies they tell writers, Part 51: Think positive.


I heard a lady say the other day that you have to think positive. That if you don’t think you can do something, you will never do it. She wasn’t talking about writing, but I have heard the same thing said about writing. Believe in yourself, don’t be critical of yourself, and that sort of thing.
I disagree. I think writers should always doubt themselves. Always question themselves. Always wonder if the words they’ve just written are as good as they should be. To always worry that what they’ve written doesn’t cut the mustard.
That kind of “negative” attitude, I believe, spurs us to try harder, to apply extra effort, and, ultimately, to write better.
If a writer is willing to go the extra mile, to never rest, to bend over backward, to always challenge what’s on the page, that writer will surpass the “I think I can” attitude of the little engine that could, and become the writer who did.
And, did it better.




Thursday, September 12, 2019

Off to college.















Friday, October 11, from 8:00 in the morning until 4:30, a bunch of writers of all kinds will host workshops, panel discussions, and other events to help aspiring authors find their way into and through the complicated world of writing and publishing books—and other media as well.
I have been invited to sit on two panel discussions with other authors, one on writing poetry and another on writing effective opening lines for books or stories or whatever else you’re writing.
The UVU Book Academy will be held at the UVU Wasatch campus in Heber City. If you’ve not visited the Heber Valley on the backside of Utah’s Wasatch Mountains, you’ve missed seeing one of the most beautiful places in our state—and there’s a lot of competition when it comes to beauty in Utah.
If you’re in the vicinity, or can be, come join us at the UVU Book Academy.


Thursday, September 5, 2019

And when I die.


We are all going to die. Our clock will stop and that will be the end of us on the earth. For most of us, our passing will be of little note, even at the time. And then, I heard or read somewhere, when the last person who knew us also dies, we will be altogether forgotten. Other than our posterity, who may know us only as a name on records, there will be no memory of our ever having been here.
But there is this.
For those of us who wiled away part of our lives putting words on paper, our names will live on in some fashion. On the shelves of libraries and archives there will stand books with my name on the spine. Some of the books some of us write will be saved for decades, even centuries. We will have created things that are as close to indelible as anything mankind creates. After all, we still read books written thousands of years ago, and know something of the people who wrote them.
This, of course, does not mean our books or our names will enjoy that same longevity. But, at the very least, I will have left something behind to note my passing. Somehow, that seems to matter, somewhat.




Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Really Stupid Words, Chapter 8


It’s getting more and more difficult to watch the news these days. The latest stupid buzz words propagate more quickly and widely among broadcasters than ever before. Some come and go; others entrench themselves as clichés to the point you’d think certain stupid words have become as much a part of news reporting as who, what, when, where, and why.
You can’t report how something appears without referring to the “optics” of the situation. And you must talk about what some eventuality will “look like” even if it’s something you can’t see. Interviews have become “conversations.” And during those conversations you don’t discuss or explain things, you “unpack” them. And correspondents no longer report from, say, Tokyo, or Buenos Aires, they are always said to be “on the ground” there. When there is more than one TV reporter on a big story, it must be pointed out that it’s “team coverage.”
Perhaps I am too sensitive to such nonsense. But when I am on the ground in front of the TV unpacking the latest optics of the day’s events, I can’t help but wonder what the next really stupid buzzword will look like. Perhaps I would benefit from a conversation with another viewer—sort of like team coverage, I guess.






Friday, August 16, 2019

“Tall Tree” stands tall.


There’s a certain expectation I suspect most Western music aficionados have when sliding a CD into the player (or whatever you call it when playing one of those digital thingies). You expect a rich, vibrant voice accented with a hint of wide-open spaces. You expect lyrics relevant to life in the West, past or present. And you expect to hear guitars and an assemblage of other familiar instruments.
You get all that with Nancy Elliott’s latest release, Tall Tree.
But that’s where Nancy Elliott starts, rather than finishes, with this collection. It stretches the expectations of Western music to the point that she labels her music South-Western Americana.
Backing Nancy’s resonant vocals are the expected instruments, blended with unexpected additions such as pan flutes, eagle bone whistles, native flutes, hammered dulcimer, congas, tumbas, and other assorted drums. The result is music that is undeniably Western, but with added spice that enriches the sound in unexpected and alluring ways.
It’s a good sound. And the songs are darn good, too. Slide Tall Tree from Nancy Elliott into your CD player—you’ll like what comes out.





Tuesday, August 6, 2019

My Favorite Book, Part 20.


I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: some readers love Cormac McCarthy, and some readers hate Cormac McCarthy, and there are very few readers to be found in between.
He’s not a writer you read to “escape.” You know, those kinds of books you crack open and fall into and zone out and breeze through without working up a sweat or having to stop to catch your breath. Or think.
You have to pay attention when you read Cormac McCarthy. And even then, you’re apt to find yourself re-reading a passage here and there because something unexpected happened; a surprise you didn’t see coming but, on reflection, had to happen.
And there’s his style of writing. He isn’t big on quotation marks, so, again, you have to pay attention when he’s writing dialogue. But his vivid language, searing descriptions, complex characters, and stories where a lot happens below the surface will engage your mind and infiltrate your consciousness and never let go.
All the Pretty Horses is one of McCarthy’s masterpieces. It won the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award, among other honors. And it sold wagonloads of copies for years, and probably still does, which is a rare feat for a Western novel.
It inspired a Hollywood movie of the same name, which I did not see for years. Having read the book several times, instinct told me which aspects of the complex, interwoven stories movie cameras would focus on, turning the tale into something of a high-class soap opera. I was right. What a shame.
All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy deserved better. It’s a remarkable novel. I think I will now go and pull it off the shelf and read it again.

Monday, July 29, 2019

What are you working on?












That question, I suppose, is asked of writers more than any other. At least I get asked quite often. You might think it’s an easy thing to answer.
But, it’s not. At least for me.
Right now, for instance, I’m working on this that you will be reading soon, I hope.
At the same time, there’s a novel that’s mostly finished that I am working on finishing.
There’s some publicity material I need to send to the host of an upcoming speaking engagement, and I’m working on that.
And I’m working on what I am going to say to those people when it’s time to stand up in front of them.
There’s information to gather for a magazine story, and I’m working on that.
I have a magazine column that will be coming due and I’m working on that.
I’ve been invited to sit on a panel discussion at an upcoming writers conference, and I’m working on that.
I will be presenting a couple of workshops at another writers conference a bit later, and I’m working on that.
I’m working on an idea for a poem that keeps rattling around in my head.
I promised to read a manuscript for another writer, and I’m working on that.
I’m working on publicity material for a movie that was released recently.
There’s a history book I want to write that I need to be working on. I should get to work on another short story. There are books of mine out there that could use some sales support and I should be working on that.
And I need to mow the lawn.


Friday, July 19, 2019

A new dispatch.


The summer issue of Saddlebag Dispatches is online and off the presses. Included in its 162 colorful pages is my regular column, “Best of the West.”
Featured in the column are cowboy poet Andy Nelson and songster Brenn Hill, whose on-stage exchange of poetry and song are unrivaled in western entertainment. Andy and Brenn are both outstanding writers, which, to me, is what matters most.
But that isn’t where their talents end. Andy is a master of ceremonies, reciter, humorist, and commentator without equal. Brenn is a lyricist, composer, picker, and singer of the finest kind. Together, they blend poems and songs on similar subjects seamlessly, alternating stanza and verse to tell a bigger story than either song or poem tells on its own.
Link up with Saddlebag Dispatches, and enjoy all it has to offer in the way of magazine features, short stories, poems, photos, and more.
And don’t miss the “Best of the West.”





Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Saluting the flag.


This time of year, flags fly in abundance and are celebrated and saluted in many settings.
Every rodeo begins with a flag ceremony in conjunction with the traditional grand entry, with the stars and stripes flown from horseback in the arena. Men doff their hats, hold them over their hearts, and—for those so inclined—sing along with the Star Spangled Banner.
It’s different for those of us who practice(d) the bareback bronc riding trade. Here’s a poem I wrote about the experience from behind the bucking chutes.

LONG MAY IT WAVE

The Star Spangled Banner inspires all manner
Of feelings in folks when it plays—
Every bareback bronc veteran feels a rush of adrenaline
Long after his rodeo days.

The Anthem’s first sound brings the Chute Boss around
Yellin’ “Pull ’em down boys! Let’s rodeo!”
And you straddle the chute, ease down onto the brute,
Grab your riggin’ and stretch latigo.

Then the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air
Grow distant; seem to fade into dim.
Rosin squeaks in your handhold. The horse shivers as if cold.
And, for eight seconds, there’s just you and him.



Monday, July 1, 2019

On newsstands now.


Many of you are familiar with Cowboys & Indians magazine. It’s a slick, upscale periodical that covers entertainers, travel, food, shopping, and other people, places, and things around the Western states.
The current issue focuses on Texas, including a feature story on rodeo legend Ty Murray. Included in the feature is a sidebar I wrote about the Professional Bull Riders Ty Murray Top Hand Award, an award created to honor bull riding’s roots in rodeo, and recognize cowboys who are not bull riders and have made a significant contribution to the sport.
The handsome award itself, modeled on a pair of Ty Murray’s spurs, was designed and sculpted by my friend Jeff Wolf. As you see, it’s a real work of art. Recipients of the award will no doubt be honored to display it.
Get a copy of Cowboys & Indians and read all about it.





Thursday, June 20, 2019

Lies They Tell Writers, Part 50: Enroll today! You, too, can learn to be a writer!

There’s one thing that’s sorely lacking in my career as a writer: an education.
Beyond what they taught us all back in my day with those dreaded “Themes” in high school (and elementary school and junior high) I am unschooled in writing.
I confess a reasonably good grounding in journalistic-type scribbling, as I earned a degree in the subject in college (between rodeoing and activities best not mentioned).
Still, I can put together a passable assemblage of words now and then. Don’t ask me how or why. But it certainly didn’t come from attending one of those fancy creative writing programs where so many people who want to write enroll, lured by all manner of lofty promises. I know people who have done that, and they tend to hem and haw, fuss and fritter, plan and procrastinate, and talk about writing rather than write.
I read something some time ago about creative writing programs that might help explain that. It references poetry in particular, but I think it applies to creative writing in general. This quotation pretty much sums up what a fellow named Louis Menand wrote in the New Yorker:
Creative-writing programs are designed on the theory that students who have never published a poem can teach other students who have never published a poem how to write a publishable poem.
Sounds about right to me. As I have opined before, you can learn more about good writing by reading the writing of good writers.
Pay attention. They know how to do it.





Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Really Stupid Words, Chapter 7


American English is a rich language. It changes and evolves, and words and usages come and go. Some clarify, improve, enhance, and enrich.
But some are just plain stupid, and ought to be replaced by more meaningful language. Or, left unsaid altogether.
“We control our own destiny,” for example.
You hear people spout this inane phrase all the time. It gets thrown around as if it actually means something, rather than positing the impossible.
Destiny, by its very nature, is something that cannot be controlled. It’s usually defined as something like, “the predetermined, usually inevitable or irresistible, course of events,” or “events that will necessarily happen.” Note the words “predetermined,” “inevitable,” “irresistible,” and “necessarily.” In other words, uncontrollable.
So, no matter how much you might like to think so, or how hard you try, you cannot control your own destiny.
(Assuming, that is, that “destiny” even exists. But that’s another story.)


Monday, June 3, 2019

Celebrating art.


From June 20 through 23, hundreds of artists of all kinds invade downtown Salt Lake City’s Library Square for the Utah Arts Festival. And tens of thousands of lovers of literature, music, visual arts, dance, and other artistic endeavors join the fun.
This year, cowboy poets and Western writers are on the program, including yours truly. I am honored to have been asked to present a workshop on Western writing and take the stage to read from my work.
Should you live in or find yourself in the Intermountain West while the celebration is in progress, join us. There’s something for everyone on the program—especially something you never expected.




Friday, May 24, 2019

And the envelope, please…

 

Western Fictioneers recently announced the Finalists for the annual Peacemaker Awards (named for Sam Colt’s famous revolver that some say won the West) for Western fiction published in 2018.
I am tickled pink to say that Father unto Many Sons is among the candidates for Best Novel, and Rawhide Robinson Rides a Dromedary: The True Tale of a Wild West Camel Caballero is on the list for Best Young Adult or Children’s Fiction. (This book, you may recall, will also be recognized as a Finalist for the Western Writers of America Spur Award.)
The winners will be announced mid-June. But, if neither novel tops the Western Fictioneer charts, it is still an honor to make the short list.
Sometimes you get lucky.



Monday, May 13, 2019

Eat what you like, like what you eat.


Lately I have seen advertisements for a new kind of “meat.” Except it isn’t meat at all, it’s “plant-based protein.”
Now, I have nothing against vegetarians or vegans or anyone else who chooses not to eat meat. But I cannot fathom why people who don’t want to eat meat want to pretend they are eating meat.
Over the years, alchemists in laboratories have invested tons of time and money attempting to turn plants into something resembling meat.
Why?
If it’s meat you crave, it’s not hard to find. Cattle and pigs and sheep and chickens and other animals have been making it naturally for time immemorial.
And those of us who choose to eat the stuff do not waste time or energy trying to make meat look or taste like carrots, cabbage, corn, cauliflower, collards, cucumbers, kale, quinoa, or any other plant. We eat our meat and we eat our vegetables as nature intended.
Imitation meat?
Some things simply escape me.


Sunday, May 5, 2019

A wedding celebration.


On May 10, America celebrates one of the greatest engineering achievements in human history—the completion of the (sort of) transcontinental railroad.
The historic 1869 event at Promontory Summit (often reported incorrectly as Promontory Point, an altogether different place) drew a crowd of somewhere between 500 and 3,000 people. The 150th anniversary celebration at the windswept Golden Spike National Historic Park will likely draw many more. Museums and libraries and other places around greater northern Utah have been and will continue to offer exhibits and other commemorative activities.
Despite all the dire consequences associated with the building of the railroad—further displacement of native tribes, destruction of wildlife, abuse of workers, creation of a new class of robber barons, and the many financial improprieties involved—the driving of the golden spike marking the completion of the railroad hastened the settlement and economic development of the West and helped bind the sprawling nation together.
It’s a day worth remembering. So, celebrate the wedding of the rails—or mourn, if you must.


Monday, April 29, 2019

Lies They Tell Writers, Part 49: Look for the Next Big Thing.


The popularity of kinds and categories of books tends to come in waves.
Time was, America was enamored with the Old West. (And why not? The story of westward expansion is the story of our country.) Nowadays, that has waned. Oh, there are still plenty of books published about the West, and there always will be. But they do not command the share of the market they once did.
For a time, Science Fiction was all the rage, and writers were tripping all over themselves to write that stuff. And Science Fiction spawned a lot of interest in Fantasy. Fantasy is still popular in all its types and kinds, but Science Fiction isn’t as prevalent as it once was.
Romance novels had their days in the sun as well, and while they continue in popularity, there are not as many as there used to be, and entire categories of romance have all but disappeared.
Mysteries have always been popular, but they wax and wane as well, along with shifts in the kinds of mysteries that are selling like hotcakes. And there are crime novels, police procedurals, private-eye novels, political thrillers, spy novels, and so on.
Agents and publishers and others sometimes encourage aspiring and even accomplished authors to climb aboard the current bandwagon; to write something in the genre that’s popular this year.
Trouble is, those writers may not be drawn to the category and, as a result, what they write is uninspired, formulaic, or just plain bad. And, by the time the book gets to market, tastes have changed, that parade has already passed, and “the next big thing” isn’t so much of a thing anymore.
The thing to do, many writing gurus will tell you—and I tend to agree—is to write the kind of book you want to write and hope for the best. It may not make you rich, but the odds aren’t that much different.
And at least you will have enjoyed the writing of it.  


Saturday, April 20, 2019

Guys with Guitars.


For years, we have taken advantage of opportunities to attend performances by three of the best writers and singers of cowboy songs the West has produced. Ever.
Brenn Hill, Dave Stamey, and DW Groethe have long been favorites, and they become more so every time we see or hear them finger the frets and vibrate their vocal cords. We’ve heard them with various forms of accompaniment, from side men to backup bands, all the way up to an orchestra. Given enough such enhancement, most anyone (save the likes of me) can sound presentable on stage or in a recording.
But give a cowboy nothing more than a guitar and a microphone and you’ll soon hear what he’s got.
And that’s where Brenn Hill and Dave Stamey and DW Groethe stand out—standing behind a guitar and a microphone on an otherwise empty stage. While each has a different style of string bending, each is a master at making those six strings resound. There is variety in their vocals as well, but each offers a rich, strong voice with plenty of range and dynamics and all those other things singers have.
But their real mastery, I believe, is in their songwriting. From the Old West to the new, from stories from history to deeply personal musings, they set life to music in ways poets envy and audiences enjoy.
If and when you find any of these cowboys appearing anywhere in your part of the country, buy a ticket. Your ears will enjoy the experience.