I may lose a few of my younger readers here with some really old references, but I ask that you bear with me. It will get better as it goes along. 😉
The really old reference, of course, is “High Noon”. For those of the younger persuasion, “High Noon” is the name of a movie that was once quite well-known, starring Gary Cooper as Will Kane, the town marshal of Hadleyville, New Mexico Territory. The movie won an Academy Award for Gary Cooper as Best Actor, as well as for Editing, Music Score, and Best Song. Given that the movie came out in 1952, and that Gary Cooper himself passed from the scene in 1961, it is not too surprising that many younger readers may be unfamiliar with the title. Along with the iconic music from the movie, the film also indelibly seared into the minds of a generation or two the picture of a solitary hero facing down the bad guys as a matter of principle.
“What pray tell does a 63 year old western movie have to do with writing?” you ask. “And what is a ‘word-slinger’?”
Stay with me, now. I’m getting there, even if slowly and somewhat round-about. “Slowly and round-about” is just the way my mind works. I can’t ask anyone to follow my train of thought – it’s simply too weird – so I have to explain as I go.
Answering the latter question first: I am a “word-slinger”. Words are my stock in trade and have been almost as far back as I can remember. I’m that kid in class everyone hated because I always liked the essay questions best. I can spin out 250 words telling you what time it is without even trying. A 500 word essay? Easy as pie! Words come easily for me, and always have for about as far back as I can remember.
I credit (or blame?) two influences for my gift of gab as regards the written word. The first is my love of reading. I literally cannot remember a time when I could not and did not read. I have very vivid memories going back longer than I really like to think about. I have clear memories of people, places, and events that occurred before I was age six. That particular age marks an important division in my life as that is when my parents packed up the family and moved us to Montana from Tacoma, WA. I was reading before the move, and I have never stopped.
The second major influence on my development as a “word-slinger” was a very special teacher – Sister Mary Laura. Shortly after classes started in my seventh grade year, Sister Mary Laura decided I was ‘insufficiently challenged’ by the regular curriculum. Her solution was to give me an on-going extra credit assignment. She handed me a dictionary and informed me that henceforth I would come to class each day having learned every word on two pages of that dictionary, starting at page one. Proper spelling, pronunciation, and sufficient understanding of its meaning to use it in proper context in an intelligent statement. The “extra credit” was that I would not suffer any ill consequences so long as I completed that day’s assignment. This went on throughout my seventh and eighth grade years. In that time and place, four nuns taught eight elementary grades in a four room school – two grades per room, one nun per room. They were all marvelous teachers and we all learned as much as we could handle. When I returned to the public school system for high school, I was way ahead of most of my contemporaries and mostly coasted through high school.
And that is how I became a “word-slinger”. From that day to this, words are my friends. They entertain me, delight me, and sometimes puzzle me. But the latter happens only rarely. My dictionaries are always close at hand. A “College Dictionary” for quick look up, and a massive, 2,400-page Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary for serious research. I’m a “quick-draw artist” with either one.
“All right, all right, already!” you say. “We get that part about “word-slinger”, but what does that have to do with Gary Cooper, old movies, and ‘High Noon’?”
I suspect most of you will agree with me that for a writer one of the most fearsome of the “bad guys” is that evil hombre in the black hat known as “Writer’s Block”. Consider yourself very fortunate indeed if you have never sat, hour after hour, staring at a blank screen or sheet of paper, unable to find the words, the ideas, the inspiration necessary to fill that screen or sheet of paper with intelligible, much less entertaining, writing. I see you nodding your head out there. You do know what I mean. As evil a bad man as ever came down a Western, dirt street, lined with saloons, sheriff’s offices, and blacksmith shops.
And, you, or I, play the Garry Cooper role of Will Kane, who must face down the bad guys and find our way to a sheet of paper filled with words. The clock on the tower looking over the street inches toward twelve. It’s “High Noon”. Our reputations as “word-slingers” depend on our standing out there alone in the dusty street, waiting for the bad guys to make their play.
That is exactly the situation that has confronted me the past several weeks trying to advance my primary novel. My characters are standing around saying and doing nothing. Usually I can count on them to carry the action, or at the very least, point me in the direction the story should be going. They’re not on strike, or anything like that. It is just that they, like me, have reached a standstill. Our muse has flown and left us with nowhere to go. Neither they nor I have any idea of what comes next, who is going to say what to whom, who will step up or fall back. Nothing, nil, zip, zilch, nada.
I have pulled out a number of books and articles looking for advice on how to confront and ultimately defeat the dreaded “Black Hat” outlaw, Writer’s Block. I have muttered and mumbled, showered curses upon my computer screen and keyboard, played hours of solitaire. I have laundered every bit of dirty clothes in the house – some of them twice! I have gone grocery shopping, Christmas shopping, and worst of all, I have even gone book shopping! As though I needed more books!
Like Will Kane, aka Garry Cooper, I looked for help in dealing with the black hats everywhere, and like Will Kane, there was no help. I would have to face the bad guys alone. The clock was seconds away from “High Noon” and I stood there in the dusty street.
If, sixty-three years later, you haven’t seen the movie “High Noon”, I’m going to spoil the ending for you. You have had your chance to watch one of the great movies, and now I’m going to spoil the ending and tell you that at the last moment, after Will Kane has faced the four bad guys alone and eliminated two of them, he finally gets some help, and from a most unexpected source.
I, too, found some help in my shoot-out with Writer’s Block, and from a most unexpected source. It appears now that my novel is back on track, I am moving ahead with the story, and my characters again seem to know where they are going and why, and how they expect me to get them there. Our muse has returned.
The story of my unexpected source of help and how it helped me move past the block I have been facing for the past several weeks is a blog post in and of itself. And I will take up the details of how I got my book back on track in next week’s post. For now, suffice it to say that the “word-slinger” is back in action, the keys on the keyboard are clicking, and words are going up on the screen.