When I had the opportunity to contribute to Rough Country, the High Hill Press anthology edited by Spur award-winning author Brett Cogburn, I decided to do something different than the typical western story. Rather than be concerned with lawmen and owlhoots, cattle ranchers and gunslicks, I opted for something familiar to people in any time or place.
In a recent comment on Ron Scheer’s Buddies in the Saddle blog, author Richard S. Wheeler writes about the place of women in the old west and their depiction in genre western stories. With my story, Hester’s Vanity, I not only wanted to write about the overlooked life of women, but I wanted to put together a metaphor for a specific kind of overlooked character in general, the misunderstood visual artist (any artist, really).
I wondered: what if one of the hard-scrabble pioneer women we see so often in western literature or movies wasn’t particularly enamored with mending socks, churning butter or raising a dozen kids. But neither was she a gunfighter or saloon girl. What if she was simply the kind of person who might put a frame around an interesting lump of sod on the wall? What if she used the ash from the cook stove, not for soap making, but for quick charcoal studies? What would the men in her life think? How would she respond to them in turn? Hester’s Vanity is the story of an artist and the people who don’t understand her. And the people that do.
As I wrote, I think I had the case of Jennifer Lynn floating around my subconscious. Jen was an African-American poet I met when we were both taking a weekly writers’ workshop led by a well known literary (read: academic) writer. Jen wrote slice of life verse based on a tough life growing up in the deep South. She used a lot of cultural jargon and local dialect. Her work was poignant and powerful and all of us really dug her. Except for the workshop leader. Liberal and politically correct to a fault, he still, ironically, managed to crush Jen’s enthusiasm, mostly by rewriting her work to suit his vision. She dropped out before the workshop was over, and as far as I knew, she never wrote again.
That’s how it can go, especially early in a creative career. What’s a person to do? In my story, I think Hester has a pretty good solution.