Mary had a little lamb.
Its fleece was white as snow …
Oh, wait! That’s not original, is it?
When I wrote THE GUNSLINGER (below) a reviewer said that it was reminiscent of John Ford's movie “Stagecoach”. He was right. That’s because people thrown together behave in predictable ways. Whether the action is played out in castle, a stagecoach, a foxhole, or a space ship, people are going to ask questions, form a hierarchy, create and resolve tensions. It’s what people do.
But just because the circumstance is universal, doesn't mean the story must be unoriginal.
“… and everywhere that Mary went
That lamb stepped on her toe!”
THE GUNSLINGER ~ N.K. Wagner
“You haven’t told us why you’re traveling to Yellow Springs, Mr. Coffee,” the calico clad, buxom Mrs. Hargrove shouted above the stagecoach’s mechanical racket. It wasn’t the first time the gray haired matron had pointed that out.
“No, ma’am,” the black-suited Mr. Coffee replied. John Coffee had never been comfortable in crowds, and he was feeling right crowded just now. Four days stuffed inside this bone-rattling box-on-wheels enduring the well intentioned prying of the Reverend and Mrs. Ezekiel Hargrove was enough to turn a peaceful man violent—and John Coffee wasn’t a peaceful man. He’d made a game of polite non-answers to impertinent questions for the past three days. It’d kept him reasonably amused when he wasn’t busy being annoyed. But the game had worn thin. “I have an appointment”—he tucked back the right front edge of his coat, revealing a plain, worn holster and the equally worn grip of a .45—“with the sheriff.”
“Violence is never a good thing, Mr. Coffee,” Reverend Hargrove said with a tremor in his voice. Mrs. Hargrove’s expression had turned wide-eyed. She clutched her husband’s arm for comfort.
“I agree.” Coffee smiled. He tried to make it reassuring, but he didn’t have much call for reassuring smiles in his line of work. He suspected his effort failed. “But it makes me my livin’, Reverend. I ‘preciate it’s not your way, but some folks just don’t know any better. An’ when a man can’t defend himself from folks like that, he hires me.”
“Will you be helping some poor soul in Yellow Springs?” Mrs. Hargrove asked.
“That’s not my intention. No, ma’am.”
While the Hargroves digested that bit of hard-won information about their traveling companion, the gunslinger braced his booted foot against the opposite bench to keep from being thrown into his companions’ laps. He hadn’t seen Yellow Springs’ sheriff in close to ten years. They hadn’t parted on friendly terms, and he didn’t know what kind of reception to expect.
The stagecoach bounced down the familiar, sun-bleached main street of a town he’d never seen before. Dust, fine as talcum powder, coated every inch of the jouncing, creaking vehicle and its passengers as the driver hauled the four-horse team to a stop outside the Stage Depot.
“Yellow Springs, New Mexico, folks,” the driver sang out.
Across the street, Coffee saw a familiar figure push his way past the saloon’s swinging doors and step out onto the raised, covered boardwalk. A flash of sunlight reflected from the badge on his chest as he stepped down into the street.
A tumbleweed blew across his path and rolled out of town.
“Why’re you here, John?” the sheriff demanded as the gunslinger’s boots touched the ground.
The gunslinger held out his hand. The sheriff was slow to clasp it, but when he did, Coffee pulled him into a hard hug.
“Momma’s sent me to fetch you home—to say goodbye,” the gunslinger murmured.
“One hour,” Bob Coffee told his brother. He glanced up at the stagecoach, raised an eyebrow. “I own a couple of horses. We’ll ride.”
I fell in love today. It’s not the first time this has happened. I recognized the signs, and I fought back. Love is messy and carries burdens. For me, it was an argument between logic and emotion. Not to mention, my absolute belief that the focus of my adoration did not merit my emotional response.
How dare he invade my safe world? Within my cocoon, I had complete control. Every response was measured and tethered to my sensibilities. I had no urge to giggle or resurrect the foolish girl I may have once been. Love had no room in my carefully orchestrated life.
Did I inadvertently lower my guard? No, I think not. But somehow I unlocked the gate and stood at the end of the path expectantly.
Until the moment he appeared, I thought I was immune to love. If ever I imagined the scene, or penned the script, my lover would pull up I a Harley, looking every bit the image of Jimmy Dean or Redford, or for that matter Newman in ‘Sting.’ Not once did I imagine he would simply stroll-up to my door and assume I was available.
Maybe, the surprise attack was what made me vulnerable.
I thought I had experience; a jaded, brittle chick who’d walked that path and recognized road hazards. I can’t explain it. Should I try?
The difference between logic and emotion is sometimes equivalent to the thin line that separates fantasy from truth. Using real life experiences in translating a documentary, arouses emotion and transports a reader into a sphere of memories. The minute a writer taps into an artery, an emotional response, the reader is engaged, connected and is fair game for the next sentence.
I suppose I should be annoyed, angry at myself that I was played for a fool, but today, I fell in love—with a writer—and I believed every word he wrote.
♦ Essayist, commercial copywriter and published short story writer Jade regularly demonstrates her ability to accurately assess writing talent as Page & Spine's Senior Story Editor. Her compassion for new writers is counterbalanced by her direct, often cryptic responses to submissions she does not favor.
There are so many writers out there who are just so hesitant (scared, really) to submit their work. As one told me at a recent conference, “No! That’s my baby! You can’t step on my baby!” This is for them.
I used to teach high school English and physical education and I coached football, girls’ basketball, and junior high boys’ track. It might seem curious, but to discuss writing I’m going to call on my experience as a coach rather than as an English teacher. Writing for publication is not that different from playing organized sports, be it a team sport like football or an individual sport like golf. To be really successful you must have some natural talent, and you must supplement that talent with lots of hard work.
In either case, the writers or the athletes are putting themselves out there. It’s the attitude of “Hey, look at what I can do!” Kids have that attitude naturally but it tends to get, literally, schooled out of us as we grow. We’re told that if we just must show off, channel that urge into acceptable venues—sports, music, art, and, maybe, writing.
In sports, the athlete at any level has a coach. There is someone there to tell them what they did well, what they did poorly, and, most important, how to do better. From the high school level on they have video analysis, slow-motion replay, and a coach with a loud voice to get the idea across. But, most important, to get that coaching they have to show what they can do. They must earn that coaching by having the courage to put it out there.
Mary Rosenblum, in her role as an instructor for LongRidge Writers Group, and as the author of their newsletter, has written more than once that rejections are a good thing, and that the writer must earn those rejections. Earning the rejections is earning the coaching.
A class with LongRidge, or Clarion, or perhaps another professional writing school is worth the money. But even after that you need another source of coaching. We can recruit readers to help us out, or use one of the many writers’ forums out there just like athletes can work out by themselves or work out with their friends and practice with their teammates. But in the end those athletes still have to put it out there for their coaches.
And we writers still have to put it out there for those editors.
If that fifteen-year-old kid can put his hand in the dirt and take on the guy across the line in front of coaches, players, and audience (not to mention parents), then a writer can send that story to an editor. If that thirteen-year-old girl can do balance beam and floor exercise routines in front of teammates, classmates, coaches and parents, then certainly an adult that wants to be a published writer can submit an article to an editor, when no one but the editor(s) and the writer will know it earned a rejection.
All too often the “coaching” a writer gets is a simple, “not for us” or “no thanks.” Admittedly that’s not nearly as helpful as that loud-voiced coach. But writers will never ever know if they’re getting better unless they take the risk of putting it out there and earning that coaching—the coaching that comes in the form of rejections…and, eventually, acceptances.
When I was one of the two assistant football coaches, the head coach continued to emphasize one thing to the players: pride. They should have pride in themselves, pride in their effort, and pride in the results that came from that effort.
The same applies to writers. Do the very best you can with whatever talent you have and coaching you can get, and be proud of it! Be sufficiently proud to send out that writing and tell those editors, “Look what I can do.”
There’s no video replay and no demanding coach, so there’s only one way to get better. Have the confidence to present yourself to coaching and have the confidence that your talent and hard work along with that coaching will result in a better writer.
Let them see what you can do.
♦ Fred Waiss is a former high school teacher and coach who writes poetry, articles, short stories, novellas, and novels as the muse attacks; as an author he considers himself a work in progress.
♦ This author's generous contributions help make P&S possible.
I’ve always had a “thing” about pencils. For me, there’s something magical about using a pencil to write with. I’ve also had typewriters, then a word processor, and now a computer. But I always go back to my pencils.
I have such an obsession with them, that I’ve been collecting pencils for quite a few years. I have well over 1,000 and can hardly resist when I see one somewhere that I don’t already have. I doubt if I’ll ever use them all in my lifetime, and I’m sure I’ll be adding to the collection as I continue along. I also have several friends who send them to me from time to time.
Most of my writing starts out in pencil, many of my poems, lyrics and stories have been completed in pencil. Once I type them out, I print them, and then go over them to make corrections in pencil. I go back and forth re-writing, re-printing and re-typing, until I feel they’re done or I’m out of ideas. I use a #2 lead for the corrections and additions.
They have to be wooden pencils as well, a mechanical pencil doesn’t feel comfortable in my hand. Also, when I sharpen them in the electronic pencil sharpener, it’s like listening to a song playing, that I can listen to over and over.
The sound connects me right back to my writing. I feel that if I’m using pencil lead, I’m accomplishing a lot of writing, and or re-writing. This helps me to feel like I’m moving forward with the poem, lyric or story.
I’ve studied Henry David Thoreau, and besides having the same first name (his middle name was Henry), his parents owned a pencil factory. I seem to have a lot of others things in common with him, although I don’t keep a journal, I tend to write things that are auto-biographical. I also write about nature quite a bit.
I have a friend who is a western and old west fanatic like me; we love both the real Old West and the Hollywood versions as well. I’ll call her Miss Prim, which comes from a western story we once read together. The Spanish language comes up a lot in the old West between California and Texas. One day when we were talking about pistoleros, banditos, mineros, gambusinos, and locos, I came up with I’m a PENCILERO!! We had a good laugh about it.
I also send her packages of pencils, being the school marm that she is, she lets her students use them. They laugh at the cartoon characters, but are partial to the Disney art on them.
I get most of my pencils from the 99 cent store, they have a large variety. I have Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Donald and Daisy Duck, Goofy, Winnie the Pooh, Tinkerbell, LA Lakers, LA Dodgers, Anaheim Angels, Sponge Bob, Hannah Montana, Jonas Brothers to name a few.
Some come from a mail order company, I once bought a box 250 pencils from them. All of them had some kind of design on them, smiley aces, hearts, sports balls, base ball, soccer, football, basketball, etc. Also, asssorted flowers and butterflies and other artsy designs. I also have pencils with guitar’s on them. As well as from places I visit like San Fernando Mission, San Luis Obispo Mission, Placerita Canyon, as well as personalized pencils with my name and other people’s, which I’ve given a gifts.
I have pencils (and paper) wherever I go, in the truck, outside in the garage, next to my bed and other rooms of the house. Like a gunslinger with his gun, or Zorro with his sword; El Pencilero is always ready for the next idea. If I get an idea in the middle of the night, I have a flash light for light, and paper and pencil are within easy reach.
In the truck I only use them when they’re 4 inches or less. This way they fit perfectly in the middle console. When I used larger pencils, they’d fall beween the seats, under the seats, it seemed like I was always looking for one. This way they don’t’ move, while I’m driving.
Using the word Pencilero, I might have created a new word; we have a language here in California called Spanglish. It’s a combination of English and Spanish and mixing Spanish words in English sentences.
I have my pencils separated in various places and sizes, like tools in different departments of a tool box or tool crib. New and unsharpened are in their sections, there is the sharpened and the need to be sharpened departments. There are the pencils worn down to the proper size to go in the truck, they go in a certain box. This way I always have back up to take with me.
There’s usually one or two that are real small and are used until they’re too small to be sharpened in the pencil sharpener, they go into the “retired” box. This happens when they are 2 ½ inches long. Even though there is no shortage of pencils in the world, or in my room, I use them till I can’t use them anymore.
David Smith is a poet, musician, songwriter, who also writes stories and makes videos.