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Cowboy’s Quill: Advice on writing about the West



By Doug Hare EBS Staff

How does someone become a writer of the American West? Well, here is my unsolicited advice.

I’ve met a lot of folks who like to talk about how they are going to write a book “one day.” Well, anyone can dream of being a writer, but writers write. It may sound trivial, but the first prerequisite of becoming a writer is to put pen to paper.

Writing is a craft, one that must be practiced to be mastered. A few lines of doggerel or a paragraph of drivel is better than nothing. Even for the most talented of writers, the editing process is where many of the best sentences magically appear. Once you can see the forest for the trees, it’s easier to find the trailhead.

Another piece of universal writing advice is to “write what you know.” But it’s often misunderstood. It doesn’t mean that we should all strive to write some thinly-veiled autobiography. No, I think that the old adage means that we should mine our own life experiences first, and then blend them with our imagination’s ability to transport into different time periods, places, and the minds of others.

This rule also entails that writers should be amateur historians. None of us have likely robbed a stagecoach, but it helps to know who these two-bit outlaws were and why they chose their profession or what it might have felt like to lose all your earthly possessions at gunpoint in a matter of moments. Our history, if looked at objectively, is a tale of brutal, violent, lawless past that we have not yet collectively atoned for.

There is still room to write about the strong, silent cowboy type. That stereotype still exists in modern day Montana; I’ve met them from time to time. We must address the myths and wrestle with the stereotypes that we are pigeon-holed by head on.

There are reasons we choose to live west of the 98th meridian. Some of us were drawn here by the idea of a place where we would be less bothered by sidewalks, streetlights, car horns and stoplights. Most people who live in big cities don’t inherently understand or fully appreciate the solace of open spaces. There is still much to be said not only about what draws people West, but also what keeps us here in the land of fire and ice.

If you want to learn more about what it takes to become a chronicler of the region we live in, I wholeheartedly recommend “West of 98: Living and Writing the New American West,” a collection of 66 established Western authors expounding, alternately praising and cursing, how the land they live in shapes their work, edited by Lynn Stegner and Russell Rowland.

As Rowland writes, “Westerners have a history that is as hard to overlook as a ten-gallon hat…We know that the wild, wild West where men were tough as nails and women were just as tough but looked good in gingham is a myth, but not entirely.”

Maybe we aren’t as sophisticated as the fancy East Coasters or even those on our own coast. But we, as Westerners, needn’t have an inferiority complex. One of the great virtues of the Westerner is and has always been our authenticity and lack of pretension. Those qualities should be reflected in our words.

Doug Hare is the Distribution Director for Outlaw Partners. He studied philosophy and American literature at Princeton and Harvard universities.

Joseph T. O'Connor is the previous Editor-in-Chief for EBS newspaper and Mountain Outlaw magazine.

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