Wild Bill Hickok, First Gunfighter of the West

Not since Prairie Fires by Caroline Fraser have I read a book on the Old West that grips me as much as Wild Bill, The True Story of America’s First Gunfighter by Tom Clavin. Wild Bill (whose real name was James) is a historical character whose story is fascinating and ultimately tragic in much the same way as Princess Diana’s. For one thing, it is impossible not to like Bill Hickok. He was too chivalrous not to like, even love, as so many men and women seem to have, both close-up and at a distance. Hickok favored justice and the underdog. He cared about those in need of help. Hickok was astonishing for his courage and God’s grace upon him during the Civil War. (Advice: Read slowly. Your jaw will drop.)

Clavin’s measured and analytical (without being negative) approach to this biography makes reading it a joy. It seems he wisely wants to avoid the fate of Nichols, the journalist who wrote the 1867 piece in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine on Wild Bill Hickok that made the young sharpshooter an overnight national folk hero. (Writers and cowboys share the experience of the rough ride, even if one is more psychological.) Clavin tells how that one story changed the lives of both writer and subject.

Another element that makes Clavin’s book valuable is his sensitive descriptions of people whom Hickok knew or who impacted the change of the West for good or ill. Clavin has a great sense of the right touch. He fuels the reader’s interest with sensitively drawn depictions (starting with the prologue) of people like Davis Tutt (friend turned foe of Hickok), James Chisholm, half Scottish and half Cherokee, a kind man who spoke 14 native American dialects, Calamity Jane (whom Old West TV fans will remember from the phenomenal series Deadwood created by David Milch)–there is a great story of Jane and a loan–General Custer, Buffalo Bill Cody and an assortment of unsavory people. The reader will be glad to know about them all. Setting the stage and explaining the co-players is so important. We want to grasp Hickok by the place and people of his era, after all.

The way towns are described gives great pause. The ones we live in today are no way what they once were. Clavin pulls the reader back to a past full of drama and tragedy today hidden by malls and modern streets. Kansas readers of this biography may appear downtown with startled expressions.

I appreciated learning from Clavin that although Hickok tried to live up to the image created (perhaps disastrously) by Nichols, he was true to himself in ways that helped shape society–in my opinion, for the better. (How do we continue to tolerate, or for that matter, produce, creatures like McCall?) I really do not want to give too much away.

I got the sense that Hickok did what he did because of his values. As I was reading, I could not get the comparison with Princess Diana out of my head: both she and Hickok were beautiful, talented, graceful human beings with flaws because they were human. They were daring, loved and hunted. They touched the people of their time and they paid the price for their gifts. Thank you, Tom Clavin. You have done a marvelous job in painting a haunting and moving picture of Wild Bill Hickok and the America he lived in. Thank you, as well #NetGalley and #St. Martin’s Press. This will not be the first book I purchase hardback after reading the ebook version.


Post Holiday Blues

Right after any cheery event, the mood turns gray. It can be you or it can be your nearest and dearest who suddenly are crabby, cranky, unresponsive, and seemingly bent on proving that all the love expressed in the holiday card was a sham, an expression by some other being.

Adults are children grown up. After a visit to Disneyland, who gets cranky and peevish? Could it possibly be we had an overdose of fun and goodwill?

There would not be sci-fi if this sensation did not resonate. Some other being. . . some creepy, otherworldly creature who doesn’t love but wants to bite your head off or cut you off emerges the day after festivity. God Willing, it is certainly a this-life-only manifestation; otherwise, those entering the gates of Paradise might turn into residents one would expect to find in the flames.

There are several ways to cope with the earthly GRAY DAYS. It is the time to remember stored-up ethics, values, and goals. Abruptly upon awakening the day after–a holiday, wedding, birthday–a sane person will extend their fingers around to see if the backbone is still there. This is the individual we have to rely upon–the self.

Consider Your Audience

Whose attention do you crave?

Getting others’ (positive) attention is what 90% of life is about even if we deny it. Going to school to learn how to live effectively in society has the endgame goal of gaining others’ positive attention–at the very least, in that we will not be arrested and thrown into prison (a negative attention result). The programmer who becomes a hermit to code a software game of his/her dreams that others will play cuts himself off from convivial society for the future positive benefits of gaining others’ attention.

Some people mistakenly think that by being mean or authoritarian, the attention gained will increase their value. These individuals have a grand sense of self-worth, which might be altered if they were to consider how insignificant their presence is to the happiness of others. They may argue that the happiness of society is a hollow value, but they are wrong. Without happiness, or at least the contentment of society, chaos reigns. (Chaos is also about getting attention but in the form of fury and despair.)

Writers are intensely aware of the need to get others’ attention. As W. Somerset Maugham once put it, a writer understands that without gaining attention, the reader will not move from the first paragraph to the second (and the writing fails). Choice of methods for shaping those paragraphs to attract attention will chisel out various audiences. The best method is the one that appeals to the widest number of readers, leading to one of the first considerations writers must face at the outset of a project: who will care?

Naturally, the writer must care or no one else will.

Annie, the piglet who left too soon.

Sometimes student writers wring teachers’ hearts with true tales of love. My student Melina sent me a touching story which she agreed I could share:

Annie the baby.

“I hate to miss assignments or have excuses but I do not have the heart or mental strength today to work on the two assignments and for that I am sorry.

About a week ago or more we got a baby pig who was the sweetest thing. She was my baby. I fed her every night and morning. I played with her and snuggled her all day and night as she slept with me every night. I hated being apart from her.

Annie is loved.

Last night, I took my brother to the movies and when I came home I grabbed her food bowl to make her happy cause I knew she hated the cage and would be excited to get out and eat. The second I walked in, I knew something was wrong as she didn’t grunt or squeal as she usually does when I walk in and she is in the cage. I found her lying on her side.  I tried to touch her and she did not respond and she had seizures. I picked her up and held her, trying to warm her up but she kept seizing. We took her to the vet and [he said the problem] was something she was born with and no matter what it was, her outcome was very poor so we made the decision to put her down so she did not suffer. [The Veterinarian told us that] pigs can stay like that for up to three days. My heart is completely broken and I have cried since I found her.

I understand if I cannot make up the assignments and have to accept zeroes as it is my responsibility to do my work. Thank you for your time and understanding. I hope you have a good rest of your week. Once again, I apologize.”

8 Myths Embraced by Writers

Some myths will function in the life of a writer, even past 18 years of age. For instance, Santa Claus with his sleigh and Shakespeare being a regular guy with a regular education are two that, embraced or not, won’t change writing careers. Writers may hold onto those or discard them, with little discernable effect.

But writers who believe in other myths are going to have to invest heavily in Tylenol and Kleenex tissues. Once these myths are uprooted, writers may hope to achieve contentment and reason:

1. Getting an agent is a perfect reason to buy champagne. (Sure, Moet et Chandon would like you to think so.)

2. An agent will get your work published. (Apparently, you do not know many other serious writers.)

3. Getting a well-known established agent will get your work published by a bonafide mainstream publisher. (See #2, please.)

4. There is a magic number of queries that, if you can just hold out until you reach it, will guarantee that the agent or editor meant for you by your fairy godmothers will say yes. (I have the numbers locked in my office safe. They correspond with your birth date and genre. Send me a $39.00 Paypal transfer along with your birth date and the genre you write in, and I will get that right to you. Maybe.)

5. If you know someone important, that person will help you get published. (Considering that children helped Tolkien and J.K. Rowling, I would cultivate those immature ties. Friendship with children is the road to a healthy mind and creativity!)

6. Placing first in a literary contest will help you get noticed by agents and editors, leading to a lucrative book deal. (Perhaps. Perhaps not. Take it as praise and don’t pin all your hopes on this.)

7. If you do not get a contract with a well-known publisher, then you should quit writing. (Ah . . . . maybe for a week? If you are meant to be writing, you will come back to it. Despite the Tylenol and Kleenex, there is hardly anything more health-giving than the catharsis of writing!)

8. If you self-publish a really good book, readers will find it and write reviews. (Readers will not find it unless you learn to market. As people are generally distracted and thinking of themselves, most will not leave reviews. You will have to figure out a way to get reviews!)

A Different Kind of Nazi in Paris

517b-t7n-jL._SR600,315_PIWhiteStrip,BottomLeft,0,35_SCLZZZZZZZ_ Junger was a well-known German author and officer during World War II who “met intellectuals and artists across the political spectrum” while living in occupied Paris. As such, he can be considered part of a Franco-German dialogue, if not “alliance.” I personally was interested in this book because I wanted to know the atmosphere of Paris under German domination. Apparently “Junger frequented the Thursday salon of Paris editor for Harper’s Bazaar, Marie Louise Bousquet,” wife of the playwright Jacques Bousquet. Pablo Picasso and Aldous Huxley also attended those meetings. I am just getting into the book and realizing that nothing is black and white–life is always varying shades of gray. Junger, for instance, judged the brutality of fascist sympathizer Ferdinand Celine’s vicious character harshly. It is amazing to see who dallied at these “salons.” In visiting the George V hotel, he would have been conversing with Cocteau and the publisher Gaston Gallimard. This may help you keep reading: “When Junger saw an opportunity to help save Jews at an acceptable level of risk, he did act.” His help proves he had a conscience despite Cocteau’s comment that he had no hands. I think it is wonderful of Columbia University Press to publish Junger’s journal. It will help scores of researching writers and anyone interested in what German officers were doing while in Nazi-controlled Paris. #NetGalley #ColumbiaUniversityPress. arr de triomphe