All across the Keweenaw, there are abandoned apple trees. Crisp fruit pulls heavily laden branches downward. Decades of harsh winters have dwarfed many of the trees, creating gnarly branches. Despite the burden and neglect, the apples remain sweet and crisp. They have true grit.
The first time I saw John Wayne’s classic, True Grit, I swooned from the very start of the movie with Glen Campbell’s song of the same title. The film adapted Charles Portis’s novel about a 14-year-old girl named Hattie who seeks justice for her murdered pa. She hires Rooster Cogburn (played by John Wayne) to get the job done.
The movie is not a love story as you might think by the lyrics (a “girl” finding a “man”). It’s truly a story that examines what it is to be brave in the face of fear. Mattie searches for the toughest man of the law she can find but comes to recognize that she has what traits she sought all along. What Mattie must learn is that we cannot stand on our own — we need others, both fierce and kind.
What is true grit? It’s defined as “True resolve, determination, or strength of character.”
This week, my coursework continues to push into genre and themes. Genre, I’m learning, is not something writers can control, unless, of course, you are specifically writing with genre tropes in mind. As far as literary criticism goes, genre is ever-changing. Romance, for example, once had nothing to do with love and happy endings. Today, genre rules the marketplace because it is the easiest indicator of book success. Want to make a living by writing novels? Romance remains the number one selling genre.
Of course, unless that is the love of your pen to paper, most authors don’t know what genre they want to write. It’s easy enough to differentiate between contemporary (realism) and speculative (fantasy). But start drilling down into subgenres and Amazon categories, and it’s easy to get confused. Theme, on the other hand, is something writers can control. It is the why of your story and less concrete than the who (character), what (plot), and where (setting).
Last NaNoWriMo, I spent the entire month writing over 55,000 words of why. I wrote out of sequence scenes to try and understand the motives of my protagonist and supporting characters. I wrote to better understand the context of theme for my book. I came to realize that as long as a nation believes war is a necessity, there will be soldiers who serve, even if it forever alters them. Veterans need loyal spouses, and veteran families need supportive and caring communities. It’s a price a nation at war exacts from all its citizens. Like it or not, we are all called to serve.
A theme, according to Harvey Chapman at Novel Writing Help, “…doesn’t have to be profound, but must always be true to the storyteller.” We don’t write books because of genre; more likely we write them according to themes of love, revenge, hope, memories, or any experience that moves us to understand it better. Chapman writes, “We’re all on a quest for ‘meaning’ from a very early age, whether we are aware of it or not.”
Writing books is not easy, and the act of writing often requires us to be vulnerable. This week, I’m finding that deep vulnerability in putting my ideas and writing out to professors and peers for critique. I’m challenged to reflect deeply on much reading and challenged to turn in writing with high expectations. At times, it can feel unnerving. The excitement of exploration slowly erodes as the trail climbs higher and demands a brisker pace. This is when I need to summon my true grit.
A graduate of SNHU, Angela Duckworth, studied grit because she learned that it is a decisive factor in success. You can start by taking her Grit Scale Test. She advises students and writers to organize goals with a top-level one. At Carrot Ranch and in my overall writing life, my goal is to make literary art accessible. This gives meaning to my creative writing. It’s like having a theme in a novel. Both themes and top-level goals are like North Stars. It’s your vision, for you as a writer, and for what each book you write is all about.
Learn more about grit:
September 5, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that shows true grit. You can use the phrase or embody the theme. Who or what has true grit? Go where the prompt leads you!
Respond by September 10, 2019. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form. Rules & Guidelines.
True Grit by Charli Mills
Jose tended cattle while Angelina refried pinto beans, mashing them in the cast-iron with lard and flour. At night he tooled leather to sell at the market, making coin purses and wallets. Nightly she carpooled with three other amigas from the ranch into Paicines where they cleaned the elementary school, using grit to shine the grout on the bathroom floors. When the winter rains returned, the foreman would drive them all south to the border so they could spend three blessed months with family before returning to work the rest of the year. Only now, there was a wall.