Purpose: In this post, you will not only practice critical reading skills and use what you’ve learned about literary themes to analyze creative non-fiction, but also you’ll apply the themes by writing a creative non-fiction work of your own. You’ll first identify one of our literary themes in a creative non-fiction essay. Then you’ll also employ that same theme in a creative non-fiction work of your own. This exercise will build your critical thinking skills as well as your creativity.
Then briefly (2-3 sentences) identify how your chosen essay connects to one of the themes in the Themes in Literature page:
- The American Dream/Nightmare
- The Quest for Identity/Coming of Age
Part II: In 150-200 words, write your own original, personal Creative Non-Fiction narrative based on the same thesis or theme that you identified in the essay you chose above. Be creative and use this opportunity to connect events in your own life to an aspect of the work you chose above (For example, if you focused on the theme of nonconformity in this week’s reading, in your own narrative you might describe a time when you yourself did not conform.)
Respond to at least 2 other students’ posts. At least one of your responses should be on an essay you did NOT write about. Your initial post and peer responses should be thoughtful and substantive.
- Your understanding and analysis of the literary theme you identified, as demonstrated by your short explanation.
- Your application of the same literary theme, as demonstrated by how you employ it in your creative non-fiction narrative.
- Your peer responses are substantive and thoughtful and advance the discussion by introducing new insights or perspectives, and/or significantly deepening or broadening the conversation with questions.
- Your use of language: your writing should be clear, well-organized, and free from spelling and grammar errors.
“Gretel Ehrlichâ€™s â€œAbout Menâ€:
When I’m in New York but feeling lonely for Wyoming I look for the Marlboro ads in the subway. What I’m aching to see is horseflesh, the glint of a spur, a line of distant mountains, brimming creeks, and a reminder of the ranchers and cowboys I’ve ridden with for the last eight years. But the men I see in those posters with their stern, humorless looks remind me of no one I know here. In our hellbent earnestness to romanticize the cowboy we’ve ironically disesteemed his true character. If he’s “strong and silent” it’s because there’s probably no one to talk to. If he “rides away into the sunset” it’s because heâ€™s been on horseback since four in the morning moving cattle and he’s trying, fifteen hours later, to get home to his family. If he’s a “rugged individualist” he’s also part of a team: ranch work is teamwork and even the glorified open-range cowboys of the 1880s rode up and down the Chisholm Trail in the company of twenty or thirty other riders. Instead of the macho, trigger-happy man our culture has perversely wanted him to be, the cowboy is more apt to be convivial, quirky, and softhearted. To be “tough” on a ranch has nothing to do with conquests and displays of power. More often than not, circumstancesâ€”like the colt he’s riding or an unexpected blizzardâ€”are overpowering him. It’s not the toughness but “toughing it out” that counts. In other words, this macho, cultural artifact the cowboy has become is simply a man who possesses resilience, patience, and an instinct for survival. “Cowboys are just like a pile of rocksâ€”everything happens to them. They get climbed on, kicked, rained and snowed on, scuffed up by the wind. Their job is â€˜just to take it,”‘ one old-timer told me.
A cowboy is someone who loves his work. Since the hours are longâ€”ten to fifteen hours a dayâ€”and the pay is $30 he has to. What’s required of him is an odd mixture of physical vigor and maternalism. His part of the beef-raising industry is to birth and nurture calves and take care of their mothers. For the most part his work is done on horseback and in a lifetime he sees and comes to know more animals than people. The iconic myth surrounding him is built on American notions of heroism: the index of a man’s value as measured in physical courage. Such ideas have perverted manliness into a self-absorbed race for cheap thrills. In a rancher’s world, courage has less to do with facing danger than with acting spontaneouslyâ€”usually on behalf of an animal or another rider. If a cow is stuck in a bog hole he throws a loop around her neck, takes his dally (a half hitch around the saddle horn), and pulls her out with horsepower. If a calf is born sick, he may take her home, warm her in front of the kitchen fire, and massage her legs until dawn. One friend, whose favorite horse was trying to swim a lake with hobbles on, dove under water and cut her legs loose with a knife, then swam her to shore, his arm around her neck lifeguardstyle, and saved her from drowning. Because these incidents are usually linked to someone or something outside himself, the westerner’s courage is selfless, a form of compassion.
The physical punishment that goes with cowboying is greatly underplayed. Once fear is dispensed with, the threshold of pain rises to meet the demands of the job. When Jane Fonda asked Robert Redford (in the film Electric Horseman) if he was sick as he struggled to his feet one morning, he replied, “No, just bent.” For once the movies had it right. The cowboys I was sitting with laughed in agreement. Cowboys are rarely complainers; they show their stoicism by laughing at themselves.
If a rancher or cowboy has been thought of as a “man’s man” â€“ laconic, hard-drinking, inscrutableâ€”there’s almost no place in which the balancing act between male and female, manliness and femininity, can be more natural. If he’s gruff, handsome, and physically fit on the outside, he’s androgynous at the core. Ranchers are midwives, hunters, nurturers, providers, and conservationists all at once. What we’ve interpreted as toughnessâ€”weathered skin, calloused hands, a squint in the eye and a growl in the voiceâ€”only masks the tenderness inside. “Now don’t go tellin’ me these lambs are cute,” one rancher warned me the first day I walked into the football-field-sized lambing sheds. The next thing I knew he was holding a black lamb. “Ain’t this little rat good-lookin’?”
So many of the men who came to the West were southernersâ€” men looking for work and a new life after the Civil Warâ€”that chivalrousness and strict codes of honor were soon thought of as western traits. There were very few women in Wyoming during territorial days, so when they did arrive (some as mail-order brides from places like Philadelphia) there was a standoffishness between the sexes and a formality that persists now. Ranchers still tip their hats and say, “Howdy, ma’am” instead of shaking hands with me.
Even young cowboys are often evasive with women. It’s not that they’re Jekyll and Hyde creaturesâ€”gentle with animals and rough on womenâ€”but rather, that they don’t know how to bring their tenderness into the house and lack the vocabulary to express the complexity of what they feel. Dancing wildly all night becomes a metaphor for the explosive emotions pent up inside, and when these are, on occasion, released, they’re so battery-charged and potent that one caress of the face or one “I love you” will peal for a long while.
The geographical vastness and the social isolation here make emotional evolution seem impossible. Those contradictions of the heart between respectability, logic, and convention on the one hand, and impulse, passion, and intuition on the other, played out wordlessly against the paradisical beauty of the West, give cowboys a wide-eyed but drawn look. Their lips pucker up, not with kisses but with immutability. They may want to break out, staying up all night with a lover just to talk, but they don’t know how and can’t imagine what the consequences will be. Those rare occasions when they do bare themselves result in confusion. “I feel as if I’d sprained my heart,” one friend told me a month after such a meeting.
My friend Ted Hoagland wrote, “No one is as fragile as a woman but no one is as fragile as a man.” For all the women here who use “fragileness” to avoid work or as a sexual ploy, there are men who try to hide theirs, all the while clinging to an adolescent dependency on women to cook their meals, wash their clothes, and keep the ranch house warm in winter. But there is true vulnerability in evidence here. Because these men work with animals, not machines or numbers, because they live outside in landscapes of torrential beauty, because they are confined to a place and a routine embellished with awesome variables, because calves die in the arms that pulled others into life, because they go to the mountains as if on a pilgrimage to find out what makes a herd of elk tick, their strength is also a softness, their toughness, a rare delicacy.