If you could pull one theme out of your life, what would it be?
For me, that theme is “tough.” As in, “What does it mean to be tough?”
I didn’t know this when I first set out to write a series of essays profiling the colorful characters of rural western Wyoming around whom I grew up. That series of essays now comprises my first book, Tough Love: A Wyoming Childhood, published this month by Pronghorn Press.
The essays were, at first, quaint and almost fluffy, mere sketches of people and experiences in my life that I found interesting. One piece did not necessarily relate to another; they just sort of fell out of me, one by one, like stones. I knew I had to write them – but I didn’t exactly know why.
It was a long time before a pattern started to emerge, some sort of thread or echo that started resonating within each piece. I realized I wanted to know how these people – people like big-bellied bachelor Uncle John, the rancher-turned-writer woman named Chris, and my wild and impulsive Grandpa Bucky– helped to shape my upbringing and, consequently, shape the woman I am today.
The resounding thread? Each of the characters I wrote about exhibited some form of tough. And moreover, they displayed senses of toughness I never felt I had. Having to homestead on a desolate landscape so barren that nothing grew? Not me. Driving cattle home at four in the morning? Not me. Spending lonely winters alone in a boxy cabin miles off a main road? Not me.
Through writing, I started to look hard at this theme of “tough” and ask myself, “What does it mean to be tough?”
All of these things, yes. But wasn’t there more to the meaning of that word? If not, I realized, I wasn’t tough at all.
Except I know I am tough. Just not necessarily in the ways a rural Wyoming life demands. Through writing, I realized that my notion of “tough” was narrow. By holding myself up so sharply against these people who had truly lived hard and noble lives, I had for far too long denied that “tough” badge for myself.
Looking back on the essays prompted me to examine my life via other questions as well.
If you could re-do any moment of your life, what would it be?
If you could live one sweet and precious moment of your past, what would it be?
Thinking about our lives from a variety of angles can help give us a better grasp on ourselves, who we really are. Peeking through multiple lenses can help us to better understand ourselves – who we have been, who we are, who we hope to become.
The former New York Times and Newsweek columnist Anna Quindlen writes: “It’s odd when I think of the arc of my life, from child to young woman to aging adult. First I was who I was. Then I didn’t know who I was. Then I invented someone and became her. Then I began to like what I’d invented. And finally I was what I was again. It turned out I wasn’t alone in that particular progression.”
I am not yet 30 years old. As someone once told me, “You’re not old enough to write a memoir.”
But in writing about my younger self, I discovered a powerful theme at work. It’s a theme that, piggybacked with a theme of confidence, I take with me into the wilds now of motherhood. It’s a theme that is molding me now, and a theme I believe will continue to shape me in the future.
And all because once, I wanted to write about and therefore recall some colorful and strangely admirable characters of my past.
Look at how these “tough” people defined me. Because of them – and because of the writing process – I am now tougher and more beautiful, a more complete person.
You can receive a signed copy of Tough Love: A Wyoming Childhood here.
So? What about you? What is your theme?