A series of musings on movies, memories, and storytelling.
by Cassie Hayes, Fiction Editor
Once upon a time, I lived on my family’s land in a house my grandfather designed on FM 1387 in between Midlothian and Waxahachie, Texas, near a tiny little town called Ovilla. This land, although we moved into Waxahachie when I was ten, is often the image I think of when I come across the word “home.” The scratchy knee-high grass. The goats and cows. The black fence and mimosa blossoms. The smell of honeysuckle. The blackberry bush and the peach trees.
I spent the first ten years of my life standing on hard, quartz-ridden black dirt underneath an unrelenting sun, surrounded by whispering wind and miles and miles of cedar-tree-spotted plains. I was, I liked to think, the next link in the chain of Wild West warriors that made up the Hayes clan.
I liked to think I was Texas tough.
Of course in reality I was a scrawny underweight girl, all knees and elbows, prone to ear infections, afraid of the dark, who got stage fright ordering at restaurants.
I’m more of a romantic dreamer than Texas tough. There’s a Kodak photograph buried somewhere in my parent’s attic of me as a six- or seven-year-old at the state fair, standing next to my father and grandfather. I’m wearing a black cowboy hat and black cowboy boots—(they HAD to be black because I wanted to be an outlaw, not a lawman)—that my grandfather had bought me. I’ve got a stern look on my face, like one wrong move and I’d shoot you dead. I adored those boots and that hat because they were sort of like a costume you could wear out and about without Mom telling you to put on something more presentable. No, they weren’t my beloved Batman, Tigger, or Scooby Doo costumes that I wore at home—but at least they were something.
At least they were an outward representation of the character I felt I was building myself to be.
Now, let’s not start philosophizing about how “everyone wears masks” and have some sort of existential identity crisis in the middle of a lousy blog post. I’m just saying people like building and rebuilding their character—the person they present themselves to be—and that who they end up being is one part who they are, one part who they were brought up to be, and one part who they want to be.
And when I first saw The Big Sleep, I knew without a doubt that I wanted to be Lauren Bacall.
Although she was a New York girl, she should have gotten an honorary Texas tough badge. Brash, but cool and collected. Never screechy or hysterical like a lot of the other girls in the black and white movies I watched. Even when she played a minor role, she seemed to be in control of the whole film somehow, all the character development, action, and scenes playing out according to a master plan of her making.
She had “the Look.” Sexy. Sassy. Dangerous. A strong woman who could be the femme fatale, the young debutante, or the doting lover but in any case wasn’t naïve, wasn’t lost, wasn’t unfocused, knew exactly what she wanted and how to get it. She was the forerunner of the strong women portrayed in this year’s Wonder Woman box office success.
I do not possess anywhere close the level of cool conveyed by Lauren Bacall. But recently I read her memoir, By Myself and Then Some, and was amazed to read that her famous “Look” came about when she had to lean against the wall with her face pointed down so she could raise her cigarette to her lips without her hand shaking from nervousness.
Toughness is in the way you carry yourself, not in what you feel. It’s a piece of your character that you choose to put into place—not something God-given, not something granted to only Texans or brassy New York actresses with smoldering good looks.
Which is good news for us who don’t feel so tough sometimes.
And good news for us writers, who need a bit of toughness, perseverance and resilience, just to keep putting our pen to paper or our fingers to the keyboard. Writing is tough. It’s about as relentless as the sun over my Texas homestead, about as hard as that quartz-ridden black dirt. And it means putting on masks, wearing costumes out and about, pretending life on your family’s rural land was idyllic and meaningful—assigning meaning to yourself and your experiences and sharing them, declaring them important for others to understand and recognize too. Pretending the quartz is diamonds. That takes guts, grit, toughness, and that’s writing.
Of course maybe I’m overthinking it. At the end of the day, maybe being a writer has nothing to do with toughness or the reshaping of your identity—maybe a writer is just plain and simple one who writes and can’t NOT write.
Maybe you just are what you are—your look is just your look—and it’s as simple whistling according to Bacall’s famous double entendre line from To Have and Have Not:
“You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow.”