Rescue Me, Flint!; or, Of Wagon Train and Writer’s Block

The wilderness of writer’s block is vast, dangerous, and difficult–if not impossible–to cross.


Or is it just the packaging that makes everything look so vast?*

(*Image used with permission from the delightful Toy Soldiers Collecting blog, where adventure awaits after a click on the link…)

A writer never expects to get seriously lost in this wilderness; like the pioneers in their wagons imagining adventures they can safely escape from and tell their spellbound grandkids about, you picture yourself awesomely epically overcoming weariness, discouragement, boredom, frustration. And you will look damn-hot good doing it, like Wagon Train‘s Flint McCullough (Robert Horton) overcoming whatever has wounded him, from fire ants to dehydration to razor-sharp arrows. One after another challenge will waver and give up before your gimlet gaze.

Or just give the danger a killer grin, perhaps...

Or just give the danger a killer grin, perhaps…

But know this: writing is a savage business, full of blood and gore although planning to write a novel often starts out in a civilized place. Inspiration takes you far along that civilized, hopeful trail, for some people as far as the Promised Published Land. But for others, it’s easy to get take a wrong turn…

“I need to work on the first chapter again…and again…”

“I’ll just finish this job and then write the book when I’ve made enough money to get by…”

“[insert excuse here]”

(BTW, the excuses aren’t always lame—don’t ever get down on yourself for them; they are worthy reasons. Some are even necessary reasons—it takes a special brand of insanity to turn down a job to work on a novel that may or may not ever see another reader’s eyes.)

But before you know it, you’re lost in Death-to-Novel Valley, with the dreams of publication (and forget about completion), like the lemon-scented groves of California, far beyond your mortal reach.

Death Valley B&WDuring my own sojourn in the wilderness, I ride on other people’s novels. I edit their ideas and help them hone sentences. I listen to their campfire stories of finding an agent, completing several chapters in a rush of exultation, living their dream.

I could be an extra on that series, maybe the guy sitting in the shadows, scheming for the sweet, earnest pioneers to fall under a savage knife. Maybe the devil-may-care saddle tramp—there is no writing care in the world, if you don’t write–who rides in to share the warm fire then rides out, fast, as soon as someone starts mentioning they have this idea for a novel, it’ll get published, sure…

To counter the wilderness, I’ve been watching Wagon Train episodes as regularly as some people go to therapy.

Wagon Train openerI want Major Seth Adams (Ward Bond), wagon master, to care for me in whatever darkness I’m in. He’s crusty as well as trusty, and as John Ford used to pick on him (so rumor has it), I feel a special, er, bond with the big lug. He’s not the stellar John Wayne, but he is the guy who will put up his dukes to protect someone in his train–me, the loser! at the end!! who is about to get picked off by my own defeatism!!!!

My hero!

My hero!

Every moment buckskin-clad scout Flint McCullough swings by makes the long days a little brighter. He’ll find the pitfalls of the trail before I do and warn me to steer clear of them or get the rifles ready. He’s the fit-and-trim trail-savvy guy who will buy me a drink to cheer me after a bad writer’s group critique or take me to bed–whatever, as long as I don’t keep him from doing his job, helping Major Adams keep me safe.

Or he could go shirtless.

Or he could go shirtless.

I want to be wined and dined by Frank McGrath, the curious but brave coot of a cook who doesn’t care if I can’t finish–he just thinks it’s cool I started. And maybe I’d able to steal Terry Wilson as assistant wagon master Bill Hawks away from his wife, just for on more distraction on the yippi-yi-ki-yo trail.

He's just a regular guy...with a gun.

He’s just a regular guy…with a gun.

I’m not the only WT convert out there, although most people with a fondness for the hit series are a couple of generations older than I am. TV’s Wagon Train left St. Louis in 1957 and got the wagons to California (for the ninth and final time) in 1965, changing from black and white to color, like Dorothy’s POV in the Land of Oz, in the process. It was a hit with TV audiences, a long-lived morality play that would one day be turned into a space opera, Star Trek. Each episode told an different story of the member of the wagon train, from stalwart men who persevered to cowardly ones who learned their lesson, from sultry vixens who had it coming to good girls who found their husbands and, somewhat surprisingly for the time, Latinos and Native Americans who just tried to maintain their dignity in a world of prejudice. Sure there may have been, like, one or two black people in the first season, and you could always tell when a woman would die at the end of an episode (hint: she had sex with men she was not married to), but at least it was a start for mid-century families tuning into tales of melting-pot community.

Flint McCullough and Major Seth Adams to the rescue!

Flint McCullough and Major Seth Adams to the rescue!

I’ve got one episode left; having just viewed an earnest take on post-Civil War society wounds, with Robert Vaughn as a maybe-bitter Southerner and someone else as maybe John Wilkes Booth. Now it’s just the final episode wherein they will make it to California.

I’m assuming they will–much like when you start writing a novel and you’re supposed to finish it and get to the land of Milk and Honey and Hollywood. But really, who am I kidding? All throughout the episodes, the wagon train has moved through the same mountain pass, circled up in the same sunny meadow, crossed the same raging river. I wouldn’t be surprised if the California they make it to is the same as the land they left behind. Maybe it’s all because of a tight budget and sound stages and stock footage. Or maybe you end up where you started, circling the wagons.

Wagon Train series

Cue Robert Horton’s Flint again, the big-shouldered-trim-waisted scout who will rouse me from echo-chambered, blinker-visioned navel-gazing, even if he has to escape outlaws with a bullet wound in his handsome shoulder, drag himself over cactus for miles, inevitably leaving his shirt behind to show his pecs and brawny arms.

I remember this episode--it was a totally gratuitous and random bathtub scene. But a welcome one.

I remember this episode–it was a totally gratuitous and random bathtub scene. But a welcome one.

Then, once again, as Major Adams would say, “Wagons, ho!”


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