Growing up in a small town in West Texas, I couldn’t wait to leave home and go see the bright lights of New York, Los Angeles, and Boston. The ranching heritage on my mother’s side of the family meant little to me. I saw it as backward and insignificant. After high school, I moved away and had my fling with cities—changed clothes, learned to disguise my accent, and tried to wash Texas off of my skin. I wanted to be a novelist who wrote about importantthings, and important things happened only in cities, right? But one day as I was walking across the Harvard Yard, in the snow in front of Widner Library, I stopped and looked around and was crushed by the realization that I could never be one of these people. I was a fifth-generation Texan from a pioneer-ranching family. I couldn’t wash it off, and maybe it even mattered.
Several months later, I moved back to Texas and began a years-long process of burrowing back into my roots and flushing the bad writing out of my system. I took a job as a ranch cowboy (an odd thing for a young man to do after six years of university education), and my writing began to change. I stopped trying to write “important” novels and wrote instead about the people and things I was seeing every day: cowboys, cattle, horses, ranch families, and dogs. My stories acquired a softness, and they were funny.
At the same time, I was getting reacquainted with my mother, grandmother, aunts, and great-aunts, and to my surprise, I found them wise, resourceful, and intelligent. They had not only left their mark on the little West Texas towns where they lived, but they also had left their mark on me.
Fast-forward to1998. I was attending a script conference in Hollywood. A major studio had optioned the film rights to my Hank the Cowdog series of books and I had flown out to California to discuss the screenplay I had written for the animated feature. I worked on a script team with five people employed by the studio. All of them came from the suburban East Coast, had attended elite universities, and were pursuing careers in the film business. I liked them, and they claimed to love my funny stories about people and dogs living on a ranch in the Texas Panhandle.
For two days we labored over the script, line by line, and then came to an awkward moment. One of my comrades, a graduate of an Ivy League university, furrowed her brow and said, “John, we think the story needs some strong female characters.” I didn’t know what to say. My script had five female characters and they seemed as strong as they needed to be. What should they be doing? Spitting? Kickboxing? Carrying a gun? Bending steel bars with their hands?
This received polite smiles and uneasy glances. It took me a while to figure out that, to them, “strong” meant the ideal of womanhood they had learned at Barnard and Princeton: professional, assertive, successful, brilliant, college-educated women who didn’t waste their time being wives and mothers.
But my story wasn’t about Barnard graduates or corporate executives. It dealt with a ranching subculture in West Texas. I knew a lot about that little world, and my female characters were patterned on women in my community and women in my family. Many of them didn’t have careers outside the home. Maybe they should have, but they didn’t. Most of them were wives and mothers. Maybe they shouldn’t have been, but they were. None of the women in my family went to college. Maybe they should have, but they didn’t. My colleagues on the script team knew nothing about life on ranches or in small towns, yet they seemed determined to reinvent the characters in my story. It was as though they wanted to erase all memory that such women had ever existed.
Back at the hotel, I couldn’t sleep. Lying in bed, I thought of Martha Sherman, my great-great-grandmother, looking into the eyes of Comanche warriors who would soon rape her, scalp her, shoot her with arrows, and leave her mortally wounded in front of three children and a burning home. I thought of Aunt Rachel Singer, driving a horse-drawn wagonload of lumber from Colorado City to Lubbock County in 1886—by herself, alone on the trackless Llano Estacado. I thought of my great-grandmother, Perlina Sherman, a ranch woman in Gaines County, tackling a hysterical daughter in the garden and sucking the rattlesnake poison out of her leg. Several years later, she held another daughter in her arms as she died of pneumonia at 16.
I thought of Grandmother Curry: rancher’s daughter and rancher’s wife, mother of five girls, grammarian, lover of books and flowers, Sunday school teacher, a lady of culture and dignity.
I thought of my mother, who read Bible stories to me as a child and passed on to me her love of the English language, who told me, “God gave you a talent. Use it wisely.”
Maybe it was silly of her to say that, and maybe it was silly of me to believe her, but I did. Those words sustained me through years of failure and rejection as an author, and without them, I wouldn’t have been sitting in a script conference in Hollywood.
The women in my family gave their strength to the people around them. They helped build and sustain churches, schools, and libraries. They cared for aging parents and comforted sick children—not with 15 minutes of “quality time,” but with their best energy, every day and every night.
My family produced a lot of strong women. They were so strong, they never had to talk about it. One of these days, I hope people in Hollywood will be strong enough to make an honest movie about such women, because any culture that belittles them isn’t nearly as smart as it thinks.
Our movie was never made, and I am so glad.