As I am taking the red mare to the village on Wednesday for her first visit to the old people’s home, I am spending a lot of extra time working with her, to make sure she is ready for the Great Moment. I am going right back to the foundations, and checking that they are dug deep.
In this remedial horse work, I have been reminded of something very important. It is that it is crucial to get the little things right, so that the big picture becomes a joyful one. If you get sloppy or careless or hubristic, the whole thing cracks and crashes.
Every time you take a step with a horse, you are teaching it something. That is why the small things are so vital. I keep thinking that this must apply to human life too. When I write a book, I do an entire semi-colon edit. I make jokes about this, because it is so absurd and anal. But one punctuation mark in the wrong place can make an entire sentence collapse.
I’ve heard people say that insisting on correct grammar and spelling and punctuation is the elitist howl of the snob and the pedant. Yet language should sing, and it cannot do that if the apostrophe’s are incorrectly placed. (Do you see what I did there?) Prose has a rhythm and syncopation, like music. I listen to it with my ear as well as read it with my eye. Sometimes, I will change one syllable, because it throws the beat off.
Stern, joyless grammar is empty and wrong. Sometimes, an infinitive should damn well stay split. Twisting yourself into a pretzel to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition can be a pointless task, and can deaden the words on the page. I still insist that the general rule of correctness holds. Paradoxically, it is liberating, for the writer and the reader. The reader need not worry that the eye will be arrested, nor fear she will be yanked out of the fictional world by a howler. If the words flow in the right order, and the commas are nicely placed, and the apostrophes do not belong to the grocers, the reader will have the delightful subliminal feeling of comfort and ease that comes from being in safe hands.
For the writer, knowing the foundations are fine and sturdy means that the imagination can fly. If you are constantly stopping to wonder whether that modifier is dangling, or whether this colon is ill-timed, you cannot let yourself canter across the prairies of invention. Only when you know the form can you play with it. Then, confident, you can throw the language of Shakespeare and Milton into the air and watch it fall.
I galloped my red mare this morning, out in the hayfields, on a loose rein, as a reward for all her hard work. I let her go, and boy, did she shift. I could do this because I had run through twenty tiny checks on the ground first, from yielding her hindquarters to lateral flexion. Only when all that was working, and she was sweet and relaxed and responsive to a soft cue, could I let her run. She was confident and I was confident, and we flew over the shorn grass like the swifts that played over our heads.
I talk a lot about the small things, in the context of happiness. If I can love and notice the moss, the trees, the moving clouds, the song of the birds, then I know that I am in a good place. Now I see the small things matter in the context of work and achievement too. Start with the tiny steps, and you can climb to the highest peaks. It’s what Emperor Hadrian said about the building of Rome. Brick by brick, my citizens. Brick by brick.