Thursday, 22 January 2015

A book and a horse. Or, it’s not magic beans.

Drum roll, please.

I have finished the fifth draft.

This is not quite as drum-roly as it might be, on account of the fact that I was supposed to be slashing and burning and did not, in the end. It turned out to be a quite different edit than the one I had planned. It was, in the end, a character edit. I had been living with the characters for long enough to see below the surface, so I found myself writing new scenes, to give them depth and nuance, to explore and cement the relationships, to let them leap off the page as three-dimensional individuals instead of lying there like types or cardboard cut-outs. Now, I know my people, and I had to give them room to breathe.

The kill your darlings draft is yet to come. I’m going to take four days off, clean my mind, and then print out the manuscript, so I can read it with a stern eye. A hard copy is always better for this process, and one may take a ruthless pencil and CROSS THINGS OUT. One can put squiggles and question marks in the margins, and little tentative ticks for the sections which work.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about horsing and about writing. They have a great deal in common. You have to go over every element again and again, get the tiny things right, or the whole will not fly. You have to pay attention to the minute details, which the careless or the cavalier do not even notice. You have to dig the foundations deep. You have to practice and practice and practice, every damn day, if you want to be good.

I sometimes suspect that almost anyone could write a book, in the simple sense of putting a hundred thousand words on paper. (My nutty book is currently clocking in at over 160,000 words, which is why the darlings must, must, must die.) What sorts the sheep from the goats is the willingness to go back and do the endless drafts, wrangle and mangle and pummel the thing into shape. The difference between the amateur and the professional is the taking of time.

Just like writing, good horsing can’t be rushed. I worked my mare this morning, in the snow, paying attention to the most basic things, checking those foundations, not letting the fundamentals slide. It’s take me a lot of time to realise what is really important, in this new approach I am learning. At the beginning, I was so excited to have discovered an entirely novel way of thinking about horses that I leapt about all over the shop, as if I were teaching the mare circus tricks. We made some progress, but there would always be a moment of disaster. It took me a while to figure out that it is the doing well of the right things in the correct order that brings enduring results.

One of the fascinating things you are teaching them is that the world has pressure in it, shocks and surprises and things not always going in a calm and predictable way. You are teaching them to deal with that, and not scoot off into a maze of adrenaline and panic. To do this, you put pressure on them, on purpose. If you pussy foot around, if you coddle them or namby-pamby them, they learn nothing. Quite often, on a still day like today, I’ve thought: oh, it’s a bit mean to ask her to work. She’d be in her dozy Zen state, enjoying the sun, and even though I know most horses like a job, I felt like a horrid slave driver. So when I asked her to do something, it would be with an underlying note of apology.

Today, I assumed my stern face and put the pressure on without regret or restraint. If I ask her to go, she must go. No messing. She was slightly surprised. Hey, she said, throwing her duchessy head in the air, what’s that all about? Good boundaries, I said; clarity, consistency, clean lines. After a firm ask, I’d relax her again, with a rest and a damn good rub. Then, off she would go once more. We rinsed and repeated for fifteen minutes, until all I had to do was lift my hand and she would walk off, click my tongue and she would move into a smooth trot. Oh, she said, looking utterly delighted, I really do see. It was as if I had encircled her in a gleaming ring of safety, because she knew what I meant, that I really did mean it, and that she could rely on me to be absolutely consistent in that meaning. All was clear.

Life lessons, I thought, extrapolating like a crazy thing. That’s the whole point of growing up. You learn to deal with pressure. You learn to take the knocks. I talk quite a lot about my battered heart, the one I have taken to funerals, the one that misses my old dad, my old dogs, my old godfather, the great generation which is leaving us, one by shining one. I think sometimes that I am holding it together with binder twine and hope. (And strong liquor.) But this morning, I watched my mare learn to take more pressure, to be a little braver, a little tougher, a little more sanguine, and I thought: the battering does not make the heart weaker, chipped and bashed and second-hand, but makes it stronger. Life will always make the heart ache, because of the sorrow and the pity, but it will not break it or smash it, not if you learn the habits of resilience.

She was so happy and content, after doing good work, that kind mare. It was so simple, what we did, but wonderfully profound. It’s taken me a lot of time for the understanding of the whole to grow strong roots. Yeah, you can get all the books, and watch the videos, and listen at the feet of a master, and ask questions, and discuss niceties with people who are on the same path. But you have to let the knowledge settle, you have to make mistakes, you have to think and think and think, and that cannot be rushed. There are absolutely no short-cuts, no tricks, no tick tick ticking of neat boxes.

I always thought that horsing was an instinctive thing, and in some ways it is. Some people really do have it. I thought that writing was an instinctive thing, that some lucky souls had a feeling for words, a facility with language. The feeling has to be there, but with both disciplines it is the thought that makes the difference. I think and think and think, and I work and work and work, and every day, it gets a little better. It’s not magic beans. It’s effort. And the more effort you put in, the more effortless the thing becomes, so the words fly off the page and the sweet mare goes forward in ravishing harmony, her great thoroughbred heart and my chipped human one stitched into each other, across the species divide.


Just one picture today. I think I already put it up on Facebook, but I’m posting it again because I love it so much. I love her wibbly lower lip, and her furry ears, and the fact that she has the Scottish sky in her eyes:

22 Jan 1


  1. What a sweet picture. The mare looks as though she might have a perpetual smile.
    You've inspired me to go off and do some editing of my own.

  2. She really is the most beautiful colour.:)

    And a keeping-it-under-control hurrah for finishing your fifth (!) draft. I'm excited for you but trying to be cool about it. x

  3. Thank you Tania once again for conveying the keys to a happy existence through such beautiful and comforting words. I know these things to be true, they swirl around in my heart and mind but I can never manage to articulate them. I'm so grateful that you can and that you share your work so generously with us. Many, many heartfelt thanks. Jane


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