Thursday, 19 March 2015

Into the woods. Or: be brave.

There is a moment in a book when I think I am editing and slashing and cutting, killing darlings with a ruthless hand, slaying those irrelevant, indulgent, extraneous paragraphs like Attila the Hun on a wild Saturday night.

In fact, I am fooling myself. I am living in a state of tense fear. I have written all these damn words, and thought all these damn thoughts, and I am holding onto them for grim death. I trim a passage here, and chop a conclusion there, but I am tinkering round the edges. I find that my perspective goes, and I can’t liberate myself. I’m so terrified of losing the good stuff that I dare not murder the bad stuff.

This morning, in the field with the red mare quietly grazing by my side, I shouted into my mobile telephone to my agent. We had one of those revelatory, galvanising conversations which change everything.

‘I AM GALVANISED,’ I hollered, into the light Scottish air. The mare took not the blindest bit of notice.

I did not go to HorseBack, but ran straight to my desk. I merrily threw out 1700 words, and wrote 2339 new ones to go in their place. I was no longer frightened. It had taken me nine months of trying to work out what this book was really about, and, finally, it was the objective eye of the clever agent that cut through the thickets and saw the light.

The thing that is making me laugh is that the heart of the book turns out to be the part about which I harboured profound doubts. It was a piece of folly and self-indulgence, I thought, too much even for me. I could not resist it, but I corralled it into little separate sections in each chapter, so that when the agent shrieked with derisive laughter, as she surely would, I could quietly remove those nutty bits and sit up straight and be a grown up.

Those parts may now be released from their box. It is the happiest irony that they are the glorious, chugging engine of the whole book.

The red mare, as you dear Dear Readers know to your cost, is not just an actual horse. She is a metaphor horse. She is my totem, my shining light, my daily life lesson. After taking a holiday whilst I was cheering on her cousins at Cheltenham, she has come back into work, and I got back on her for the first time today. Warwick Schiller, the lovely Australian horseman whose precepts I follow, has a delightful exercise which he does with his horses every day. It is called: ‘Where do you want to go?’

The idea is that you get on and you let the horse wander where it will. The only rule is that they must keep a steady gait, but you do not steer them. This achieves many wonders, too many to go into now, but perhaps the most important is that it teaches them not to get stuck. If Red heads for the gate or the feed shed or the place where her little Paint friend is grazing, I make her work by disengaging her hindquarters and moving her in tight circles. When she goes off kindly, I leave her alone. Sometimes I wave my arms in the air, just for fun, and think about how good this is for my independent seat. I always love seeing where she wants to go next, and sometimes have to lie on her neck as she weaves her way under low-hanging branches and through the trees.

On this day of all days, after I finished the liberating, galvanising conversation with the agent, I got on the mare and asked her where she wanted to go. She set off to her usual haunts, near to home, and we described a familiar circuit.

Then, something amazing happened. She pricked her ears and struck off into new territory. She was going where the wild things are. She headed with purpose, without any doubt or terror, to the scary woods. The woods to the west are indeed dark and deep, with rough ground and alarming shadows. The pheasants which used to send her into shocked, vertical leaps live there, along with cohorts of invisible woodland critters, hiding in their umbrous lairs.

In she went, had a wander about, took everything in, and then found her way out again into the light. On the border of the scary wood is a ragged area where the building yard beyond the southern treeline stores all its old stone. Huge blocks of ancient Scottish granite lie there in heaps, along with old carved pediments and fanciful curlicued columns. Some of it has been there for so long that the moss and grass has started to grow over the sleeping humps, as if the very earth is reclaiming it for its own. This was not only far out of her comfort zone, it was treacherous ground, difficult to navigate. She was Magellan now, setting out without a map, going to the edges of the known world, into the realm marked Here Be Dragons. I stifled my delighted laughter, and went with her, wherever she wanted to go.

She beat the bounds, picked her way, sure-footed as a mountain goat, over the hummocks and crevices and sharp edges of the monumental stones, tracked her way past the young trees, and emerged, triumphant, all terrain conquered, back into the familiar flatlands of her own field.

I’ve been guilty of thinking she was not a very brave horse. I made a category error. It was not courage she lacked, it was good, sturdy, human boundaries. Once she had those, it turned out she could go anywhere.

There is a profound idea that when you work a horse well, you find out who it really is. If the human is not up to scratch, the horse may hide its true nature under a defensive layer of compensations and survival mechanisms.

Now she has confidence in me, the red mare may be brave. As my agent has confidence in the book, so I may be brave. It was a perfect piece of symmetry.

I cast away the old words, and wrote the new, and I had a humming sense of pleasure in the work. But nothing, nothing, could match the delight of that moment when my courageous mare cast off her shackles and headed out into the unknown.


Today’s pictures:

There was too much going on to take photographs on top of everything else. Here are a couple from the last few days. I’m afraid I am taking the opportunity to show you yet another lying down picture. Any excuse.

19 March 1 3439x2622

She’s actually staring at the scary woods in this picture, because some invisible creature is moving about down there and making a racket:

19 March 2 3999x2579

Stan the Man is always brave as a lion when he has that magical stick in his mouth:

19 March 3 3537x1669


  1. My goal for the week: Use "umbrous lairs" in conversation whenever possible.

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