It took a horse to get me past my slump.
I tried not to give it much thought. Every writer goes through this, I told myself. Just keep going and you’ll get beyond it.
And I did. I slogged away on a draft of a novel, keeping up a one-or-two-thousand word per day pace, mostly so I could be done with it. I had promised myself I would finish, so I batted away at the keyboard while my enthusiasm for the project and my connection to the story sputtered and dimmed.
Meanwhile the voice of my inner critic, which I worked hard to ignore, ratcheted up its volume to an earsplitting shrill. You’ve lost the thread, it said. Another long passage of dialogue? Is there EVER going to be any action in this thing? You’ve already used that verb twice. What are you, vocabulary challenged? And what happened to that subplot about the camel thief? This is a waste of time.
I didn’t quit, I’ll give myself that. When I got past the eighty thousand word mark and clawed my way to the ending I’d had in mind from the beginning, I called it good. Well, not good, but done. I had persevered, like all the writing wisdom I’ve ever come across advises.
According to that same wisdom, I should celebrate getting to The End, with the full realization that it’s only a rough draft. “The first draft of anything is shit,” as Ernest Hemingway famously said. You can’t revise a blank page, say the writing pundits. The raw material for a book now exists where before there was nothing but an idea and some images rattling around in my skull. Yay, me.
Except I couldn’t summon any yay. The most I could muster was a sense of relief. At least I could put the manuscript — more like a heap of words — away and let it sit for some time (also according to writing wisdom). Aside from that, I felt drained, dispirited, and somehow defeated.
What had happened to my creative spark? Where was the sense of accomplishment, the satisfaction of meeting a challenge? Most of all, why hadn’t I achieved any flow once I’d gotten past the first chapter? For me, that flow state is the strongest reinforcement for writing outside of having someone read and connect with my words.
Never mind, I told myself. Pay no attention to that bat-faced inner demon as it whispers its poison: you’re a poser, not a real writer. Whatever puff of talent you started with is used up. Maybe if you’d begun writing seriously twenty or thirty years ago, but now? Forget it.
Shut up, bat, said I. I have other projects I can’t wait to launch into. Short stories saved up in my idea file, waiting to be told. Any day now. Just watch me.
Except I couldn’t get started. I did morning word sprints with the enthusiasm of a kid forced to practice the piano. I dragged out old stories to revise and spent entire writing sessions tinkering with the same phrase. In a literal sense, words failed me.
It was time to blast myself out of my malaise, lest it settle in permanently. So I did something I haven’t done in years.
I took a riding lesson.
I volunteer with a local horse rescue and sanctuary, so I spend a fair amount of time around horses. I feed them, walk them, groom them, and do groundwork with them, all of which is rewarding work. But most of our rescued horses are either retired or no longer sound enough for riding.
There was a time when I rode several times a week, back in the day, when I was a pretty strong intermediate-level rider. I only participated in one horse show, in which a sweet Thoroughbred mare named Michelle and I won a second-place ribbon. For me, ribbons weren’t the point. What I was after was that pure quality of experience, that total absorption. Flow.
Others find flow in running, or painting, or playing music, or performing surgery. And surely, at least now and again, in writing. For me, the most direct route to the flow state is on the back of a horse. But riding is expensive and time-consuming, so I’ve been putting it off. For years.
The time had come for serious action, though, so I got in touch with a trainer at a highly reputed barn in the Napa foothills. I just needed a refresher, I explained. A tune-up. I’m no spring chicken, you see. Don’t worry, said the trainer, we’ll take good care of you.
Digging my riding breeches and helmet out from the depths of my closet, I drove down valley feeling both excitement and trepidation. I wasn’t afraid of the horse, but of my own limitations. Could I still stick in the saddle? Could I even get up in the saddle in the first place? What about my creaky hip and my sixty-something knees?
And then I was introduced to Dude, and my butterflies flitted away. A retired show-jumping champion with a stellar list of triumphs to his name — he’s the indoor horse show equivalent of a Triple Crown winner — Dude schools young, and not-so-young, riders with the generous wisdom of a professor emeritus. Treated with affection and respect all his life, he is kindly disposed towards humans, enjoys their attention, and responds to his rider with sensitivity but without overreacting to miscues — a rare quality in a horse as finely tuned as Dude.
Under the trainer’s expert and encouraging tutelage, my dormant skills came back to me. Muscles I hadn’t used in quite that way for years fired up, remembering how to post at the trot, keeping pressure on the correct leg while using the hands and arms in concert, carrying on a conversation with the horse.
Soon I was sweating and breathing hard, but my hips were fine, my knees were fine. Twenty minutes in, I registered that I was in the zone. In partnership with Dude, a being who lives his whole life absolutely focused in the present moment, there was nothing on my mind but what we were doing together. I concentrated on my part in the dance as we trotted alongside the rail of the arena. Right there, right then, timeless awareness. Flow.
Days later, the sense of empowerment is still with me. If I can recover my mojo in the riding arena, then I can do it on the page. The bat in my skull is quieter now.
All thanks to Dude.