life · writing

3 Things Riding Teaches Writers

Today I rode one of the oldest horses in the barn, a very sweet-tempered Tennessee Walking Horse mare named Lady. For camp, she stays on lead while I or one of the other barn staff lead her around with a child on her back. She has her quirks, but she has always been an utter angel with the patience of a saint.

I assumed I was in for a slow-paced, relaxing ride.

I could not have been more wrong.

I settled into the saddle, arranged my stirrups, and clicked my tongue to set her into a walk. Lady walked for two steps. And then she started fast walking. Then trotting. I reined her in and asked her to slow down. The deceptive little mare began cantering (a slow gallop).

No amount of turning circles, reining in, or calming voice could slow this fiery girl down, and so my boss told me to let her run. I put my heels down, secured my helmet, and off we went. For the next twenty-five minutes, I gave her her head and Lady ran her heart out. By the end, when I had to rein her in so she could rest before the next group of kids came by, we were both lathered in sweat and panting. My legs felt like noodles.

What does this have to do with writing?

Lady was like a first draft. I settled in the saddle planning to work on navigating patterns and maintaining a good steady pace. It’s like beginning your first draft thinking about sentence structure and spelling. Lady was nowhere near that point, and neither is your first draft. First, I had to let her get excited and expend her energy, much like you should let your first draft charge ahead.

Sure, you might have a plan and think you know how everything is going to play out. But things often take unexpected turns. I could have spent twenty-five minutes fighting Lady. Odds are, she would have gotten upset and either gotten out of control or started bucking. We both would have ended our session keyed up, frustrated, and sweaty and out of breath.

Maintaining your balance on a horse randomly jumping from walk to trot to canter and back isn’t easy, but letting her work her kinks out was better for everyone in the grand scheme of things. Likewise, letting your first draft figure out what it wants to do and be can be tiresome, but it isn’t as exhausting as manhandling the story and forcing it to be something it’s not.

So, what can a deceptively calm horse with an inner streak of crazy teach us?

1. Crazy isn’t necessarily bad. Although I wasn’t prepared for that type of ride in the beginning, once I knew what I was in for, I was able to stay calm and maintain control, even as Lady was letting loose. Being able to do that was healthy and normal for her.

Trying to micro-manage your first draft can be stifling and unnatural. Writing a novel is a lot like jumping on a horse, so be prepared for the unexpected, and accept that your plans are going to get screwed up sometimes.

2. Go with it. My legs are going to be really sore tomorrow, but once I accepted what Lady was going to do, I started having fun. Going crazy can be a blast as long as you stay safe (always wear a helmet while riding a horse! Even the best riders fall!) and clear-headed.

Your first draft can veer off to strange places. Weird characters might pop out of nowhere. It’s all good. What’s important is that you maintain the basic necessities, like the begining, middle, and end.

3. It’s your ride. I glanced across the riding ring a few jealous times to the other, very calm, horse being exercised and wished I was riding her, instead. But at the end of the day, I wouldn’t trade my roller coaster with Lady for anything. I got more practice in keeping my heels down and staying calm in spite of what my horse is doing than I’ve ever gotten from any other ride.

Some first drafts seem like they’re trying to kill you, and they make you want to pull your hair out or run down the street screaming. But you know what? It’s your book. Take shameless pride in your ownership.

What’s something that another activity has taught you about writing?

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4 thoughts on “3 Things Riding Teaches Writers

  1. You are so right, Writerly! First draft, just go! There is a famous teacher who turns his classes out bridle-less and doesn’t let them give commands. Just turning yourself over to the horse can be good, although your Lady needs to get out more. Don’t try this outside, though!

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