When I was in middle school, I took horseback riding lessons from folks who lived in a broken down old house but who took fantastic care of their horses. Sometimes I came straight from ballet class, and I had to pull my jeans over pink ballet tights, leave my skirt and slippers in the car and lace up my tan Timberline boots. I was a quick study and easily learned how to get my horse to respond. I learned to give the appropriate kicks to get him to trot, to jump over logs, banks and ditches. I learned to canter, my favorite stride.
After a while, I begged my instructor to teach me how to gallop.
I was sure I was ready.
One day, after school, my friend Kim suggested we take her horses out bareback – no saddles or stirrups – “Just bridles,” she’d said. “Because you always want to have the reins.”
An unseasonably warm fall day, the woods near Kim’s house were filled with trails and we casually bumped along on the horses’ backs under pine trees and blue skies. Eventually, we came to an open field where the trail disappeared. Surrounded by tall grasses, the oranges and yellows and browns of late October trees, Kim and I were quiet; our animals walked side-by-side, the sound of their hooves beating the earth was calm and rhythmic.
Until it wasn’t.
All I know is that suddenly I was clinging to the neck of an unfamiliar horse, my legs kicked out wildly behind me, bumping in an unfamiliar gait, which I assumed meant I was galloping. And since I’d never galloped before, I didn’t know what to do — especially without stirrups to steady myself.
And then I started to slip.
I tried to grab the reins that had slid through my fingers, but I couldn’t reach them. As the dust made it impossible for me to see, I had no choice but to give in to the will of a black horse that simply needed to run. And when I could not hold on any longer, I fell onto the ground, smashing my head against a big rock.
I was sure I was going to be trampled to death.
Or at least have a bloody nose.
As I huddled on the ground, I remember thinking, If I survive, one day, this will make a great story.
Truth be told, I loved the thrill of the ride, the holding on and not knowing where I was going-adrenaline-rush.
(Note: The falling off part was not so hot.)
Riding horses isn’t so different from writing. With both writing and riding, there are basics that one must first master. Just as a novice equestrian can’t go from walking to galloping in one day, a beginning writer cannot produce a great novel in a week, a month or a semester. One must first become a smart writer. One must learn the art of storytelling. Of suspense. One must understand the rules of grammar and punctuation. And then learn when it is appropriate to break these rules. One must learn the nuances of language, play with all the modes of discourse, and acquire eyes that can fearlessly revise. As well as a million other things.
If I were still actively riding horses, I would have to practice.
Like I do with my writing.
At least seven-hundred words every day.
Because the more I practice, the easier the writing becomes.
Sometimes a piece of writing slides out effortlessly like a new foal birthed in a spring field. But other times — like with that crazy Arabian — my words get away from me and they want me to start describing things like the uncomfortable red chair in the corner of the room, which clearly does not belong in this piece. It’s okay. This ballerina-cowgirl learned long ago that sometimes she has to pull leather chaps over her jeans and tights and click her tongue and say, “No! We are not going over there!” She is not afraid to give a little kick and tug her writing in a different direction.
Some days I drop the reins on purpose and let my muse take me somewhere. And I don’t know where I’m going and the whole getting there is scary and, in the end, what I’m left with is sometimes raw or terrifying. Or awesome.
But sometimes it is a disorganized mess.
As I said, I like the thrill of the ride: the not knowing where I’ll end up.
For me, writing is like unintentionally riding bareback on a galloping horse. It isn’t the easiest or the smartest way to get somewhere, and Lord knows it isn’t pretty to watch, but eventually I end up where I’m supposed to be. Usually without even a concussion.
What is writing like for you? I’d love to know. Or maybe you’d rather tell me about your experiences with horses. Or falling off horses. Maybe you’d rather tell me about your experiences as a dancer. Or falling as a dancer. Oh, just say something.