I had a lovely chat with my aunt today. We all think we are all unique special snowflakes when we come to monumental life decisions, but really, the feeling that your writing has evolved to a point where you can see its success in the tension and manipulate it to the nth degree is not a unique thing. A lot of people do it.
Thousands of people get writing at that level throughout the written history and you haven’t so much climbed a mountain so much as joining a club.
And if you do luck out and vomit out a brilliant first book, it’s just luck. If you can’t reproduce it on a relative consistent level, or, failing that, rework the book until it passes as off the cuff brilliant, your second book will not have any of the magic of the first one.
I always thought I was unlucky. When my sister met one of the horses we got for Christmas in 1985. As soon as Star saw my sister, Star was devoted to her. That was supposed to be my story. I was supposed to have the horse that loved me and only me. It wasn’t fair. I had to ride crappy horses owned by other people who weren’t a tenth as good as Star.
But Star was old. 21 when we got him, so while he always had a pretty head, he had the body of a 70 year-old man. He also didn’t listen to Donna at all. If she told him to do something and he didn’t want to do it, he just wouldn’t and she never forced him. She never learned how to ride a horse; she learned how to sit on a horse’s back while it moved. My sister has always been very lucky at being lucky.
My crap horses taught me so much about how to ride. I could hold on like a monkey and I switched horses so regularly. Most of the horses were too far gone and had to be euthanized after the jackass who owned them told his brother-in-law to look after the horses and they were left alone in a Slave Lake winter. He was never charged with anything because he literally worked for the SPCA, and a buddy of his came down from Edmonton and pronounced the horses not abused enough to be abused, even after a mare who had been pregnant gave birth to a stillborn and died herself. She was a beautiful and gentle appaloosa with an almost perfect blanket of spots.
Anyway, when they “saved” the rest of the herd, Copper was fortunate in that he could jump the fence and paw through the snow, so he was starving but he wasn’t dying quite yet. As a grown-up now I would not have allowed my daughter to ride a horse that had so obviously been ruined, but Copper was so beautiful and so expensive that I didn’t even dream I could have owned him. I prayed all the time that one day I could have a horse just like him, because I knew he was way out of my league both financially and horse-wise.
I drove back with the guy who owned the horses rather than in the van with my dad because he wanted to talk about Copper with me. I’ve always called him a dirt bag in my head, because when your fifteen and angry all the time life is a series of absolutes. Only now, at 38, I can see that he really did love his horses, but that he thought of them more like a motorcycle that stays in the garage between uses and actually living, breathing creatures. I remember sitting in the truck, hating this man for what had happened, but now I get that he must have been hurt as well. He loved horses as much as I did and he really did think his brother-in-law was taking care of them.
Anyway, I remember it really well because it was the first time an adult who wasn’t related to me treated me like I was an adult as well. I remember him saying, “I know your dad bought Copper for himself, but you’re the one who is going to love him.” That is not something a man who does not love horses would even think. When I told him that oh, no, Copper was going to be my horse, mine, mine, mine, he actually smiled.
And for those thirty minutes driving from Canyon Creek to Mitsue, we talked as two adults would talk about a shared love they had for each other. I often wondered what was it that kept me clinging on to a horse that would have really liked it if I had just died rather than be on his back, plaguing him with commands, the thought of giving up and getting a nicer horse didn’t even occur to me. Weldon spent half an hour telling me how special and amazing Copper was, how he’d been a mountain guide for decades and that Copper was the most special horse he’d had.
Without that forethought, I don’t know if I would have kept eating so much dirt. In physics when we talked about terminal velocity I knew exactly the split second of when you’d fallen the hardest, and then just pray that all your limbs would still work when you climbed back onto your feet and then back onto the horse.
Partly, a tiny bit, was because he was so beautiful. But when you hit the ground for the third time that day because a squirrel teetered in the brush beside you, no horse is beautiful. Copper had brown freckles on the bottom of his belly that he didn’t have anywhere else. I used to watch for them as I crashed back down to earth. He was so smart, and he was so hurt, and although I understand it now, I didn’t understand that I loved Copper so much because he was me, and he was going to get a happy ending, damn it. It took two years of crashing down to the ground all the time, of getting bucked off and scraped off and reared up and off (someone thought it was cute to teach a white horse Zorro’s horse’s rear, but he learned it was a super awesome de-people trick)
But when it worked, after those two years, that horse was amazing. Whenever I rode him he always had his ears pinned back to his skull and had a hunch in his back that made it really uncomfortable to relax in. He lost the hunch first. A couple months later, he stopped pinning his ears back. Six months later, another squirrel jabbered in the brush and he spooked to the right. I was still on him, but my centre of gravity was over his right shoulder, and just as I was about to fall he jumped back under me again so that we were balanced.
And after that, it was just like in the storybook. Copper turned into a massive thousand pound puppy that you could ride anywhere and do anything. My life was getting better, I had met a person who told me that just aiming for average wasn’t acceptable, and that to some people, their averages are just higher than other people, and that’s okay. What I thought was a B paper was a D paper and if I didn’t smarten up, I was going to fail. My temper lengthened, though didn’t disappear entirely, and writing went from this thing that I got yelled at for (okay, so the only yelling happened when I was writing instead of doing what I was supposed to be doing) but I kept writing all throughout junior high and the first year of high school.
I’ve mentioned it before, but just in case, it’s still really important to provide a child with more encouragement other than “it’s a bit purple” and “you know you need a real job, right?”
I was going to turn Copper into the horse he could have been despite how much effort and work it took. And when Copper was sold, I was in Japan and I called the person who bought him. We spoke for almost an hour about what a good horse he was, and his new owner insisted that her two daughters were going to love him for the rest of his life.
At 15, I was going to be the greatest writer in the entire world. At 27, my goal was to publish a book. When a horrible thing happened in my twenties, I allowed it to affect every aspect of my life, and I spent almost a decade trying to heal from it.
Even up to the past couple months, I still held on to the believe that my parents would acknowledge how shitty everything was and actually tell me they feel bad for raising me the way they did. I turned out all right, I think, but my sisters are still wrapped around all the negativity and hurt that we deliberately caused because we all were hurting, too. There is just so much love in this world, but there’s not enough to fix the broken parts of my family.
And now, I’m genuinely okay with it all. It sucks that I have to be, but if there was one massive lesson I’ve learned over these past few months is this. Life isn’t a test. Knowing the right answers for a test that doesn’t exist isn’t the reason to struggle against the enormous odds that you, your life, and the world put down in front of you. It’s easy to not try because failing is so horrible. But advice, real advice from people who not only know exactly how you feel, they’ve been there and they’ve handled the same problems. When people are genuinely trying to help and not show off how many answers they know on the test of life, they’re trying to save you from hardship they can see you steering right for.
Life isn’t about knowing the right answers to an imaginary test. It’s about taking the knowledge and wisdom that has always been there for you, waiting for you to be ready for it, and then eating enough dirt, having enough grit grinding against the back of your neck and trying different things, over and over again, consistently until you stop trying to be a better person/writer/horse and actually be better.
Copper had to rebuild his entire trust system. It had been systematically stripped from him through prolonged physical abuse and starvation. He was so angry, and so smart, that he could hold a grudge about as well as I could. He’d learned how to trust because his first owner loved him so much, but then every other owner had every situation just a little bit worse until he was starving in the middle of winter trying to eat what remained on the grass stalk after it had been harvested for fall. He had no way of knowing that I wasn’t going to hurt him too, so he was going to hurt me, first.
There are no real montages in life. Getting the horse to trust that there will always be food where he was and he didn’t have to keep breaking out of his field was the first major hurdle. We got dozens of calls that winter that the horses were out, because if Copper didn’t know how to get out of a field, he knew what could happen.
I watched him once study a knot with an eye for less than a minute, and then he grabbed the correct end he needed and untied himself. We were waiting for the farrier and there was no reason he needed to be standing by the tree, but this was after he’d become more dog than horse like so he just stood there, back-leg cocked, with the rope just laying over itself. He had a child hit the back of his hoof with her training wheel during a parade, and he let her hit the back of his hoof three times before I realized why my horse started rocking. I tapped his back leg, he lifted his hoof up, and the child continued on her way, head still attached to her shoulders.
It was hard work. I’ve never wanted something as badly as I wanted my horse to trust me, and it hurt as emotionally as it did physically when Copper got scared, because the first thing he would do is get me off and then decide what he had to do. The last year I owned him, we were walking in long grass and he kicked a prairie chicken with his back hoof. It sent the bird up, smacking him on the belly as it tried to fly, and shot through his front legs with an explosion of feathers. Still, it wasn’t finished yet and decided to bop Copper on the nose as it flayed away in the way prairie chickens “fly”.
Copper froze as soon as he felt the chicken against his belly. I felt that bird, flapping around under his body, and it hit his nose hard enough that I felt that, too. Copper remained perfectly still during all of it, and then kind of shuddered when it was over. He swiveled an ear back to me, and if he had vocal cords, his, “that was weird” would have come out in English. Then we moved on.
I loved that horse more than I loved any other human. I loved him when he was broken, but I didn’t understand what pure, non-sexual love could be. I needed someone in my life who was as important to me as it was to it, and Copper gave me that.
The night before we left to go to Edmonton so I could fly to Japan, I went for a ride. I cried the whole time. You ride a horse for seven years, and he knows you as much as you know him. It was almost telepathic, the connection we had. He was so good he didn’t need reins. I almost didn’t go to Japan.
When I read unpublished fiction for critique either in my writing groups or online, I recognize the lack of actual tension and conflict. It’s kind of my thing. I bought a copy of writing the breakout novel back in 2001, but I read it thinking I was already doing that in my fanfic. I didn’t remotely get the book until 2005, when I started Misbegotten, but I didn’t really understand all that I didn’t understand about writing until Mr. Maass came to Calgary for his seminar.
We as people throw good money after bad because we are genetically programmed to believe that what we are doing is right. And if you’re on the right path, everything is golden. If you’re on the wrong path, though, and you’re starting to realize that maybe this road isn’t taking you where we want to go, we still follow it. Coming up with epiphanies is the easiest part of the process. Altering your life is the hard stuff. Familiar is easy. Abandoning the time and effort thrown at the problem to make it less of a problem is as much reason as we need to justify the decision to quit and keep with the status quo.
And I get it now. And I get that I’m not the only one who gets it. We’re not special snowflakes, we are drops of water. If you want to be a snowflake, which is only special because it is unique, first you have to work to be really cold. Then you have to work at being at the right place at the right time, and only then, if everything is perfect, our structures align in a way that is pleasing to others, but everything that caused it to be pleasing happens from the inside first. The very last step, forming into crystals, is the only part of the journey that someone else can see so we wonder why your drop of water in the middle of nowhere at the entirely wrong temperature is no more like a snowflake than the reality show contestant who thinks that singing in the shower is the same thing as ten years of voice lessons.