Camille is a lovely woman and wonderful author. I blurbed her most recent release, New Charity Blues. Today, she talks about how writing is like taking care of horses.
Even Cowgirls Get The Blues
Growing up in the eastern prairielands of Montana, it was hard not to become a girl who fell hard for horses. Though almost two decades now sit between me and my halcyon horsey days, they came rushing back as I settled in to write my second novel, New Charity Blues.
The book is a post-pandemic reimagining of the Trojan War. We meet Cressyda (Syd) Turner in the first chapter, as she stumbles through the ruins of a city unable to rebuild because of the water-hoarding greed of her upstream hometown, New Charity. When she receives word of the death of her father, she is allowed to pass through the gates of her isolated birthplace. Under the guise of settling her father’s affairs, she plots to open the floodgates of the reservoir. But before she can set about her adventure, she has to get back on the horse – literally.
The process for Syd was not so unlike the process of saddling up to write a second book. Here are five ways “horse sense” is remarkably applicable to the process:
1. Stay close to the horse’s ass, or really far away.
Horsewomen know about the kick zone – the area where a horse’s hooves can do a fair bit of damage. Accordingly, there are two ways to safely navigate an equine backside: 1. hug the tail or 2. give the butt a wide berth.
I’ve found writing to be similar in many ways. When I approach a project, I need to stay close to it, giving it the thought, time, and attention it needs. For my personal process, thinking and decision-making time is imperative before I commit to point of view choices, tense, and character arcs. Over the course of two novels, I haven’t yet fully shrugged off the mantle of a pantser, but I’ve also discovered too much exploratory writing can be detrimental. Though exploration works for a lot of writers, when I spend a lot of time working aimlessly, I end up hating my ideas, my writing, and, sometimes, the entire concept. I’ve been accused a time or two of being an all or nothing person, and it’s true here. When I begin to create, sticking close to a project is good, as is staying far away, but picking at the road apples in the middle of the strike zone is a sure way to end up with manure on my face.
2. Be mindful of your surroundings, but not too mindful.
Three flighty Arabian horses lived in our barn when I was a child. Because I started riding quite young, I hadn’t yet grasped that animals, much like people, weren’t guileless. It was not until I was 11 or 12 that I began to realize that my horses didn’t necessarily want to ride out into the hills with me instead of standing in the sun snacking on hay. One of their favorite tricks – a specialty of many Arabians, as owners will tell you – was spooking at any small thing on the trail. Be it bird or plastic bag, grasshopper or garden hose, their feigned surprise would often be my unseating. As I got older, I learned to anticipate their antics, which didn’t stop them, but kept me on top of my mares instead of underneath them.
I was under contract for New Charity Blues when my first novel, Letters to Zell, was released. Finishing a book while another is just making its way into the world is a fairly common writerly experience, but I hadn’t learned to tune the rest of the world out very well. In particular, I hadn’t anticipated any harm in skimming my reviews each morning before I started to write. There were so many nice reviews, but I was mostly obsessed with the bad ones, the insulting ones, the nasty ones – no matter that I’d been warned to expect them. I knew, academically, all writers had bad reviews, but I wasn’t prepared for how they’d feel. But after a stern talk with myself (some people will like our books and some won’t and that’s okay), I stopped looking around and started looking at my laptop again. I learned to anticipate the antics of the world-at-large and kept my seat in the office chair.
3. Listen to your mount.
When I was in high school, my most placid and well-behaved mare, Ileah, and I were on a short trail ride in the hills near my house. She almost never refused obstacles of any sort, so it was odd as we climbed a springtime-damp hillside when she stopped in her tracks. I urged her forward, insisting that it was a teachable moment. What I didn’t know was that there was a piece of barbed wire in the soft ground. She tore the skin on her leg badly as she pulled her leg from the mud. At first I thought I’d killed her, there was so much blood, but I bandaged her with my purple bandana and watched shakily as the vet sewed her leg up with something that resembled an upholstery needle.
As with a trusted friend or equine, it can be important to listen to our manuscripts. Sometimes when things aren’t working, there’s a reason and instead of digging our heels into a chapter’s side, it’s best to circle back around and find another route through. I spent a couple of months trying to keep a character in the early chapters New Charity Blues who, if I was honest, had no true function except that I wanted him there. But in the end, the book was better served by placing him far on the periphery, finding another way into that part of the story.
4. Never let your horse run home.
Just as there were periods of trepidation during the writing of New Charity Blues, there were periods of complacency. I wasn’t ever complacent with the writing itself, but I was surely careless with time management. After all, I’d written one novel. I could do another with one hand tied behind my back. Except that I couldn’t.
There’s a rule – or at least there was back when I took endurance and trail-riding lessons – that you never let your horses run home. I even mention it in the book when Cas and Len are out checking fences. It’s generally thought to be good discipline, and, well, safer. In my case, letting the horse run home always gave me trouble on what came to be known as “Double Buck Hill.” I wish I could tell you how the terrain was named for two kindly, male deer. I must admit, however, when I let my hot-tempered mare, Dawn, have her head before our last, small descent toward home, she would manage to unseat me, not once, but twice almost every time.
I turned in my novel edits at the end of an almost six weeks of contiguous travel. At the end of it, I felt like I’d been bucked off a horse more than twice. Talking to my editor from a hotel in Missoula, she suggested that perhaps I make things easier on myself schedule-wise the next time I turned in a book. She isn’t wrong. Conventions and festivals and readings are all wonderful things for authors to do, but I didn’t have to be Superwoman, and I probably won’t try to be again. Though I’m told I fall surprisingly gracefully, I haven’t managed the flying part yet.
5. The best way to end a good ride is a stiff brush and a cube of sugar.
Talking to a friend recently, I remarked how we as artists and writers deny ourselves lots of things. Writing is a luxury for a lot of us – time given up to something we love, but often in the sacrifice of other things we love, like relationships or other passions. It’s worth it for almost all of us, or we wouldn’t do what we do, but often we forget to reward ourselves.
If a horse isn’t wiped down, dried off, and brushed after a ride, their coats get slick with sweat and can be rubbed bare, both unsightly and uncomfortable. And rare is the horse that declines an after-work apple or post-adventure alfalfa pellet. I don’t think it’s any different for writers. If I had to give one piece of advice to the hard workers I’m surrounded by in my own literary community it would be this: reward yourself for meeting your goals, small or big. Reward yourself for hitting your word count. Reward yourself, especially, for finishing, for turning a corner or solving a problem. It doesn’t have to be a milkshake – it could be a short walk or a round of tug-of-war with the dog or even a nap – just let the thing bring you joy and you’ll be that much more refreshed when you put the saddle on once again.
Camille Griep lives just north of Seattle with her partner, Adam, and their dog Dutch(ess). Born in Billings, Montana, she moved to Southern California to attend Claremont McKenna College, graduating with a dual degree in Biology and Literature.