Good Girl, Damnit, Part 2: The Continued Adventures of Smokey

Alex and Smokey, c. 1990s
Alex and Smokey, c. 1990s

I hadn’t ever thought of training a horse as communication; I hadn’t thought of my responsibility in making myself clear to the horse, of rewarding and correcting in ways the horse had understood. When I’d kicked Smokey, I thought he deserved it, the stubborn jerk. I thought if I got mad enough, he’d finally pay attention and listen to me.

When I realized how wrong I’d been, I was sick to my stomach for weeks. I’d been scaring the horse. That was it. All I had done was act like an asshole. I didn’t like it. Nancy forgave my angry outburst, and helped me learn how to actually train a horse.

“Think about what you’re teaching him,” she said. “When you pull on the reins, and he doesn’t do what you want, and you stop, what do you think he’s learned?”

“Not to listen to the rein,” I answered. It was, as she taught it, staggeringly obvious. You figured out what was a reward for the horse–usually a release of pressure: no pulling, no kicking, and no working–and rewarded the responses you wanted.

Learning the correct timing of pressure and release, and learning when to push the horse and when to back off, might have been simple, but it sure wasn’t easy. I still regularly lost my temper, either in boiling rage or hysterical tears.

One challenge was getting Smokey to walk–just walk, nothing faster–with his head down. It was stupefyingly difficult.

“It’s not working. He’s not keeping his head down,” I snarled, careful to contain my temper to my tone. My hands were light on the reins, and my legs loose against Smokey’s sides. Smokey continued moseying around the arena with head up and his nose poked forward. “Why isn’t it working?”

“You’re not insisting,” she said. “You keep letting him put his head up.”

“But you told me not to hold his head down!”

“Ask a little every stride,” she said. “If you feel him start to put his head up, ask more. Then release when he does it. Back on the circle.” When I didn’t move, overwhelmed by the difficulty of following these basic instructions, she waved me off jokingly, “Out, out, damn spot.”

I asked Smokey to walk on, and we set about trying again.

Nancy had showed me the difference between communication and intimidation, but that wasn’t the main reason I trained with her.

I had undiagnosed depression and anxiety. At thirteen, hormones gave the already sickening emotional rollercoaster an added burst of speed. I loathed school. I sneered at my classmates as immature and my teachers as boring. I did not make a lot of friends. Both my parents worked full time, and my mom was taking classes on top of that to get into pharmacy school. When I refused to be reliable about chores, they called me ungrateful, and we fought constantly. While people loved me, few of them actually liked me.

Nancy liked me. She was so good with horses that people paid her to ride and train the $100,000 warmbloods they had imported from Germany. She created oil paintings of horses and horse-spirits that embodied the horses of my imagination: their edges fiery, their movements flowing. She was brilliant. When she found out I was an artist, she asked to see my work. I hesitantly showed her my writing and drawings. She gave me real, appreciative feedback, and we began writing stories and illustrating stories together.

She also accepted my wild moods. With her, my anger at the tedium of school and dread of social situations seemed natural. She told me how she, too, felt isolated and had a terribly hard time dealing with people. At the barn, she slunk around everyone else to avoid small talk, but spent hours talking to me. We trained Smokey together, and he went from being unable to walk around a circle with his head in the right position to winning blue ribbons at dressage shows.

One of the crowning glories of this time was a musical freestyle with Katy. Our barn was hosting a musical freestyle exhibition, riding to music, and I was deemed competent enough to participate. Under Nancy’s direction, Katy and I put together a performance to: me on my little white horse, and she on her strapping black Hanoverian, to the Star Wars soundtrack. We wrapped our dressage whips in green and red bandages, and during the performance, came at each other across the arena, thwacking them together and startling our good-natured horses. The little audience laughed cheered for us.

For almost two years, Nancy had a glorious time teaching my pony fancy dressage movements. I spent most of my nights on the phone with her, complaining about school and soaking up her sympathy, and then moving on to tell the next chapter of our shared story. I adored her. I felt like I’d met the first person in the world who understood me. I was 13, and she was in her 40s.

We both had depression, but Nancy had been living with it undiagnosed for far longer. Even in her blackest moods, I could coax her into talking and smiling, and I craved that satisfaction, the feeling of being necessary and wanted, and the power to make someone’s life better.

As time passed, I began to notice how dangerous Nancy’s moods actually were and how little effect I had on them. With growing desperation, I kept trying to fix her, at least to the point where I wasn’t scared for her. I needed her to be okay. I couldn’t stand the thought of failing my one close friend.

The realization that I had no choice about failing her came slowly and inexorably. I told her I was there for her no matter what. I told her to go to therapy. I told her that I needed her to try to get better, for my sake if she couldn’t do it for her own. Nothing helped enough, and night after night on agonizing phone calls, I listened to my friend drowning.

I couldn’t take it anymore. I felt myself drowning. I wrote her a letter, apologizing for my inability to help and returning all the artwork and writing we’d exchanged. I sent Smokey up to retirement in an irrigated pasture. I stopped riding.

I missed horses. I missed being good at something. I missed my friend.

Advertisements

Good Girl, Damnit, Part 1: The Adventures of Smokey

At twelve years old, I became a Pony Club dropout.

Pony Club is a safety-first organization that teaches young riders how to take care of a horse and how to ride a horse over jumps. It should have been a 12 year old’s dream come true, but I chafed under the strict rules and emphasis on cleanliness. I had no patience for rules for the sake of rules and for meticulously cleaning an animal who would prefer to be covered in dirt. Moreover, I had no social skills to speak of and found interacting with other kids both terrifying and frustrating. However, my mom thought it was good for me, and I loved riding.

My Arab-Connemara pony cross, Smokey, was a brave and honest jumper who’d leap over any obstacle he was pointed at. During Pony Club meetups, Smokey would cruise smoothly over the fences, and I’d sit around and wait smugly while everyone else tried to wrestle their surly little ponies over the fences. Unfortunately, as I moved up the Pony Club ranks, Smokey’s suspensory ligaments gave up. He strained them twice. The first time, he was unrideable and miserable, locked in a stall on restricted movement, for four months. The second time, it was half a year.

Without jumping, we couldn’t do most the Pony Club events, certainly not the fun ones. All that was left was Pony Club’s love of rule-mongering and flatwork, and yet another group of kids I didn’t fit in with. Disappointed but relieved, I quit.

Smokey’s rehab involved hand-walking him for thirty minutes daily. Itching to move, he snorted and spooked at every rock and waving leaf. I vacillated between irritation at his behavior and sympathy for its cause.

One day, Katy, a friendly acquaintance from Pony Club, wandered up while I was icing Smokey’s legs. “Why don’t you try dressage?” she suggested. “It’d be easier on Smokey.”

I liked Katy better than most of the Pony Club people. While she knew how to look good at a show, at home she was casual, down-to-earth, and easy going. She was also about five years older than me, and I was surprised she was deigning to speak to me. “Dressage is boring,” I replied loftily, wondering if my mom had put her up to this conversation. “You go around in circles.”

Katy was unphased by my attitude. “You might like it,” she said. “Nancy’s a good trainer.”

While I was usually inclined to argue points like this into the ground, I admired Katy and her employers, Nancy, a Grand Prix dressage trainer, and Sharon, the owner of several warmblood horses that Nancy trained. I didn’t want to be too uncooperative. “Maybe,” I allowed. Katy went and introduced me to Sharon and Nancy.

It was Sharon who actually convinced me. Once a Grand Prix dressage rider and breeder and importer of warmblood horses, Sharon had gotten fed up with the stress. If she wanted to, Sharon could get on an obstinate, thick-headed horse built approximately like an elephant and make it dance. Instead, she was selling off most of her stock and had taken up riding Icelandic horses.

“You could learn to really ride with Nancy,” Sharon told me simply, when I mentioned I was thinking about dressage. Unlike many people at the barn, Sharon did not care for pretense and posturing. She rode a scraggly black Icelandic gelding who she’d named Stimpy. She also owned his brother, who was called Ren. Sharon had no further interest in dressage; she was telling me the simple truth.

The idea that I could learn to ride like a real rider, and not just a kid in a club anyone could join, appealed to me.

I started taking lessons from Nancy. At six feet tall, she should have been intimidating, but she moved so quietly, with such a nonthreatening tilt to her body, that I found her easy to be around. Her posture, it turned out, was meant to soothe horses. It worked on me, too.

For the first lesson, we walked in a circle for thirty minutes, discussing principles of dressage. It should have been absolutely mind-numbing, but Nancy knew her sport inside and out. She explained the theory behind each step. I not only felt like she knew exactly what she was doing, I felt like she had respect for my intelligence and judgment–not a common trait in adults who taught me. In Pony Club, I’d been expected to follow orders. Nancy would explain until it seemed like the right thing to do. I started hanging around her at the barn, chatting at first about horses, then books, then music. I was making an actual friend.

I began to hear rumors about Nancy. More than once, she’d stalked out of the arena mid-lesson in disgust with her student and not come back. Katy and Sharon confirmed this. One of the barn people warned me that Nancy wasn’t stable, and that I should watch out. Although I didn’t entirely disregard these warnings, Nancy was one of the most comfortable people I’d ever been around. While many people in my life meant well, Nancy actually understood how unsettled and upset most social interactions made me; she shared similar anxieties. She noticed me.

I did not expect her to notice my vicious temper.

Smokey was an old hand, but he didn’t know anything about dressage, and I wasn’t exactly god’s gift to riding. Dressage involves asking the horse to bend its neck without actually stepping around into a turn. This concept turns out to be deeply confusing to many horses, especially when they’ve spent years going in the direction their noses are pointed.

I thought it sounded simple enough, until the lesson where I went around in a circle for a half hour without success. Nancy was calling instructions to me to bend him, no, bend him more. No, don’t TURN him. BEND him. Stop him with your outside rein! MAKE him bend. MAKE him stop before he turns! And I was getting more and more fed up with Smokey, who was wiggling around and not doing what Nancy and I wanted him to. I’d make him stop, all right. I jerked first on the inside rein, giving Smokey a solid kick in the ribs, and then jerked on the outside rein to “stop” him.

Nancy was at Smokey’s head, with her hand closed around the rein, before I saw her move. I glared down at her, hands tight around the reins, and scowled at her. “I made him stop,” I said defensively.

The look on her face was cold, and I wondered if she would walk out of a lesson with me after all. “All you are doing right now is scaring your horse,” she said. “He doesn’t understand what you want. Being angry and frightening him does not teach him anything. If that’s what you’re going to do, you should get off right now.”

By the end of her brief speech, I started crying. I respected Nancy’s opinion, and being called a bully had the alarming ring of truth. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m really sorry.”

“Horses don’t understand sorry,” Nancy said, matter of factly. “Don’t ride like that.” While I got myself together, she explained that you needed to be firm with horses, yes, but that you also had to be fair and clear about what you were communicating. She finished with, “Would you like to try?”

I was shocked that she would even offer, that her speech hadn’t been the beginning of the end. I nodded a yes. We backed down a lot from the previous exercise, just going around at a walk and getting Smokey to understand. I tried to listen to him and react accordingly. I was badly shaken, but on some level relieved. Scaring Smokey wasn’t training him. I had to make figure out how to make him understand.

ReaderCon: Further Thoughts on Magic and Science

The Difference Between Magic and Science was one of those definitional panels, and true to form, Max Gladstone, Lev Grossman, Andrea Hairston, Kenneth Schneyer (moderator), J.M. Sidorova did not exactly define either magic or science (at least not in opposition to one another). Instead, they brought up some interesting frameworks that we use to think about science and magic. The following is a synthesis of their discussion and my ideas about the frameworks.

J.M. and Max distinguished science as the conceptual framework of technology, and technology as stuff that works. Useful distinction. It led Andrea to explain out that people evolve with technology with a story of grub-eating chimpanzees who learned to use sticks, got the best grubs, had the best babies, and generationally, became the best chimps. J.M. said, “All living organisms are scientists. If you hear a rustle in the bushes, your first thought is not magical.”

While I like the idea of science as a practical response to a given situation, I do not think it’s quite the case. Maybe it is more like a spectrum between basic association and hard science. If an animal is having a startle reaction to rustling bushes, it is not thinking. In its little prey-brain, it associates rustling with potential doom, and it reacts before it has time to think. The more leisure a critter has to imagine, to make multiple connections, and to contemplate underlying logic, the more the process resembles scientific thinking.

That said, scientific thinking is not the only useful way of thinking. Consciousness is the mere tip of an iceberg that is actually made of meat. Magic addresses the submerged meat of the human mind, the concepts that don’t fit in well with rationalist thinking.

Lev Grossman proposed that material realities of modern life are alienating to the inner self, and magic is a way of negotiating and defining that disconnect. Andrea brought up the Enlightenment, with which came the idea that the universe is inanimate. In some African American cultures, however, the universe is an actor with agency. Magic animates the universe.

Animating the universe brings intractably vast concepts to a human scale and makes them relatable. This is hugely and impossibly important. It is why parables are so damn useful. It’s why religions tend to be collections of stories. I think this is why the panel started talking about mystery and wonder in relation to magic. Magic is supposed to be taking that on. It’s magic’s job. Interestingly, it also seems to be science’s.

Max pointed out that not very far into science you get into the infinitesimally small, and therefore weird indeterminacy. He said, if you’re relating to science in the right way, it’s a gateway to the numinous. Andrea expressed a similar sentiment, “I am dazzled by the fact that in all the possible universes, there is the statistical possibility my hand could go through the table.”

Science, though, begins at a human-scale, proceeding by careful step-by-step facts the numinous. Magic, on the other hand, takes in the numinous and brings it back to human-scale in a place, a being, a story.

ReaderCon Summary Report

ReaderCon is a literary science fiction and fantasy convention in Boston with a reputation for excellent discussions and panels. Many folks whose writing I love find their way there regularly, and with the additional temptation of a mini-reunion with my Viable Paradise cohort, I attended for the first time.

Overall, I had a delightful time. My main regrets circle around there being more people to talk to and more interesting things to do than I had time for, and those are good problems to have.

On one of my favorite panels, When the Other Is You, Chesya Burke, Chip Delany, Peter Dubé, Mikki Kendall, Vandana Singh, and Sabrina Vourvoulias (moderator) talked about their experiences as “others.” The impact was in the specific experiences and perspective the panelists discussed, which ranged across generations and cultures, and I highly recommend listening. Update: Scott Edelman posted the video here.

Other pleasures included the guerilla speakeasy reading, the discovery (thank you, A. C. Wise) that there are caterpillars who stack caterpillars’ skulls on their heads like terrifying hats, and the gigantic Viable Paradise dinner, organized by the inimitable Dave Twiddy, where I got to meet some of the incoming class and graduates of other years. There was of course the usual convention joy of meeting people who I’ve only see occasionally or chat with online. Devin Singer, Sheila Cail, Latasha Ewell, and I all hosted a room party, our first one, and that was a smashing success. When the convention ended, we were not done! and went to a Sunday afternoon Barnes and Noble event with Tor authors Max Gladstone, Paul Park, Felix Gilman, and Brian Stavely. Brian can host a mean trivia game.

Thank you to the convention staff for a wonderful convention. I look forward to next year!

Writing Process Blog Tour

Tagged as if I were a species of migrating raptor by Casey Blair and John Wiswell, and privately by Beth Matthews (who, like the tagging scientists, clearly meant well), I shall now talk about my writing process. Check out Casey’s, John’s, and Beth’s blogs, too. The variety in process is fascinating.

WHAT AM I WORKING ON?

The elevator pitch for my novel is “Watership Down with wolves.” Its working title is To Howl with Wolves. In a time of terrible famine, a young wolf finds herself without a pack. She meets a coyote, and the two of them team up to survive in the shadow of an increasingly voracious and aggressive wolf pack.

HOW DOES MY WORK DIFFER FROM OTHERS IN THE GENRE?

Partly, the predator-prey population charts we looked at in elementary school inspired To Howl with Wolves. I found the steadily rising populations, followed by precipitous crashes, rather haunting. What would they mean to the animals living those cycles? Science fiction is often about people doing science, whereas To Howl with Wolves expresses science through animal behavior and ecology. A small library of scholarly articles, books, and government reports, as well as a visit to the Indiana Wolf Park, are behind much of the characters, plot, and setting.

WHY DO I WRITE WHAT I DO?

I want to read it. It is a wolf-coyote buddy novel, backed up with actual biology. I love wolves and coyotes and realism with animals. I love the exploration of the concept of pack and family and friendship. The ability to take an animal’s perspective also is useful for serious matters like direct emotional expression and for more amusing ones, such as the possibility of a carnivore who is also a foodie.

HOW DOES MY WRITING PROCESS WORK?

My writing process is horrifically intuitive. Some days, I swear I am like Schmendrick in The Last Unicorn. “Magic, do as you will!” The words that actually end up on the page are there because they “feel right.”

To channel this, I use a mutating outline, which begins as “emotionally charged scenes I want to write” and eventually progresses to “where the book should end up.”

I do a lot of research and talk a good deal about novel ideas, simmering them in the associative-unconscious part of my brain that does creativity. During the talking, I get a better conscious sense of the ideas. Basically, they will either resonate with the rest of the story, or they won’t. If they don’t, I will keep poking until I find something that does. Then I outline what will happen. Then I write it. Sometimes I am right about the resonance, and I go to the next chapter. Sometimes I am wrong, writing is excruciating, and I start the process over.

WHO’S NEXT?

Should they have the time and inclination, I would like to hear about the processes of Devin Singer, Michael Johnston, Paul Star, and Latasha Ewell.

Relevant Narratives

“Like the pain of a bad wound, the effect of a deep shock takes some while to be felt. When a child is told, for the first time in his life, that a person he has known is dead, although he does not disbelieve it, he may well fail to comprehend it and later ask–perhaps more than once–where the dead person is and when he is coming back.”
― Richard Adams, Watership Down

When I was about twelve, I began role playing on the Internet in AOL chatrooms, especially those affiliated with Star Wars. My favorite scene, which I wished to play unto infinity, was the remarkably powerful young female Jedi, who the Sith would attempt to sway to the Dark Side. She would be tempted, but she’d always turn them down in a triumphant burst of inspired Force-usage.

I soon discovered more general purpose alternate world chat rooms, and among these, some of the best role players were involved in an elaborate game based on the world of Gor. In this world, all women were wanton slaves to the men. That is a very bland description. The actual experience was more vivid. Even in other roleplay interactions, if you played a woman, you could either be flirted with or ignored. Within a year, I stopped playing female characters, and I started roleplaying men.

Even after a good deal of therapy, situations that require me to be present in my own female skin often elicit an emotion that feels a lot like nausea, like I should be able to throw up something about myself.

If you want to undo shame, you have to find situations where you can feel proud.

I recently read Kameron Hurley’s God’s War, and I did not like it much. The levels of violence, death, and despair are all too high for my tastes, and yet I also love that book because in the main culture, the women are the badasses who are in charge of everything, each making their own mistakes in character, in human variation. Hurley stomps and stomps on the concept of patriarchy in every choice she makes, and even though she kills off characters (lots of characters), God’s War is a surprisingly safe read because sure, there’s death and pain, but there is not an intrinsic shaming of women, and there is the expectation of them having honor.

At FOGCon, someone asked Seanan McGuire about restraints she puts on her writing. Among other things, she said that she never makes a walk-on-to-die character a minority because the last thing she wanted was for someone to finally see themselves on the page, only to have them snatched away.

The thing about writing is that I can steer that narrative. I can make worlds and people who are set up to excel and to win. I can create and envision stories that let both me and the reader move into a space where we fit, where we are understood, and where we are appreciated and honored. I write for a lot of other reasons, too: cool shit, amusement, entertainment, an interest in viewpoints other than my own, and so on. But a desperately important thing to me about writing is that I can make and change the rules to whatever I need them to be.

The last few months have been long and strange. At Viable Paradise, when my critique group liked my novel, it felt like they handed me back my heart. I did not expect to also meet my girlfriend, Devin Singer. The result has been significantly less under my control than my writing, but it has thus far been a curious process of shared imagination, of both telling and negotiating a story–in particular, a story about two women, in a relationship we both take pride in.

As Lois McMaster Bujold said, “It’s a bizarre but wonderful feeling, to arrive dead center of a target you didn’t even know you were aiming for.”

Flight or Flight as Applied to Writing

…Unless there’s blood on the floor, of course. War, pestilence, murder, any kind of ordeal or violence, that’s what they respect. Blood means we were serious. ~Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin

Learning to write, for me, is inextricably entangled with learning to manage my mental state well enough to get words on a page. I think this is a not-uncommon problem.

I used to dream of being chased. No accident, there. I spent years running away inside my own head. I reviled myself for it, because while I was resigned to many of my less-than-positive qualities, I did not want to be a coward. If you have an affinity with predators, you must learn not to be prey, a friend once explained to me. You must, when you dream you are being chased, stop running, turn around, and fight. I knew that no matter how fast and how far you run, you can never run away from yourself. The obvious alternative was fighting. I applied this conclusion to being a writer.

You can just imagine. This is the fight or flight approach to writing. Either you’re running away from it and avoiding writing, or savagely driving yourself to the computer for the daily bloodletting of words. It’s a framework, all right. It is a very easy to framework to fall into, too, because writing is hard for all kinds of reasons: drafts look bad, time is scarce, blank pages are hauntingly empty, other people do it better… Writing, viewed from a certain angle, kicks you directly into a trigger-state, which is to say, a state where you feel you should respond in some survival-based way (run, freeze, or fight).

The fight-based approach felt like being a real writer. I was not cowering under my mountain of excuses: I sat in front of the computer shaking in frustration and terror, but I wrote. I felt peculiarly satisfied; I like to be good at things, and I was getting good at fighting. Every time I wrote, I felt like I was triumphing over myself.

Then, at Viable Paradise, I discovered that people liked my writing.

My whole edifice of ruthless battle cracked at its foundations in under five minutes and never recovered. The fighting dissolved into relieved crying. As it happens, trigger states are not actually that fun for me. They may seem fun, but it is the kind of fun that comes with feeling vulnerable and successfully defending myself rather than the kind of fun that comes from feeling confident and happy. “Yay! I’m not dead!” is not the same as “Yay! I’m having a good time!”

There is not actually much virtue in making a Greek tragedy out of sitting down to write. I am not saying that the drama was a conscious choice. It wasn’t. It was a trigger-state choice: I wanted to run. Therefore, I chose to fight, and I felt better fighting than running.

But here is a thing: No matter how viciously you fight, it doesn’t stop you from hurting. It doesn’t make you feel safe.

For me, the better choice is what I’ve been referring to as “sideways.” You see sideways things a lot with writer tricks. At Viable Paradise, Steven Brust explained how he’d worked a play on lines of Hamlet into every chapter of one book in order to move forward, which emphasizes cleverness (especially useful if you are Steven Brust) and reframes writing into a game. M. J. Locke talked about the feeding and care of your Beast, a kind of metaphor for your creative force / muse, which reframes writing into the process of taking care of yourself, and also creates a supportive sort of imaginary friendship with your writing.

Prior to Viable Paradise, I mostly ignored these sideways tricks because my framing wouldn’t permit them. It’s pretty simple: if you think you’re in a survival situation, and someone is suggesting tea and candlelight and maybe a hug to help you wind down, you will probably look at them, if not with hostility, then certainly with contempt. They don’t understand that you are serious.

My latest sideways trick has been, rather than encountering a blank screen and whimpering in terror, focusing on something related: a map for ten minutes here, a nonfiction book there, and then approaching writing again. Also coffee shops. Also talking to people. Whatever diffuses the “this is a confrontation that I am going to win” mindset.

Susan Palwick has explained that storytelling is the opposite of trauma. If this is so, then pushing myself to the point where I am triggered — where I am experiencing a sort of trauma — in order to write is counterproductive. Narrative is what happens when I am healing, not hurting.