Horse Gone Silent: An Author Gives Voice to an Animal’s Experience

About one year ago, I met a man named Shane Ledyard. He was judging the Hunters at the local horse show where I am an announcer. As we chatted, we were pleased to find out that we were kindred spirits beyond the horse world. He is a writer and the author of Horse Gone Silent, a book about the life and experiences of a horse named Calebo. While I am sheepish to admit it has taken me this long to be able to write about this YA story, I am very happy to share it with a larger audience.

I was immediately impressed by the attention and thought he had given not just to the content but the design and presentation. The cover is a clean, bold design with a close-up of a horse’s eye. This reminded me of a wonderful print I have by my fireplace at home that is quite similar in conception. You find yourself staring back at it, trying to see into the horse’s thoughts, and, perhaps, gain a glimpse of yourself.

This tale definitely would appeal to both the YA crowd it is meant for and adults interested in a story focused on horses. Now, horse stories are nothing new, and the drama of their lives has been addressed in both fiction and nonfiction, but what I find interesting here is that we have the horse’s voice rather than a human’s perspective. Many of us do wonder what they are thinking, right? What of their early experiences stay with them into their later years and changes in owners and training? Ledyard’s experience as a horseperson—rider, trainer, judge—lends a credibility to the projections and assumption of thought and emotion on the animal’s part.

Now we do need to remember that this is fiction and not science or research so, no, horses are not human and, therefore, not inclined to human thoughts, feelings, and actions as far as we can prove. But this is not intended to be a guide for communicating with or training animals. It is a story that imagines how one animal might experience life from his first moments of consciousness, shares his varied experiences in different living conditions with various owners, and, ultimately, unveils what I believe to be Ledyards’ notion of the ideal home for Caleb and perhaps many horses.

 

My critique would be that he tells a bit more than showing at times. I’d like the narrative  to unfold without the interruption of explanations. For instance, at one point, he explains what “weaning” is. It’s a moving passage about separation and trauma, but would hold more emotion if it offered more action and less definition. As well, later in the book, Ledyard explains to the reader what a Grand Prix is and I found myself pulled from the action. My preference is to add a glossary for those unfamiliar with horses so that the horse people reading it are not distracted by what is already known to them. And, like many of us, he seems to be trying to reach too many audiences with too many messages in one text. Is this about Calebo? Is it about horse care and ethics? Is it about faith and destiny? One focus per book would suffice. He could then do a series (if he is not already) in which he can address the evils inherent in the financial aspect horse business, good breeding and training practices, and the joy and success that a well-matched rider and mount experience.

Still his insight and compassion create very plausible imaginings of what an animal may well think and feel. He does have a gift for creating atmosphere. In Chapter 9 “The Killer Pen,” a barn has “paint chipping from the walls, mixed in with years of dust and grime.” The lack of pride, respect, or care in the facility is visceral. The simplicity of the description does not hide the hopelessness of life in this facility. It is always clear that he wants the reader to be extremely conscious of how actions and environment affect an animal’s quality of life.

I would be interested to read more reactions to this story. Ledyard himself is quite a benevolent spirit and open to discussion and commentary in way that many authors I have met should be. Perhaps he can influence writers as well as riders in both his actions and words.

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What is the Value of the Written Word: Part II

images-8Part I was the response to the literal question. When we make a living writing and editing, we have to put an objective, concrete value on our words in order to survive and thrive. But that should be just a necessary evil. Today, we will visit the figurative or philosophical aspect of the query. So, business aside, what about the value of words gauged by other means? Do they have a measurable effect on us and our quality of life just as a paycheck related to these words might?

Words themselves are priceless and enduring. The carefully chosen ones produce life-changing insight, poetry, beauty, and enlightenment. The wrong ones may cause personal harm and wreak havoc on our souls, create unnecessary confusion, or set off  a chain of miscommunication and permanent damage. So, there is power in how we use our language, but so many people don’t consider this. Nor do they consider that learning how to structure our verbal interactions is of vital importance.

College students taking required composition classes most often treat their writing assignments as a burden and as something to be gotten past. They don’t realize the power they have when they wield their language artfully and strategically. There is grace in touching someone with words of significance. This is part of the overall struggle we in the humanities have when fighting to maintain respect and funding for Liberal Studies.

The “value” in communicating clearly is immeasurable. If you are still stuck on the financial side of “value,” then understand that poorly written missives don’t even get you onto the ladder of success, much less up any rungs. You’d better hope you are so brilliant otherwise and that you will be in so much demand that you can afford a personal assistant to mask your failings in this arena.

The real value, I think, is in what your words will do for others as well as for yourself.

What is the Value of the Written Word: Part I

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Good question, right? But I want to ask you also: Are you thinking the same about “value” as I am? There are many answers to this so I chose to write this in segments. The first one, here, is in terms of monetary value and the life of a working writer. I will be following up with more segments that address “value” in other forms. Please feel free to let me know if you have anything to add or even argue.

Quite recently I was re-negotiating a contract with a publisher because I was going to rewrite a few brief sections of a book that I originally was only going to edit. Nothing fancy, just a couple of paragraphs. We haggled over a few cents per word. Now, the original editor told me politely why I would not get my preferred pay rate (they don’t know me yet). Not that they are stiffing me by any means–their pay is fair, but I now push for the higher end of the scale because, well, I’ve been doing this a long time. The other editor on the project really pushed my buttons. I got the “someone else will do it cheaper” bit. Really? Well, yes they will. And, as I told him diplomatically but clearly, he’ll get what they pay for. Seeing that they weren’t budging and I’d been treated quite well otherwise (Note: I’ve not had to deal with the petulant unprofessional guy since) I figured true, they don’t know me yet, I’d give a little here.

If they had treated me poorly from the start, even the middle-ground pay would not be enough. There is a going rate per word, per page, per hour, and per project and you should always look up what that is in your field, by region, by type of publication, by level of experience. Are you contract or freelance? Are you signing a noncompete contract that limits your marketability elsewhere? Are you on retainer, full pay at time of completion of project, half at the start and half later? All of these should come into your calculations as to whether or not a job is worth the effort. ALL should include contracts with a clause regarding compensation for cancelled projects.

So, value your work, and make sure others honor that value with fair pay and fair contracts. Taking less out of insecurity or the desire to be able to call yourself a “real” writer devalues your efforts and puts your colleagues at financial risk as well.

 

Begin Again

images-6Begin Again is the title of a movie that my husband turned me on to. The main character, a producer in the music business has many reversals in his life like a failed marriage and stagnating career. As the movie evolves, we see him pushing forward and drawing from his past success to bolster his future. There is reinvention regeneration of spirit. He begins again and againIt was a good flick. So, what’s this got to do with writing or even yoga? Begin and Again. In both your writing ambitions and your yoga practice, each day is a beginning.

Aristotle stated that ” . . . the beginning is thought to be more than half of the whole, and many of the questions we ask are cleared up by it.” Basically, the best most focused start is the most promising for desired outcomes. If something goes awry, look to the pattern of events that led up to the road block. How did you begin? How did you set up or clear your space? Maybe you did not have everything you needed, including the focus, so your pages are not so inspired or your poses were a struggle to maintain. We all have to begin each day when we wake up up even if the projects or poses are part of an ongoing ambition or enjoyable habit.

images-5The “again” part is a bit more complicated. Each day can be an “again” in a positive light or an “again” as in “ugh.” Returning and beginning again can be synonymous but quite a big difference also. In writing, the starting over can be so frustrating. You may have scrapped something that was not working out and are feeling zapped of the will to try again. But, like the character in the movie, if you love what you do and want to stay in the business/genre that you chose, you’ll unload or shelve what you have to and bulldoze past any naysayers to see your vision become a reality.

My yoga practice and my riding both create a focus for me that I don’t find coming from anything else. For both of these my beginning has to include being fully present or there is no flow or forward movement literally or figuratively. My poses are stiffer. If the horse lacks clear communication and relies on himself to decide how to respond to my aids, any effort is lost energy and potential. It only makes sense that if I sit down to write, I need to have a plan. Even a plan to free write so that I can let the words come out. I can edit and adjust later but I need to begin, and begin with purpose.

images-7Thus we begin again and again. But and it needs to be in the spirit of learning and endeavor, not frustration. So beginings are new, they are do overs ,they are retracing of steps ,they are clean slates. They are framed by your past behavior and generate results based on your focus or lack thereof. There are “agains” in everything so let the again be a revisiing of an effort you’d like to see more sucess from. Don’t let it become a state of repetition and stagnation.

Let’s Weigh in on Fan Fiction

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As I sat with a friend of mine on a recent evening, we started talking about these last posts about the Memoir and the subject turned to other genres that I had not spent time reflecting on. Then she said, “Write about fan fiction!” Hmmm, I don’t really know much about fan fiction actually but I am definitely in favor of any medium that gets writers writing and finding their own voice.

I actually have the button  you see pictured here. I used to work in a comic book store in Baltimore and we had these as promos for an issue of a Wolverine comic. It cracked me up in general but I never really thought about who the fans were and why they were dedicated enough to earn so much ribbing. After all, aren’t fans the only thing that keeps you in business?

When you think about it, we’ve all been inspired (or annoyed) by the authors we read when in school or that we found in our excursions to the library, or Amazon, or the bookstore (remember those?). I just never really thought about the concerted effort so many people have put in to developing entire stories and lives around existing characters. To write a vampire story is not new. To create an entirely new planet is not new. But to write about existing vampires or colonies in other universes is very curious to me. But I do know what it is to feel lost or lonely when a story or trilogy or some such ends. I have often missed some characters and wished they would return somehow. I remember when Anne McCaffrey died. I was faced with the end of her dragon riders. Even if she were not planning to do more with Pern, the possibility was open as long as she was here. Now, even with her son carrying on, it’s still not her. BUT this is where the fans come in right? They keep the legends and the people alive and offer a continuation of the world she created or let this one branch out to the next, much like the originators of Pern did when they arrived on this new planet. Why not stay in touch?

Basically, everyone has a story and it’s important to tell it. Is it for family? I have worked for year for my dear friend Ruth Wolf as she compiled a family history for her many grand and great-grandchildren. Is it for the public? An in-group of other avid fans of particular authors who all feel connected through particular stories? Is it for the love of writing alone and you allow what boils up from inside to guide you?

You are interesting. Whatever you want to write is up to you as long as you hone your craft and never feel that you are done learning and observing. If emulating a stye is what drives you to experiment, great. If writing fan fiction and staying within the existing world that another created rings true with you, great. Are you a Memoirist who shares your experiences for those who could learn from your life or be inspired by it? Great. Maybe your memoirs work for personal as well as professional goals.

It’s all what truly resonates within you and never let anyone tell you your choices are not marketable or timely. You decide what you create and then decide how it will live on. If you reach enough people, maybe your own tales will continue on when you’ve stopped or have moved on. So, write on Fan Boys and Girls!

The Memoir: A Saturated Trend in Publishing or Beneficial Genre for All Readers?

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In last April’s edition of The Atlantic, Leslie Jamison defended the Memoir and other forms of published personal reflection as being effective tools for readers to use in order to understand or investigate ways of being. She argues that books in this genre need not be trendy and vacuous or narcissistic and confessional outlets. Alongside “Self help” or “How To” types of texts, the Memoir connects the audience with a journey or a path that someone else has followed and that the reader may be about to embark upon or is in the process of experiencing in some form. For many, to sit quietly and privately with another person’s viewpoint on an odyssey through an illness, a pursuit of spiritual and physical healing, or a path to success or failure and redemption is enlightening and empowering. The reader is anonymous. The reader does not need to ask questions or share their own experience. They can simply be with the words.

I must say that I have, for a long time, been skeptical of the current popularity of the Memoir. Of course, someone who has had an impact on the world or in their field is someone who should write a Memoir or an Autobiography. Scholars and fans alike want the inside story in the individual’s words. Even if rhetorical authority is in question, the entry into this person’s world is at least a lead that can direct you to other research or leads. But what about the Memoir that is from a person who does not seem to have accomplished anything substantial except that they were published? I hear Terry Gross from NPR often interviewing someone whose just published their Memoir. Someone who may not have written anything previously and has been obscure otherwise. Or, perhaps this person has not been writing long enough or prolifically to have much to offer in the way of life experience yet. Why in the world do I care what they did or when or how? Jamison enlightened me.

We can take from these writers’ reflections what we need or want to know. We can adopt for ourselves a person’s approach to life or feel less alone in our own dilemma. Overall we engage and respond rather than just coming to their texts as voyeurs or passive audiences. Jamison writes that “[l]ife is evidence. It’s fodder for argument.”

I still choose to read about someone who has lived at least 50 years or who has been in a business or discipline for at least a few decades, but that is my preference. I want to read about long-term events and experiences. Someone else may need timely events mapped out and have access to immediate answers. Ultimately, I am converted. The Memoir is of value and the wider the variety of authors and discussion points, the more people who can benefit from the wisdom imparted.

All Experience is Relevant to All of Our Creativity

No experience is ever a waste. If you make an effort to understand your behavior in the context of the cause-and-effect pattern of our world, you can see, in your own time, how you come to react to events physically, emotionally, spiritually, and psychologically. Never one to blame the victim or settle for this unfocused “everything happens for a reason” catchphrase, I do hold to the idea that we make very specific choices that lead to the encounter in question. No, you did not give yourself cancer, or “ask” to be victimized in a robbery, or shunned by people who disagree with you. But you chose to go to the doctor and get a diagnoses. You chose to exercise your right to walk outside alone  or voice your opinion. Within these actions, someone or some people made their choices.

Your job is to dissect the experience and figure out what to take away from the moment. Be thankful you got the diagnoses when you did. You could make the plans that save you or keep you in control of your care. Be mindful that you have the right to function unmolested and the perpetrator is at fault. Even If you have voiced opinions and viewpoints with respect and compassion, frankness and certitude, couldn’t someone still potentially have an issue with them? The presentation may be well done but not everyone has the ability to receive the content with measured, objective analysis. If you were rude or inappropriate, well . . .

OK, you ask, where does this fit into your overall theme of writing? Nope, it’s not just recording the events or remembering the emotions for your characters that may be placed in this scenario. This is for your personal as well as professional well being. How do stories come to you? How do job contacts come to you? How do you filter the world around you so that experiences can be treasured as affirmation of your strengths and value? Not indignation and proof of being “right,” but proof of being here as you. And how do these realizations undergo a kind of transformation into text.

These acknowledgments affect your tone and your choice of subject matter. You reject or accept your responses to and feelings about the world when you write. My own longing for a sense of relevance and worth today has pushed my ego into the fore and pushed me to reach out here, now. If I were not disappointed in having opened myself to public rudeness because I was trusting and assumed that someone I did not know would have integrity (see my post Kindness in Writing), I would not be admonishing you to be mindful and careful about your writing self. Ultimately, since there was nothing illegal or permanently damning in my recent  experience that might require overt confrontation and action, it became a platform for reflection and this post is my catharsis. My choice to filter the experience in a healthy way.

I wish all experiences could be so easily resolved and that I had the wisdom and fortitude to regularly forgive others their unkindness, folly, and unprofessional acts, and myself my own wrong choices and mistakes. But, that is why we call yoga a practice and our writing will need revisions.