Thursday, March 24, 2011

Throughness and Connection

Last monday night (yes, I know it's thursday already, and yes, I know I said I'd blog more regularly this week...) I was lucky enough to present the grand prizes at the annual ACT English Teachers Association Litlinks writing competition. This is the third year in a row that I've been lucky enough to be invited to be the final judge of this really fantastic writing showcase, and every year the job seems to get more and more difficult. This years entries were probably the most difficult I've ever had to decide between. Huge congratulations to all the young writers who entered.

But that's not really what I want to talk about today. Or at least, not entirely. Today I want to share some of the ideas I talked about in my speech at the awards ceremony, and one in particular, because I think it's a lovely writerly idea that is worth putting out there.

So today I'm going to talk about horse riding. I'm also going to steal shamelessly from another writer.

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I've recently taken up horse riding and it's quickly become the little pool of zen in the middle of my week*

The only way to act around horses is to stay calm and measured, and to exude a sort of inner peace and restraint in your movements and in your mental attitude. If you don't do this, the horse picks up on it. Then they kick you. Unless you're already up on their back, in which case they throw you off. Then they kick you.**

And even if they don't kick you, if the rider on their back is overworking them, or dragging at the bit, or slumping and throwing their weight around, or constantly kicking and poking with their heels, then horses get grumpy, and stubborn, and refuse to do what they're told. Which is fair enough. I'd do the same.

So it's a good idea, when working with horses, to really get yourself into a good headspace. To get into a mental space where you're working with the horse, rather than trying to impose your will upon it.

All this I worked out pretty early on in the piece. About three minutes into my first trip to the riding school, actually, as I watched a couple of other people having a lesson. And the result of having to get myself into that 'zen' headspace is that, at the end of the lesson, when I swing down off the horse, I find myself incredibly relaxed, calm and refreshed. And that feeling generally stays with me for the rest of the day. It makes work easier, it makes me happier and more fun to be around, and - best of all - it makes me write better. I've noticed this. Riding puts me into a really good headspace for writing.

And it's not just me, either.

Late last week, while doing some research for a lecture, I came across an article written by the fantastic British writer Meg Rosoff. It's (as you would expect) a beautifully written reflection on how she goes about the business of writing, and the forces that come into play, and - to my surprise - about the relationship between horseriding and the process of writing. You can read the whole paper HERE - it's in volume II, number I.

What particularly resonated with me in Rosoff's piece, though, was towards the end, when she talks about two of the central skills that horse riders strive for in their riding - 'Throughness' and 'openness'. I'm going to quote her directly here, because she expresses this idea much better than I can:
I took up horse riding at the age of 50. I hadn’t ridden in more than 35 years, and even then, not properly. For anyone who thinks horse riding involves sitting on a horse, kicking it to go fast, and pulling on the reins to slow down, may I begin by saying that it is fantastically more complex than that.

It involves great strength, balance, lightness, decisiveness, and humility. It requires a willingness to partner, to communicate, to trust -- but never to relinquish responsibility or trust too much. Two of the most important concepts associated with riding are ‘throughness’ and ‘connection.’

The United States Dressage Federation defines throughness as ‘The supple, elastic, unblocked, connected state that permits an unrestricted flow of energy from back to front and front to back. Synonymous with the German term "Durchlaessigkeit," or "throughlettingness.” ’ Connection is defined as a state “in which there is no blockage, break, or slack in the circuit that joins horse and rider into a single harmonious unit; the unrestricted flow of energy and influence from and through the
rider to and throughout the horse, and back to the rider.”

Now think, for a minute, of the subconscious mind as the horse and the conscious mind as the rider. If the rider is too strong, too stiff or unsympathetic, the horse becomes inaccessible and difficult to control, or dull and resistant. The object of dressage is to create a fluid exchange of understanding and energy between horse and rider; an advanced dressage rider is often described as asking questions that the horse answers.

In writing, this powerful flow of energy cannot be faked, any more than it can in riding. A book written from the conscious, controlled mind will feel as stiff and lifeless as an insensitive rider on a resentful horse. Or a singer’s voice coming from the head rather than the chest and diaphragm. Or a ball thrown from the elbow. Writing (like riding, or singing or playing a musical instrument, or painting or playing cricket or thinking about the universe) requires the deep psychological resonance of the subconscious mind. It requires connection and throughness, and only then will the reader feel the surge of power that a clever borrowed voice never achieves.
I love this idea. I love particularly the notion that when I'm writing, I'm trying not to impose myself upon the words, but to allow the words to flow through me. Some days I achieve this, some days I don't. I love the notion that a good dressage rider asks questions that the horse answers - (I spend a lot of time teaching workshops on the value of questions as a narrative driver, and so this also rings very true with me).

Throughness, and Connection. They're not skills that I have in my riding, yet. At this point, I'm still working at not falling off. But, all the same, I love the idea of them, and already they're skills I'm working towards, every single lesson. From the moment I walk into the stable to bridle up my horse, to the moment I put him away and untack him again at the end.

And they're not skills that I always have in my writing. But, just like in riding, they're something to strive towards, with every sentence, and every paragraph.

*technically, as my lessons are usually on Mondays, it's become a pool of Zen at the start of my week. Unless you count my weeks from Thursday, in the same manner as the financial year starts in July...

** Just to be clear, I wrote that paragraph for comic effect - in reality all the horses I've come across to date have been incredibly tolerant and not even slightly psycopathic. Which, given the rather un-coordinated way I ride them at this point, is a testament to their stoicism. I haven't been kicked at all.

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