A few weeks ago, I wrote about how the key to success was persistence, likening improving as a writer to my experiences as a competitive rider–and how moving up through the ranks resulted in plummeting to the bottom of the heap until you mastered the new skill set at your current level.
I believe in persistence. I do. My favorite quote on the subject is by Calvin Coolidge:
But that having been said, sometimes it’s hard to battle through discouragement.
These past few years have been fraught with discouragement and loss. One of the many things I’ve had to accept is that my old competition horse had to be retired because she was no longer sound enough to ride. As such, I’ve been riding a friend’s mare so I can keep my hand in the game and she has a quiet horse to ride on the rare occasions she has the time to spend an afternoon at the barn. It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement, except that we ride in different disciplines, with completely different training styles, and at twenty years of age, Robin isn’t going to learn how to accept my commands. I’m going to have to learn how to communicate with her instead.
Riding a horse is riding a horse, right? Um, no. There are as many different ways to ride a horse as there are to drive a car, and just because you’re competent on the highway in a four-door sedan doesn’t mean you can go off-road in a four-wheel drive pickup, or drive through the streets of Milan in a Formula One racer, or take an eighteen-wheeler out on the interstate.
I used to compete in eventing. The mare I’m riding now is a hunter. While eventing includes show jumping, the training styles for the two sports is very different. I’m used to riding with contact–my hands in close communication with the bit at all times. Robin, the mare I’m riding now, is used to being given her head and only loosely guided around a course of fences. So when I ride her the way I’ve ridden every other horse for the last twenty years–with close contact with the bit–she gets pissy and hot. The more I try to rein her in, the more annoyed she becomes. She picks up speed, shakes her head, and threatens to buck. My instinctive reactions only make things worse. It’s like trying to drive as though I have an automatic when I should be manually shifting gears. The end results are ugly.
And frustrating. There are times when I feel like tossing my hands up in the air and calling it quits. This particular day, Robin had been gradually ramping up during the course of our ride. It felt like I was riding a powder keg and the fuse was lit and growing closer. The things I would normally do to balance and check a horse careening around the ring out of control were the wrong move for Robin, succeeding in winding her up even more. Letting go of her mouth and allowing her to run full tilt at obstacles was just counter-intuitive.
I confess, I was completely discouraged. That’s when that deadly phrase entered my mind: I should be better at this by now.
How many years have I been riding horses? Too long to share without revealing my advanced age. The very fact I’ve been riding since I was eleven years old weighed heavily in my self-disappointment. I should know how to correct this horse. I should instinctively know how to work with my current issues, understanding that I’m not going to teach an old horse new tricks. My failure was a double-whammy in the face of my experience.
At the same time, I was reminded of a scene from Young Sherlock Holmes–a 1985 Steven Spielberg movie that asked “What if Holmes and Watson had met as schoolboys?”
There’s a terrific scene in which Holmes and Watson are meeting for the first time, as Holmes is massacring a violin. As Watson enters, Holmes lifts the violin up to smash it on a chair. Watson stops him, and Holmes snarls, “I should be better at this by now.”
Watson asks, “How long have you been playing?”
“Three days!” Holmes snaps.
I think many of us are Holmes in this situation. Through the promise of instant gratification (“Lose 20 pounds in 14 days!”) we’ve been taught that if we can’t master something in 48 hours, we’re a failure. Likewise, success should come to us in a similar time frame.
We know that’s not the case, but we get suckered into believing it might be different for us just the same.
In my situation, having been riding horses for over 25 years, the notion I should be better at it seems valid. And yet I discount the fact the horse I’m riding has been trained to do things almost diametrically opposite from the way I’d normally ride.
I was nearly in tears that day I was trying to canter Robin safely around the arena. I was ready to give up. Not just riding Robin, but riding in general. For a horsewoman, that’s a bid deal. But I took a deep breath and decided to give riding counter-intuitively a go. I dropped the reins as I asked her to canter, freeing her head when that was the last thing I felt like I should do, and she went around the ring far more quietly than she’d done before.
When it comes to writing, we have to be willing to do the same thing. Give up our expectations. Take chances. Do something that goes against everything we’ve been taught or believe about the process. Every story is different. Every set of characters is different. We might think we should be better at this by now but complacency is the death of creativity. Instead of railing against the knowledge that what you’re doing isn’t working and becoming frustrated because you should ‘know better’, take this for what it is: a sharpening instinct that what you’re doing is wrong and needs to be fixed. And then fix it.
You’ll be glad you did.