I did not intend to start writing a novel. Maybe work on a blog. Maybe just enjoy the excuse to attend another magical retreat at Linda Kohanov’s Eponaquest Ranch, located at the base of the Santa Rita Mountains, just south of Tucson, AZ. The setting alone is inspiring, especially if you love the desert southwest as I do. Something about the clarity of the blue sky, the dry air, and the combination of rock, sand, sagebrush, and mesquite.
I’ve attended several workshops at Linda’s ranch, all featuring the equine-facilitated personal growth experiences she pioneered in the wake of publishing her international best-selling memoir, The Tao of Equus. Although each workshop has a different theme, all of them incorporate activities designed to expand self-knowledge, develop social and emotional intelligence, and hone leadership skills. Linda is a gifted facilitator, but the real teachers are the horses.
This workshop focused on writing. Like myself, all of the participants had been to Linda’s at least once before. As a result, none of us arrived expecting to receive nuts-and-bolts advice about crafting the perfect essay, constructing character arcs or getting published. We knew better. What Linda and her equine partners offered was something much more elusive – access to another realm, a passageway leading to a mythic landscape between the worlds. Guided by the wisdom of the herd, we would be invited to discover the place where stories dwell, awaiting the power of a storyteller to summon them to life.
“Just write whatever comes to you,” Linda instructed.
The third day of the four-day workshop had been spent in various activities designed to help us tap into our intuition and creativity. In the round pen with the horses, we awakened our body’s wisdom and our heart’s desire. Stretched out on Linda’s living room floor, eyes closed, we listened as Linda’s mellifluous voice guided us on an imagined journey, accompanied by ethereal music composed by Linda’s Grammy-nominated husband, Steve Roach. Now, with November’s afternoon shadows beginning to lengthen and the desert air starting to cool, we had an hour or so left before disbanding for the day.
“Find a place outside,” Linda told us. “Make yourself comfortable, stay as long as the light lasts. No need to check in before you leave. We’ll reconvene in the morning and share whatever you come up with.”
Pulling up a chair at one of the tables where we’d eaten lunch earlier in the day, I open my laptop, clicked on a new Word document, poised my fingers over the keyboard, and with no idea of what was going to come out, started to write.
The words flowed. A girl, dressed in animal hides, uncommon blue eyes scanning a distant horizon. A filly, her unusual chestnut coat as red as the girl’s own hair, lit like a flame by the rays of the setting sun. The boundless grasslands of ancient Eurasia. The first person ever to ride a horse.
The temperature dropped, darkness fell, a huge orange moon rose behind the mountains east of the ranch. Eventually, I forced myself to stop writing long enough to drive my rental car back to the bed and breakfast where I was staying. Ensconced in my room, sitting up in bed absent-mindedly eating a power bar, I reviewed what had appeared on the page so far – and then I kept writing, long past my usual bedtime.
By morning, I had the first chapter of She Who Rides Horses: A Tale of the Ancient Steppe. As I read it aloud to Linda and my fellow workshop participants, Linda shed tears – always a good sign. “You have to keep writing,” she urged, emphatic. “I’ve been waiting for someone to tell this story. It needs to be told.”
Stories are like that. As the writer Elizabeth Gilbert observes, “Ideas are driven by a single impulse: to be made manifest.” In her book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, Gilbert describes being seized by the concept for a novel. All the details were there: the characters, the setting, the plot. But life circumstances got in the way and she didn’t get around to writing it. Someone else did. Another gifted author, whom Gilbert had never met, never spoken with about her idea – someone else wrote it down, and then published the novel to universal acclaim. When Gilbert couldn’t follow through, the idea found someone else who could.
Writing She Who Rides Horses has been like the experience Elizabeth Gilbert describes, as though the idea for the story waited in some other dimension for someone to come along and open a door. That someone happened to be me. I’ll admit, the sensation has felt eerie at times, especially at the beginning, but also intriguing. For months, every time I sat down to write, I repeated the circumstances of that first afternoon at Linda’s, opening my computer and wondering what’s going to happen today? Often, I’d include seemingly random details, only to discover three chapters later their important role in the plot. Oh, that’s why that’s in there, I’d realize. Weird.
Come to find out, lots of authors experience the same phenomenon. Stories are like that.
Eventually, I took a step back, did some research – well, lots of research to be honest – I have a Ph.D. in history, after all, along with a lifetime spent with horses – and then I kept writing. My aim has been to keep the story of the domestication of horses as close to the evidence as possible, bearing in mind that domestication was not an event, but rather a process occurring over multiple generations. As any scholar will acknowledge, we can never fully discover the truth about the past, no matter how much evidence we accumulate or how accurate and objective we try to be. Whether answering questions about what went on 5,000 years ago or just last week, all we can hope is to tell a story that’s as honest as possible, given the facts available, and thereby give meaning to our experience.
This applies to writers of historical fiction as well as to historians, with one important distinction. As a novelist, I have permission to step into the gap between what actually happened and what we can know about what happened. That gap is where imagination lives. It’s the place where storytelling becomes a sacred privilege. The place where stories dwell.