Sunday, 12 June 2016

The Through Ness Monster - Ruth Hatfield

At the end of May, I had a weekend of fantastical bookishness – Saturday at the ‘Horse Tails’ conference in Cambridge (a whole day devoted to pony books!), and Sunday at the superbly energetic Linton Children’s Book Festival. Two weeks later, when it came down to writing about it, I discovered that as with so much in life, the detail seemed less relevant than a seed of thought that had squirrelled into my head at the first event, germinated at the second, and continued to grow since then. 

The Horse Tails conference was a great excuse to hang around with some lovely writers and pony book enthusiasts, and I have to confess that that was the main reason I went. But there were all these ideas flying around the place, zooming past my ears (a more thorough description of the conference can be found on Jane Badger’s blog post here). Good ideas. Interesting ideas. Crazy ideas. And then, as always, the one idea that irritates me, and just refuses to go away.

This one involved an analogy between riding and writing, exploring the term ‘Throughness’.

It’s a term used largely in dressage circles to describe a circuit of energy flowing between horse and rider. The idea behind this analogy was that the rider/writer is the conscious mind and the horse/story the unconscious mind, and that writers should strive to achieve ‘throughness’ with their stories in the same way that riders seek to achieve ‘throughness’ with their horses, i.e. by harnessing and containing the energy, which then leads to a deeper understanding of/ greater ability to plumb into the unconscious mind.

As an idea, it was interesting and poetic. But the way it was used – placing the rider/writer as the conscious being, and the horse/story as the unconscious one, I didn’t like at all. I told myself I was being curmudgeonly, because I’m just not that keen on the horse-rider relationships in dressage. Then to illustrate the point, two photographs were shown, one of a suited-and-booted horse and rider achieving ‘throughness’, and one intended to be an example of poor riding, and lack of ‘throughness’.

Lack of 'Throughness' (copyright: Maximiliano Baratero)

I’m pretty sure that when I ride a horse, I look like a 'poor' example – reins slack, legs dangling, quietly slouched in my saddle.  But I have a great deal of fun riding, and my horse is happy. She knows what I’m asking her to do, and I know exactly what she wants, and what she’s looking at, pretty much every second of every ride (cows, I’m talking to you). I think of my horse as an equal, conscious being. When our ideas coincide – that quicksilver gallop up the hillside, that perfect leap over a dangerous puddle – we spring into action together, and it is wonderful. And then we go back to slopping along, silently chatting about cows. Horses and riders can be full of energy, finely-balanced and waiting to spring, even when they do not look as if they are.

So I think the reason for my irritation with the idea of ‘throughness’ was that this is perhaps more how I see writing, as well. I don’t feel that writing is tapping into something unconscious and controlling it with my conscious mind, it’s accepting that my ideas are worth as much as I am, and have lives of their own. My task as a writer is to learn how to listen to my idea, and to live in it – to understand the shape, the colours, the flesh of it. I often feel, when I write, like I’m tracing around the contours of a world that exists entirely apart from me, and trying to translate it as best I can. I try not to talk about stories ‘writing themselves’, because I’m pretty sure that I do all the writing. But the story world does exist in itself, in a part of my mind that I often cannot manipulate.

At the Linton Children’s Book Festival. I was on a panel answering questions about the writing and publishing process. The last question was ‘What’s the best part of writing a book?’ My answer – that moment when I’m sitting, writing away, and my characters have crowded into the room with me, and then the walls disappear, and I’m there, inside the story. Helen Moss called it being ‘in the zone’, and that’s certainly what it is – being right inside the perfect place, where the story races along effortlessly and exactly, and I’m scribbling and scribbling just to keep up with it. It is a kind of trance, where I am at one with the story, and at one with my fractured self. I have dissolved into a more spectacular world.

It is a kind of ‘throughness’, I suppose, if ‘throughness’ simply means harmony. But it’s not a polished, precise and practised harmony. It’s just wild, and very good fun. Is the story that comes out as good as if I’d practised dressage on it? I don’t know. Possibly not. I guess that’s just the way it works, for me.


Susan Price said...

Very interesting. I don't ride, but thought I understood what was meant by 'throughness' as applied to writing. But then, I understood what you meant by 'being in the zone' too.

I think they're the same thing.

If, as a writer, you simply let your subconscious do what it likes, wander as it will, you get - I find - a shapeless, wandering story that you can't bring to any satisfactory conclusion.

If you rigidly control it, forcing it to conform to a plan, you get something lifeless and predictable.

The trick is to be aware of your story, to know what it wants and where it wants to go, to be inside it - and, at the same time, to be aware of the demands of plot, the need for a shape, and to guide, to compromise with the story when necessary, to allow for its quirks and still be in overall control. In other words, 'throughness.' You are working through the story and the story is working through you.

I don't think this means that the story-horse and the writer-rider are unequal. It means that they are both vital, cooperative partners. Neither can produce anything worthwhile without the other. The writer/editor/rider, alone, would produce something neat, orderly, correct, sterile. The horse/subconsious/story, alone, would produce something colourful, cluttered, sprawling, incomprehensible.

They have to work together and, when they achieve 'throughness' that's 'in the zone.'

Penny Dolan said...

Another non-rider here, Ruth, but your thoughts about the connections between "throughness" and "the zone" offer a very interesting analogy. That "Horse Tales" sounds a fabulous conference, especially for those who love the horsey world - and horsey books.

Richard said...

In software engineering, it's called The Flow.

Pirsig describes it beautifully when talking about mechanics and machinists:
"...there's a kind of inner peace of mind that isn't contrived but results from a kind of harmony with the work in which there's no leader and no follower. The material and the craftsman's thoughts change together in a progression of smooth, even changes until his mind is at rest at the exact instant the material is right."

Tortie said...

I was there, and I know we shared similar opinions about the concept of 'throughness' as applied to horsemanship and writing, Ruth, but you've managed to put it much better than I would have done. My best writing, and my best riding, happen when I stop thinking and start feeling.

Ruth Hatfield said...

I love that comment by Pirsig - the mind being at rest is exactly how it is, even if the 'rest' isn't a calm and peaceful one. Also Susan, that's very accutely described - thanks very much for your comment. What you've described is certainly the essence of how the writing process works for me. I suppose what I was mulling over is that for some, the concept of 'throughness' seems to have more of an aspect of control over the subconscious mind than for others. It's a matter of how we view our subconscious minds (and our horses), and how we view ourselves in relation to them. But I definitely agree that each plays its own part, and that in that respect the two sides are not equal. Thanks very much to all for your comments - good food for thought!

Ruth Hatfield said...

I meant that they are equal but not the same!

Sheena Wilkinson said...

Great post, Ruth, and lovely to revisit the chat we had about just that subject back at the conference -- what a fabulous day it was.