Words are like horses: They know if you are their master. If they sense you are not in control, they’ll throw you, or bolt and take you where you do not wish to go. But if they sense your mastery, they will do your bidding, and you can choose anything from a quiet amble through the countryside to a wild gallop up hill and down dale.
Observers can sense the mastery too. Watching a skilled rider, we are caught up in her rhythm and grace; we can almost feel the play of the horse’s muscles beneath our own legs. But watching an amateur, we feel the awkwardness of every jolting step, the agony of the inevitable tumble, the humiliation and the fear.
Some people seem to be naturals with horses: They sit easily in the saddle and know instinctively how to relate to a horse. Others have to learn through hard work and practice, with many falls and remountings and saddle sores along the way. But the only thing that can stop you from learning is your own fear, laziness, or failure to persist. Natural talent is great, but it isn’t the only way.
How do you gain mastery over a horse? Some people do it through fear and violence, but this is likely to backfire; the best way is with gentleness and love. You spend time with the horse, feeding it, caring for it, talking to it, before you ever try to mount it. You gain its trust, you learn its idiosyncrasies, you adapt yourself to its gait. You become, in effect, its servant, and only then can you become its master.
When you are ready to ride, you start small, with just a lap around the paddock, building as you gain skills; you don’t try to take a six-foot fence your first time out. Nor do you enter a show or a competition until you’re sure of yourself and the horse–until the two of you can work and breathe as one.
Okay, so enough with the high-flown talk about something I really know very little about (if you do know about horses, please forgive me). What does this mean with respect to writing?
You have to be gentle with words, too. You have to get to know them well by reading, reading, reading. You have to pay attention to how the real masters use them–not the hacks, but the greats, whose mastery you can sense from the first paragraph. You have to learn the rules and internalize them before you can begin to break them to good purpose. You have to start small and build your skills. And you must, at all costs, learn patience and restrain yourself from sending your early unpolished efforts out into the world.
There’s one unfortunate but significant difference between riding and writing, though: You can’t be an incompetent horseback rider and not know it. If your technique is faulty or the horse doesn’t trust you, you will have the aches, bruises, and broken bones to prove it. Not so with writing. Amateur writing may cause pain, but most often that pain belongs to the reader on whom the amateur has foisted his stuff before it was ready. Here’s where the role of the trainer comes in.
If you want to get to the top of the equestrian tree (now there’s an image for you), you need a trainer–someone who can spot the subtler mistakes in your riding and help you to fix them. If you want to be a great writer–or even a passably good one–you need someone to perform that service for you, too. True writing mentors, unfortunately, are rare and tend to be expensive; most of us have to rely on books, the occasional workshop, and a critique group of our peers. But it is essential to get that training one way or another. A few great geniuses can do without it, but who’s to say that even Tolstoy might not have profited from a teacher, if there had been anyone better than he around to teach him?
One last parallel: As in every endeavor of life, no matter how much natural talent you have, you will fall, and fall, and fall. But you have not failed as long as you keep getting back up.