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Archive for October, 2011

The very last horse I ever owned was a beautiful, giant chestnut who had spent too much time in the show ring.  We worked out a very good deal:  I agreed not to show very much, and to spend the majority of our time together outside in the fresh air.  He agreed not to try to kill me.  Everybody wound up happy.

The only flaw in this contract was that Cen hadn’t actually spent a lot of time outside.  At first, it didn’t matter.  He was kind of miserable and just plodded along with his head down.  Then one day, around the third or fourth month he’d been with me, he picked his head up, looked around, and essentially went “HOLY $#!T!  Look at all these giant scary things!” and put it in reverse.

This was a problem on oh so many levels, starting with the fact that the scary things were trees, and sometimes rocks, and that we lived in New England where trees and rocks are prevalent. The going in reverse wasn’t so much fun either. And of course, I made it worse: We’d be bopping along, having a fine ride, and then a very large odd-shaped tree would appear on the trail bend.  Since I was frantically scanning the horizon for just such a tree, I’d see it before Cen and tense up.  He’d feel me tense up, look around  and see the tree, and be all “WHOA!  That’s a big tree!  Obviously it’s making her nervous — now I’m terrified!  Let’s get out of here!” It was clear a new strategy was called for.

My instructor made me reread my Sally Swift.  Sally, for those of you who don’t do horses, was an amazing woman who taught riding for decades, and rode until she was a very old woman.  She came up with a theory called Centered Riding.  One of the tenants of Centered Riding is Soft Eyes.  It’s hard to explain without too much detail, but basically, instead of staring at an object (such as the tree that is terrifying you) you relax your field of vision, encompassing not just the object, but everything around it.  You are still aware of it, but your awareness has expanded, and has put the object in perspective.  This relaxed viewing changes everything, including your breathing.

When I started using Soft Eyes again, oftentimes Cen never even noticed the horse-eating tree or rock — since my breathing and tenseness hadn’t alerted him that there was a problem  — and we were able to slide right by it.  Eventually, we slid by so many of them that they were  no longer scary, and he turned his attention to other threats, such as the stalking barn cats and the deer that used to love to crash out of the woods at us.  But trees and rocks?  No problem.

Are those trees I see?

I bring all of this up not just because I like to remember Cen and those days, but because I think Soft Eyes has writing applications, too.  Too often, when there’s a problem with our story, we try to beat it into submission, forcing the plot, making the characters behave a certain way.

Instead, I’m practicing Soft Eyes this week. I know there’s something I need to improve in my story, but instead of letting the problem be the center of attention, I’m going to relegate it to the outskirts.  I can still see it there, hanging about, in my peripheral writing vision, but it’s not scaring me anymore.  It’s not making me tense. And with my attention focused on writing, not on fixing, I’m pretty sure the issue will resolve on its own.

How about you?  Can Soft Eyes make a difference in your writing?

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I’m a creature of habit.  Every few years I reread The Lord of the Rings series, along with The Hobbit.  I hit Emma and Pride and Prejudice in the winter.  Fall is reserved for comfort reading — and a few good scares.

For the first, there’s nobody better than Laurie Colwin.  I first discovered her years ago in Gourmet Magazine, and loved her so much I went to the library and searched out all the back issues in which she appeared.  When she died – the same year I discovered her, I think — I felt as if I’d lost a friend. Every year, just when it starts to get cool, I reread her cookbooks/memoirs — Home Cooking and More Home Cooking —  then bake a gingerbread in her honor.

Of course, fall’s the time for Halloween, too.  And though Colwin does offer up a chapter entitled Kitchen Horrors, I still feel the need for something slightly more spooky. My favorite is Haunted, by James Herbert.  It’s a slim little volume, and I’d never heard of it before I stumbled across the movie by the same name.  I was in London, jet-lagged, and looking for something soothing on television to help me sleep.  Instead, I wound up sitting up most of the night, completely terrified.  When I got home I searched out the book, figuring it could never be as good, but it is quite chilling in its own way.

Here’s a link to the movie Haunted:  It’s a slow start, but worth it. (Plus, it stars Aidan Quinn and Kate Beckinsale — more reason to hang in there.)

What are you reading and watching this fall?

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I’m taking fencing classes.  It’s good exercise and it makes my brain work in different ways.  I will never, ever be good at it.  Part of it is I just don’t have the right physical gifts — my hand-eye coordination is lacking, for one, and I don’t have the speedy reflexes you need to avoid being skewered, for two.  I’m doing it for fun, and it is fun, even though I got whumped by a nine-year-old last week.

But my instructor has been to the Olympics several times, and was at one point ranked number one in the country. He’ll demonstrate a move, or take a few quick steps, and you can see the passion and grace and talent, the sheer skill that makes him a joy to watch.

What you don’t see are the hours and hours of practice, the time he spent living overseas away from family and friends, to train with the best. You don’t see the bruises and injuries and missed parties and celebrations and birthdays. Those hours, put in when I was a teen and hanging with friends or watching Star Trek reruns, are the main reason that at my age, I’ll never be good.  There just aren’t enough hours left.

I read recently that an expert who is someone who has made all the mistakes possible within a narrow field. It’s a line that made me laugh, but I’ve been thinking about this all week, since Steve Jobs died.  He wasn’t afraid to make mistakes.  He made lots, and learned from them, and failed better, as the quote goes.

But he also put the time in.  To be an expert takes time — time to make those mistakes, to recover from them, to apply what you’ve learned, to fail again and fail better.  Whether you’re a fencing champion, relentlessly practicing in a cold country thousands of miles away from home, a baseball player who throws and bats well into the dark, a writer who puts down a sentence, removes five words, adds two, and does that again and again, there is no expertise without time.

And when you choose to specialize, to become an expert, you’re choosing to spend your days on this, but not on that.  On an Olympic medal, but not your best friend’s birthday.  On a championship, but not on a family dinner.  On a handful of glittering sentences that hold a book together, but not on an afternoon with the kids at the beach.

There’s no right choice, just a hard one.  What do you choose?

A finite amount of time

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1) Moo and Writer Unboxed are running a contest in which five people will be given a free pack of mini-moo business cards, and everyone who enters will get 25 percent off their order.  (I love my moo cards.) Even if you have no plans to enter, go and read the entries — they are funny and amazing.

2) You know how, when you are out driving, you sometimes see people dragging their dogs for a run?  And you feel bad for them, and want to stop the car and give the poor animal a drink of water or something?  Harley is not that dog.  Harley is the dog who, when I take him for a run, other dogs hang out their car windows and yell “Yo, stuuuuud!  Keep on truckin’!”  We ran 3.5 miles together yesterday (or rather, I ran, and Harley kind of ambled along ahead, breaking into a trot only when I sprinted at the end) and when we were done, he would have been happy to do the whole thing again, only without the 115 pound weight attached to him.  I want people to stop their cars and give ME a drink.

Mid-stride, with a halter on to prevent me surfing along the pavement.

3) I am writing again, slowly.  I find I can write entire sections in my head, but then when it comes down to getting them on paper, I have to write all this other stuff to get to where I want to be first, before I can write those scenes.  And then I wind up cutting most of the other stuff anyhow.  Does this happen to anyone else?  Or am I just exhausted from all this running?

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