Friday, November 20, 2009

Writing At The Cellular Level

from Jacqueline

As you probably all know by now, I spend a lot of time with my two horses, Oliver and Sara. They’re like chalk and cheese – Oliver is young, sturdy, happy to watch the world go by, whereas Sara is a workaholic, and having been laid off due to injury, is now dancing on her toes to get back to work. In my dressage training – kind of like ballet for horses – I look for parallels in my work as a writer. It’s not such a big leap, actually, because dressage demands a deep level of attention and communication that is mirrored in that “zone” I can go into when I am writing. So since last week, when I took that communication to another level with my horses, I have been wondering what that might mean to the creative process of writing.

It’s very easy to get into a bit of a rut with riding, especially when you get on a horse or two every day, and you’ve only so much time to spend at the barn. I’ve always made a point of spending time with my horses, just running my hands over their backs, stroking them and talking to them, so they know I’m not there to just saddle up, ride ’em and then lead them back to their stalls, or to the paddock. But sometimes I feel like a bad mother, at those times when I do have to just get in, get the job done and zoom back to the computer. I sometimes feel like that with my writing when a deadline is looming, forgetting my father’s advice that “you never push the boat out without that final coat of paint.” With all that in mind, last week I attended a five day course in “equine touch” taught by the amazing Linda Tellington-Jones. You may have heard of her – she pioneered the “Tellington Touch” a form of massage (though that’s not a completely accurate description) that can impact behavior in animals. She’s been on TV many times, and the outcome of her methods, when practiced with care, can be mind-boggling.

The course was taught on a ranch close to the small town of Bodega (The Birds was filmed there), amid the rolling hills of Sonoma County. Each day I drove out there and felt as if I were back in England, the landscape is reminiscent of Wiltshire or Dorset. Thomas Hardy would have been at home. Then the work began – and we were in at the deep end immediately, with Linda and her assistant trainers not only demonstrating, but following us as we went to work ourselves. Each horse presented us with challenges, demanding we get to know them and understand how THEY felt about what was going on, and what we were asking them to do. The learning was as deep as the touch – yet the range of “touches” were, for the most part, light, executed with grace and intention. In a short time the stubborn horse became willing, the scared became brave and that young hell-raiser became a gentleman – all as a result of intention, attention, and touch. I expected the learning curve to be significant, but what I didn’t expect was the spiritual impact of the work upon all gathered, and the way the horses seemed to move around us – and that surprises me, because I have always been aware of the “otherness” of horses, even when I am working up a sweat trying to get Oliver to canter with ease!

Each day I drove home wondering about my writing process, and what I might apply. And I think it’s this – that in some ways it is easy to skim over the surface, see the deadline approaching and go for it, words on the page, as fast as you can. Or you can get stuck, and forget to keep the fingers moving, light on the keyboard as the story unfolds. We let unwanted thoughts hamper our progress, and sometimes that great demon, self-criticism. With horses there has to be an honesty in communication, and I think that goes for writing too.

I wondered how, if what I learned while working with the horses was about effecting change at the cellular level, deepening the relationship from that point (oh, and thrown in that big word “trust” from there), then how do I do that with my writing? I don’t have the answers to my own questions, but here’s where I’ve arrived at, thus far, in my deliberations. That each day it’s important for me to do some reflection before I set to work. As a professional writer, it’s my job to get to work, hit the page and get going on the next installment of the story – but I can linger a bit before I start, set my intention for the day’s work. I can reflect on what I know, what I have written, about the characters, and I can ask myself a range of questions about the authenticity of communication – how do I make all this more real for the reader? What can I bring to the page that both deepens the story, my engagement in that story, and keeps it moving (keep the fingers moving)? But I think the lesson really comes into its own in the rewriting process, when the clay is on the wheel and it’s time to get in there and lick it into shape. One little technique I started to use a couple of years ago, was to put certain words, sentences and paragraphs into boxes, outlined so that they were separated from the herd, so to speak. Then I would consider what was in the box, and how I could improve the image that my word, sentence or paragraph was communicating. I didn’t do it very often, which is surprising as it really worked well and gave me a sense of slipping under the skin of the story.

Elizabeth George says that, “Character is Plot, Plot is Character.” So how do we render our characters even more authentic? How do we get to know them a little bit better, and how do we draw in our reader with that knowledge? That’s another “cellular level” question. I think there are many more.

As you can see, I’m rolling this one around in my mind, asking how I engage with the process of writing, of crafting a story, at a deeper level? I only have a hoof-ful of answers, but I am sure that some of you have your own responses to that question. I’d love to hear them.


  1. I love your introspection, Our J. I'm still working on the epidermis level of writing, aspiring for the cellular level. It's something we writers all have to do if we want to continue to grow--and publish.

  2. from Jacqueline

    Love that, Patty - the "epidermis level." I think I skim across the surface for much of the time!

  3. Could you please explain the writing exercise you did with boxes? For example, did you extract them from the MS, or leave in context? Thanks.

  4. I usually just look at the "boxed" words on their own, to see if they say what I mean, if they communicate what is meant to be communicated, and to experiment with other words that might be more effective. If I am looking at a whole page, or scene, I might box every paragraph, or only certain words or clusters of words. It's an organic process, like so much in writing.