I am in the field, talking to the horses, when I suddenly see it is half-past twelve. I have lost track of time. I have a client at half-past twelve. I am supposed to be a professional. I am supposed to be at my desk, with my special lighting arrangements that make me look tremendously sympatico and human, sitting up straight and paying attention. I am, in fact, stomping about a muddy field in my gumboots in the Scottish dreich.
Bugger, I think.
Then I think: sod it. This woman is a really nice woman. She is a creative. She doesn’t need the desk and the sitting up straight and the special lighting. (I really, really hope this is true and not wish-thinking.) So I press the video call button and point the camera at the hills and say, ‘Hello, I thought I’d give you a tour.’
Actually, I don’t think I say exactly that. I think I stutter something about being late and being in the field and oh dear oh dear.
She loves the mares and the mist over the hills and the majestic Wellintonia trees and the eccentric Scottish buildings. (My field is flanked by a lovely cluster of eccentric Scottish buildings. Sometimes, my landlord, who is a brilliant builder, throws up a new one, just for fun. He adores building stuff. He’d build until the end of his days if someone would let him.)
I am so delighted by this that instead of rushing home to the desk and the good lighting, I stay in the dreich. I take my client to meet the red mare.
The red mare has many talents, but one of her most remarkable ones is that she can channel peace and calm. When I say channel, I mean that she locates a deep ease in herself and then she casts it outwards. If I stand next to her, I can feel it. It is as if we are operating on an atomic level. I can actually feel this peace, spreading out, running from her great half-ton thoroughbred body to my small human one. It’s very hard to put into words, but it is a thing.
I consciously taught her to do something I call The Place of Peace. That is, to stand, and let go of all her prey animal worries, and breathe, and find her stillness, in mind and body. It’s like a kind of guided meditation, for me and for her. It’s a foundational part of our work together, but it took on a life of its own, and my grand Zen mistress took it to the next level, so that often she’ll simply put herself into the Place of Peace without my guidance.
And, by some lovely chance, that was what she was doing now. She had taken herself away from her herd, and was practising her Zen, all alone in the smallest paddock.
I walk my client through the Place of Peace. ‘See,’ I say, in humming excitement, ‘there she is, wibbling her lower lip and blinking her eyes and sighing her sighs and dreaming her dreams.’
The client, to her enduring credit, goes with it.
‘Do you notice,’ I say, ‘how all her muscles are soft and relaxed?’
I track the camera over the red mare’s body. It is so still that it seems as if it were carved out of the Scottish air, like some goddess statue from ancient Rome.
And then I think, as I ramble on in this faintly nonsensical way, ‘This is a teachable moment’. I pick up the Place of Peace and I run with it. It is, I sa, one of the keys to your writing life. I say that I had learned to love this practice for its own, beautiful sake. I used to do it because I wanted to achieve something – I wanted a happy, trusting, responsive horse. And it does do that. But I’ve learned that if you want to go to a higher plane, you start doing it for the sake of doing it, with no expectations, with no goal, with no pressure.
It’s not to get anything; it’s simply to be in that moment, with that living, breathing creature, in the world as it is right now.
And the more you practise this, the more lovely unexpected consequences stream from it.
I say that almost all the writers I work with have blocks and chops and jangles and doubts. They can’t start that book; they can’t finish that book. And the more I work with people like this, the more I find that the way through is to go back to a kind of prose Place of Peace, where you write every day – for five minutes, for twenty minutes, for an hour at a time – simply to write.
You write not because you want the approval of your Uncle Bernie, or the applause of the critics, or the stamp of approval from the London Review of Books. You write because you are alive in this world at this precise minute in time. You write because you love words, because you adore the tap tap tap of your fingers on the keyboard, because you have so many stories in your head which must be told. You write to know what you think and what you feel and what you hope and what you fear.
You write for writing, not because you want to win the Booker Prize.
That’s how you set yourself free.
And do you know the most lovely thing? When I finished this extemporised tangent, and finally got back to the desk and the sitting up straight and the special lighting, my client tells me her own story. And it is a story of glory.
She had made breakthroughs on about five different fronts. She was writing for writing; she had started to make friends with her fears; she had started to feel what it was like to be liberated.
All the work we had done together over the weeks had finally coalesced into a mighty leap forward.
I am so overcome I very nearly burst into tears. (You can see that the whole trying to be a stern professional thing really isn’t happening.) I feel a wild joy. I am incredibly proud of my brave writer, because what she had been doing truly was courageous. And I feel a sort of streaming relief.
I don’t teach like other people teach. Taking that chance is lovely, in a way, but it’s a high wire act. There is always the risk that I’m wrong, and the pros, with their excellent suiting and their whiteboards and their flow charts, are right. I use my red mare as a teaching assistant and talk about the amygdala and evolutionary biology and how the fear of a bad review is felt in the psyche like the fear of being eaten by woolly mammoths. Just as The Place of Peace is a bit of an outlier in the world of horse training, so my approach to being a writing coach gallops way beyond the pale. I operate outside the city walls.
And, because of this, I do sometimes have doubts.
So when it works, when someone I believe in has a great leap forward, I want to laugh and sing and turn cartwheels. The relief is: yes, yes, this is working. This is worth it.
So that was my morning, in this two hundred and seventh day of the lockdown. I’ve been so immersed in my small world that I have no idea what is happening out there in the big world. I don’t know whether the sky has fallen. (Every time I go onto Twitter, in this time of pandemic and political turmoil, I check the trending subjects in mild trepidation, just to see whether everything has crashed. It’s always a moment of grace if I only find a footballer I’ve never heard of or some obscure backbencher on the list. It doesn’t matter so much to me what it is they may be doing, at least the world has not come to an end.)
Whatever is happening out there, my own sky is held up by some glorious, sturdy pillars today – a writer who is writing, a red mare who is dreaming her Zenny dreams, a misty line of Scottish hills. And perhaps, in some strange, distant way, that is the point. Perhaps that is the point of it all.