20th August, 2021. For the Hell of It.

When I work with writers, I always tell them to cut loose. Open the gate, I say, and let yourself gallop out onto the wide green prairie. I sit on the Zoom, hundreds, sometimes thousands, of miles away from them and I throw my arms wide. ‘The only limitation,’ I say, grinning all over my face, ‘is the horizon.’

I tell them to write for fun. I tell them that nobody is watching them, that they can be their absolute true selves. I tell them to dance like there is nobody watching.

Like all teachers, I sometimes forget to put into action my own fine advice. 

I went out for dinner just now, my second dinner with another human being in these seventeen long pandemic months. It was so exciting to sit at a table and drink a glass of wine and talk of life and love and the past and future and the state of the world.

I left while there was still light in the sky and went down to the field to see to the horses. My Kayleigh, the sixteen-year-old who has come and played with my horses since she was twelve, was there, smiling her way through the gloaming with a light on her head. ‘I have my miner’s lamp, you see,’ she said, as if it were perfectly usual to be meeting in a rough Scottish field at 9pm on a Friday night. 

The horses, fascinated by our late hours, wandered over to say hello. They dipped their heads and blew through their nostrils and asked for love. We gave them love.

Kayleigh and I discussed our evenings. She had been out too. She said that her friends were slightly baffled when she said she had to depart to go and see her mare. I told her that my own friend raised a faint eyebrow too. 

We beamed at each other, our faces cast into shadow, because we both knew that however delightful human company is, great mare company is the best of all. 

I headed for the gate, pausing on the way to give the red mare a devoted scratch in the places she likes most – all the way down her strong shoulder, up the front of the neck, down her crest and her back and right into the sweetest spot of all, which is the rise of her powerful quarters. She stretched and sighed and leaned into my hand, saying ‘There, yes, right there.’ I know that when I do this that I get the ultimate accolade, that of Good Human. 

And then I went home and I put some music on and I suddenly felt as if I were eighteen again and I danced round the kitchen. 

That was when I thought of all the things I tell my writers. Do what you ask them to do, I thought. Write it down. Write it like there is nobody reading; write it for pure, sheer pleasure.

Don’t write it because you are showing off, or you are trying to dazzle with prose, or you are looking for five gold stars. Write it because it is life, and it is real, and it’s a perfect Friday night, and you’ll want to remember this when you are old and grey and full of sleep. That last bit is from Yeats. He wrote, ‘When you are old and grey and full of sleep and nodding by the fire, take down this book and slowly read.’

Actually, I’m not sure that is precisely what he wrote. I should look it up, but I won’t. I used to be able to recite that poem by heart. Now I only have snatches.

‘How many loved your moments of glad grace.’ 

‘And loved you with a love both false and true.’ 

‘But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you.’

Those aren’t the right words in the right order, but I don’t care, because that’s the point, of this kind of writing. You don’t need the right words in the right order. You just need words, and your wild mind, and the glorious feel of the keys under your fingers, and the open gate, and the fine prairie where you may gallop.

I think: the red mare has a pilgrim soul. Yeats knew she was coming before I did.

I think: I am so lucky to have words.

That’s what I want my writers to feel. I don’t want them to be hemmed about with shoulds and oughts. I want them to run free. I want them to eschew duty and even work. I just want them to let go and fly free. 

And I want to remember this too, this moment of writing for the hell of it. I used to write like this all the time, in the night, with the music on. I used to gallop across the page. I wrote always for the shimmering pleasure of it. Now, I think, I get stuck a little in the professional part of it: I am a writer and a teacher and I’m supposed to sit up straight and know stuff. I tell other people to write for the mad love of the thing and I forget to do that for myself. 

I think: write down the things you really want to remember. 

I want to remember that twilight field. I want to remember dancing in the kitchen like a lunatic, so that I made Darwin the Dog jump and bark in astonishment. (Stanley the Manly is old enough and seasoned enough to know that his peculiar human is prone to flights of fancy and he took himself off to the next room until I’d got it all out of my system. I could almost hear him thinking, ‘Let the old girl do what she has to do.’)

I want to remember the moment this afternoon at 2.25pm in the Lonsdale Cup when Stradivarius refound his old self and charged over the wide spaces of the Knavesmire and fought to the line with every inch of his lion heart. I want to remember that I stood up to salute him, on my own, in my quiet Scottish room; I want to remember yelling him home, crying and shouting and clapping all at once. I want to remember the York crowd rising to him, because they know horses and they know courage when they see it, and they knew that he won that race not on talent or brilliance or raw power, but on guts. Yorkshire people understand that. They understood that horse and they applauded him three times round the paddock, because they knew he’d given them something pure and rare.

I want to remember that. 

I will remember that, because I wrote it down. 

And that’s the magic of language, because it can capture the fleeting instants of life that make us smile and make us laugh and make our hearts sing. There’s so much darkness out there, but there are shooting stars too, and I don’t want to miss any of those. 

The Waterboys are singing, ‘How long will I love you? As long as there are stars above you.’ I want to remember that too. 

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