I was probably about ten years old when a cousin (or perhaps an adult in my extended family?) told me, “You’re just a kid. You can’t write a book!” I remember planting my fists on my hips (well, metaphorically, anyway), and answering, “I can too!”
And I did.
My books were wilder, crazier, than the Black Stallion books I devoured. I still have the first one, in pencil on lined notebook paper. It was about this wild black mare who would come storming down out of the north Georgia mountains—believe it or not, an exotic never-never-land to an Atlanta schoolgirl—to steal tame horses right out of their stalls and carry them off to her secret hideout in a hidden cove.
In fact, the whole reason I wanted to write books was to capture my dreams of horses. So I wrote and wrote and wrote, drafting, revising, feeling that flush of excitement when you just can’t write fast enough to get down the exciting things that are happening. I was hooked on horses, and hooked on writing about horses. Then on writing itself. I had a special Schaeffer cartridge pen, and I loved the way the ink flowed out of it; I loved making the shapes of the beautiful letters on the page.
But I still wanted most to write about horses, and to own one. It was my practical and sensible dad who said, “You can’t save enough money to buy a horse.” I was sixteen. Fists on hips again. “I can too!”
And I did. For the next twenty-five years, I owned horses, all kinds. I taught riding, broke babies, bought, schooled, and sold Thoroughbreds off the racetrack. I went to work for a trainer on the backside at Tampa Bay Downs. I came to know busy shedrows as the sun rose; the heartbeat throb of galloping horses working in sets down the backstretch; Cuban coffee in the crowded tackroom; the creak of the walking machine after we gave the horses their baths. I knew what it was like, for a short time, to have my own racehorse, to master his wild explosions as he tried to wheel and bolt with me on the track. I knew what it was like to be run away with and learn to like it (almost).
And I finally put it in a book.
This one was a lot more plausible than my wild-mare story, but it gave me the same thrill. But that was nothing to thrill of getting it published.King of the Roses (St. Martin’s, 1983, now available as an ebook) is the story of champion jockey Chris Englund: At the end of his career, he’s got one last chance to win a sixth, record-setting Kentucky Derby—until he’s offered $500,000 to throw the race. When he learns that defying the crooks and riding to win will possibly ruin the horse and cost him the woman he’s come to love, he finds that what his reputation demands isn’t what his conscience compels him to do. Into Chris and his world, I threw all the ins and outs, all the hopes and fears, all the people and their language, that had engulfed me on the racetrack. When I was done, I thought, now for something completely different. But my editor said, “I want you to write one about the Thoroughbred breeding industry.”
So I did.
In Blood Lies (Bantam, 1989, also available online), young Ted Whysse comes home to Kentucky to investigate the murder of his best friend. He doesn’t want any part of his inheritance, the fabulous old stud farm, Holyhead; he doesn’t even want the farm’s finest treasure, the champion stallion Kite. What he does want, though in his heart he knows better, is his dying father’s beautiful young wife, Lucky. When he learns that Lucky has a secret that’s likely to kill her, he has to decide how many other lives he’ll put at risk to save her. Will he risk his own?
So I owe a lot to horses–two whole books! But I owe more. It was the process of writing and rewriting, under the guidance of wonderful editors, that prepared me to move beyond my horse stories. After returning to grad school and earning a Ph.D. in teaching college writing, I published articles in most of our major journals. Now retired from teaching, I have as many as four different writing projects going all the time. My two novels-in-progress—no, wait, three—no, four!—proceed apace.
They’re not about horses, but they’re about the same theme as my first books: people in crisis who must answer basic questions about who they are and who they want to be. I host two blogs, justcanthelpwriting.wordpress.com, about my experiences and observations as a published novelist, and collegecompositionweekly.com, which summarizes current research for college writing professionals. I also have a nonfiction proposal underway: Survive College Writing: What No One Ever Tells You about Your First College Writing Class. This is NOT a textbook. It’s for first-year students who come to college not knowing who their writing teachers are or why they do the things they do.
In all these projects I’m grateful for the gift of writing, which, in the end, I really owe to those darned horses who made me want to write in the first place. I’ve come to know that what writing teachers tell their students is true. Writing is a means of inquiry and discovery. It’s a way of finding out what you know and what you’d like to know. It’s a way of making daydreams solid. It’s a way of finding out what’s beyond those closed doors people sometimes tell you can’t be opened. For me, writing has opened many doors.
I used to do my writing sitting in a canoe tucked into a crook in a Florida river. Now I do it looking out at a southern Indiana cornfield, watching the goldfinches and cardinals and hummingbirds mob my feeders. The cats and dogs are sprawled all around me in their favorite places. And down the road, my lovely horse Paddy is no doubt dreaming that I’ll come ride him. Or at least give him peppermints. I’ve got a story about him out there in dreamland, waiting. It’s going to be about this girl who wanted more than anything to ride. . . .