monicamcfawncraftIt was the summer of 2013, and I was in midair. My horse, Eragon, was not very tall, but I’d been launched from his back on a hillside at speed, so I had a long way to fall. My view of the sky between Eragon’s ears flipped to the approaching ground, studded with sticks and rocks. I ducked my head and popped out my shoulder and hip, the parts of me that could take a hit. The skin scorched off my elbow as I slid down the hill. Bits of grass and dirt would bubble out of the sand-dollar-sized wound for weeks, and I’d leave Neosporin grease marks wherever I went. But there was no time to think about that now—Eragon was loose, and I had to do the horsewoman’s walk of shame to catch him. I shielded my eyes and spotted him leaping over a low fence, his reins, the saddle’s stirrups and his black tail streaming like festive pennants. I limped forward, bruised and scraped, hardly caring if I caught up with him or not.

Eragon’s training was not going well. It seemed like the doubters in my life were right—a horse was a silly indulgence, especially for a writer working a non-tenure job, struggling to finish a final story in a manuscript. A friend spelled it out: “It’s writing or horses,” he’d said. “Think of all the hours you spend with the horse—those are hours you could be writing.” I wanted to argue, but I had no defense. Riding was my escape from writing. When I rode, the part of my consciousness that commented on what’s happening as it’s happening—the writer’s voice, I supposed—shut off. But what I didn’t know then was that both the writing of the story and the training of the horse would go down a parallel, difficult track, and it would be Eragon—the challenging, somewhat dangerous horse I had unwittingly bought—that would ultimately salvage both projects.

I purchased Eragon at the same time I began an ambitious short story, and both seemed full of promise. The story, about an aging lyricist’s struggles with his songwriting and his drug-addicted son, seemed to contain within it the potential to say everything I’d always wanted to say about friendship, art, family, death, life, the universe, etc. The first several pages of the story rolled right out, and the narrator’s voice struck me as stronger than any I’d yet written. Eragon’s early training had progressed just as smoothly. He was untrained when I bought him, but was athletic and preternaturally poised, accepting the bridle, saddle and first rides as if he’d long studied how to be a riding horse and had been waiting to put it into practice. It was a glorious dual honeymoon for both projects, but it was short-lived.

In The Writing Life, Annie Dillard describes a work in progress as an animal gone feral: “It reverts to a wild state overnight. It is barely domesticated, a mustang on which you one day fastened a halter but which you now cannot catch. As the work grows, its gets harder to control….” I soon found myself living both sides of this metaphor. After a few weeks of progress, my story had deteriorated into a jumbled patchwork of voices and details. I’d written page after page of carefully crafted sentences—versions and versions of the same early scenes—but I had no clue what should actually happen next. This seemed to occur every time I embarked on a story or essay that I thought had a very strong premise. The opening and first several pages would go smoothly, but then the piece would fall off the rails. It was as if the stronger the idea, the less I could keep a handle on it.


When I would hit a snag with my writing, I turned to riding, since usually one or the other was going well. But Eragon’s training had also inexplicably gone south. Eragon’s rebellion began with small, eccentric behaviors. He’d turn and look at me in the saddle, something I’d never known a horse to do. Then he started balking, slamming into a halt mid-ride. He’d scoot his back legs up to his front legs and stand, bowed with tension, so I could feel the threat through the saddle. Then he’d rear, buck, or both.  Like my story, the very power that made him appealing was proving impossible to control.

I could hide my mess of a story in a computer file, but Eragon—my other rough draft—was there for everyone to see, and he was dangerous. I threw myself into fixing him. The short story collections and journals that usually crowded my bedside made way for training books from all walks of the equine world. I took extra lessons, and studied Eragon’s behavior in the pasture for clues on his personality. Eragon played rough, launching himself into other horses in dramatic body-slams. If the horses lunged at him, he stood his ground and merely leaned back, like a cocky playground bully, to avoid teeth or hooves. His small, fine head had a permanent expression of mischief mixed with something steelier. My riding instructor and the other barn workers had observed what I was seeing: Eragon was tough.


I’ve always prided myself—as both a rider and a writer—on the carefulness, seriousness and precision with which I approach these two passions. I began writing as a poet, so I enjoy the fussy craft of the sentence-level, the puzzle work of shifting words and phrases. Storylines and structure always struck me as necessary evils, the blunt chopping of the wooden blank to get to the point where I could use a chisel. I was likewise drawn to riding dressage (a kind of horse ballet) for its subtlety and refinement, and the way it rewards exactitude. Whenever I watch videos of myself riding, I’m struck by how little I move. Movements that feel big to me when I ride—if I tap with the whip or nudge the horse with my heel—are revealed to be nearly imperceptible.

I’ve been praised by instructors for my soft, considerate riding style and quiet focus. But after watching Eragon in the pasture, I could see we were mismatched. Eragon was small, but everything about his personality was big—he was confrontational, blustery, expressive. He was a horse of big moves and big feelings; I was a rider of shifts and nuances. I thought of a line from John Lyons, one of the cowboy trainers whose book I’d read in my quest to fix Eragon: “If you wanted someone to break a secret code, you wouldn’t pick a horse to do it, yet that’s what we ask our horses to do—break our code.” Were all the tantrums not bullying behavior but an attempt to get a clearer response from me?

When I started to think of Eragon’s misbehavior as a demand for clarity, I realized how tentatively I rode him, and how confusing that must be. I rode him like someone reads a rare book, turning the delicate pages with gloved hands. He was so beautiful, so special, that every stride seemed to me a moment that could be squandered or done justice. The excessive reverence I had for him made me hesitant to make strong demands on him. No wonder he didn’t view me as a leader. It occurred to me that I had the same hesitance about my in-progress story. I thought the story’s idea was so good, so fascinating and rich, that I could hardly bear to work on it. When I did, I’d rewrite the same passage dozens of times, polishing sentences obsessively, until their very meaning was nearly worn away. When I looked over the draft, I saw a writer chipping at the margins of the story, adding curlicues and little details but afraid to commit to a clear narrative direction. I loved language at the sentence level, but the sentences were also a crutch, allowing me to avoid making necessary choices about the overall piece.

The paradox was that both the story and my horse were strong, but I treated them as if they were fragile. Oddly, I had no trouble taking risks with a sketchy story idea or when I was sometimes asked to fix someone else’s difficult horse. Yet when I was lucky enough to work with something stronger, I shrank back. Maybe I was afraid that weaknesses would appear if I pushed. Or perhaps I just wanted to luxuriate in all the shimmering potential, that vague, ethereal swirl where unfinished writing and half-trained horses reside in the imagination. Eragon snapped me out of it. He made me realize that a strong horse—and a strong idea—both allow for and require a bolder approach. I started riding Eragon as if he were sturdy, capable of handling pressure and confrontation. I praised him more loudly and corrected him more firmly. I made up a voice for him in my head that I used whenever he started to act up, to remind myself that he wasn’t just being bad. Well, goddamnit, just tell me what you want! Just lay it out! I noticed that he was most upset when I was too vague or tentative with my cues, but was cooperative and generous when I was clearer, even if we had a moment of conflict.

I turned to my story, trying to apply what Eragon had taught me. I printed it out—all 50,000 words, and stared at it, at a loss for how to possibly arrange this tangle of pretty words into anything resembling a coherent narrative. What the hell is the damn story about? The blunt voice of Eragon broke in. What was it about? Immediately, about a dozen things came to mind. What’s that? You’re saying too many things at once! I thought of Eragon’s frustration when I tried to communicate too many things to him at once, how he’d end up frazzled and on his hind legs. I pared back and decided the story would concentrate, primarily, on the frayed trust between the father and son characters. But if the son was to be a bigger character, I’d need to introduce him earlier. But how? I’d already written so much. I’d hate to have to cut all those really good lines… Too damn bad! If it’s about the son, slap him in the story! Right from the get-go! Before I lost my nerve, I began quickly writing an opening, with the son telling a story to his father and his friends at dinner. The new beginning made my story—and how to finish it—finally clear. The bold move I’d made, far from ruining the story, had electrified it. The completed story had a lucidity and crispness that surprised me. It was risky and fast-paced, and unfussy on the line level.

Dressage riders have a term, “throughness,” which describes the moment when a horse is working freely and symmetrically, with no tension or weakness blocking his energy. A horse and rider in a moment of throughness appear to glide above the arena footing, intensely focused but deeply relaxed, a kind of cross-species meditation. Throughness is the ultimate aim, the equivalent of a piece of writing rising to a poetic experience, an atmosphere. Riding Eragon has made me realize that transcendent moments in writing and in riding—while they feel ethereal and achingly subtle—are actually built on sturdy stuff. Most of all, he taught me that if you’re lucky enough to find a great idea or a great horse, you must be brave enough to really ride it.

Monica McFawn’s story collection, Bright Shards of Someplace Else, won the 2013 Flannery O’Connor award, and her fiction has appeared in The Georgia ReviewGettysburg Review, Web ConjunctionsThe Missouri Review and others. She is also the author of a hybrid chapbook, A Catalogue of Rare Movements, and her plays and screenplays have had readings in Chicago and New York. When she isn’t teaching or writing, she trains her Welsh pony cross, Eragon, in dressage and jumping.