Thoughts on Writing: The Clydesdale and the Unicorn

This article is featured in this month’s issue of WQ magazine, the official publication of the Queesland Writers Centre (a super resource for writers at all stages).

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I am most at home with my Clydesdale
I am most at home with my Clydesdale

I believe there are two horses residing within me: a Clydesdale and a unicorn.

I have seven horses of my own, used to run a horse rescue charity, and recently published Horse Rescue: inspiring stories of second-chance horses and the lives they changed (Penguin). 2014 is also the Chinese Year of the Horse. So it seems a good time to tell you about my invisible Clydesdale and unicorn.

They are the two sets of my writing self—the practical and the magical, heaven and earth, yin and yang… however you like to think of them. And I need them both in order to do my job, answer my vocational calling, find inspiration and meet my deadlines. The challenge is to get them to cooperate despite their very different agendas.

The Clydesdale is a workhorse. It is there every day, in its harness, ploughing the fields. It shows up if it’s feeling weary or injured, if the weather is poor, and even if its handler is asking too much of it. It is stoic, steady, completely task-oriented, wearing its blinkers so it can only see the path in front. It likes a schedule, turns up on time, and enjoys warm mash at the end of a hard day’s labour.

This one, I find a lot more difficult to handle.
This one, I find a lot more difficult to handle.

The unicorn, on the other hand, is flighty. It has wings. (Hey, it’s my unicorn; it can fly if it wants to.) It doesn’t have to stay in the field. It doesn’t even have to show up! And I can’t make it turn up because it has wings. It can go wherever it wants to go. It is fickle, doesn’t like to tough it out in the rain, likes to paint its shiny mane and tail with rainbow nail polish, fancies champagne and chocolate, and would far rather use its time slipping in and out of portals to other worlds than slogging it out in the mud. Time and deadlines mean nothing to the universe-hopping unicorn. It cares not for plans, structure or linear plotlines.

They are both powerful. They are both necessary. And they both need to be fed or they will wither, starve and die. They tell me they are struggling in different ways. The Clydesdale gets grumpy, physically sore and tired (though will struggle on long past when it should). The unicorn is more prone to tantrums, melancholy, catastrophising and tears. But when they start to act out and show their discomfort, I’ve learned that I need to pay attention and do something about it.

The Clydesdale is concerned with the physical world, so to feed it I need to make sure its base needs are met. To give it energy to do its hard work in the field, it needs good quality, energising food. Caffeine doesn’t cut it. I’m talking vegetables, fruit, protein, antioxidants, organics and juices. I need to cut out the foods that slow it down, like sugar, dairy and caffeine. It needs attention to its muscles and fitness—ergonomics, gym-based strengthening programs, injury (RSI) rehabilitation, rest, an occasional day off, and massage.

The unicorn is concerned with mental and emotional wellness. The unicorn has a huge responsibility for bringing in new ideas and content. If I don’t feed the unicorn, I’ll simply drain it of all its life and colour. To feed the unicorn, I must supply it with imagery and experience. I need to take it on artistic adventures. I need to fill it with sensory stimulus—music, art, film, stories, nature, foods, excursions and new knowledge. I need to give it freedom to explore without constraints, and silence and gentle spaces to hear it speak its dreams without judging, shaming or cutting them down before they’re fully expressed.

If you’re anything like me, you might be firmer friends with one than the other. For me, I’m more comfortable with the Clydesdale. I will happily work around the clock for something I’m passionate about. But it is harder for me to allow my unicorn untethered freedom to indulge its whims and fancies—in other words, it’s hard for me to play, to lighten up. Perhaps for you, it is more difficult to harness the discipline and work ethic of the Clydesdale. You have no problem going to the theatre and dreaming up stories but there is resistance to putting pen to paper day after day.

Wherever you’re at, it’s okay. Use your strength to its advantage and treat yourself kindly while you learn to encourage and nurture the weaker relationship in this pair. One day, they’ll both be pulling the same plough together at the same time, and it will be a fully functioning pink plough with sparkly wings, churning out a great story, with a strong structure, delivered on time, and with just the right amount of magic.

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p.s. I also have two human identities…

Horse Rescue is published under the name Joanne Schoenwald.

The Tea Chest is published as Josephine Moon.

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