How Black Horse Helps Me Write
“When Black Horse ran, he ran with long, graceful strides and the passion of lovers. When Black Horse ran with long, graceful strides and the passion of lovers, his movements created a dance choreographed to the music of drums deep in the earth. David heard the music between his legs as uncommon heat and released his grip on Sikimí’s neck. He heard shrill notes and dissonant chords burn upward along his spine like fire on a short fuze and he released the noose and saw it float away into the blue grass. Now then, he was pain personified. Now then, in the overwhelming face of it all, he, David Ward, was dancer and dance.” – Malcolm R. Campbell in “Garden of Heaven: an Odyssey”
My good friend Smoky Trudeau Zeidel wrote a wonderful guest post this morning called How Snake Helps Me Write. As I read it, I thought that as writers, we often say that our ideas come out of nowhere or give all the credit to our muses. For Smoky, Snake is what we often refer to as a totem animal; that is to say, a helper that has meaning to us not only during our regular waking hours, but also in our dreams and meditations.
Sikimí’ has been one of my totem animals for years. In my imagination—and in three of my novels—he is a very large Friesian horse. Horses have a very large presence in classical myths as well as in the history and folklore about the American wild west. Like others of my generation, I grew up seeing a fair number of western movies and television shows, and that means watching a fair number of protagonists “saving the day” on horseback.
As a totem animal, Black Horse has a complex symbolism, often associated with journeys, power, freedom, and death. In fantasy novels, as well as for some shamins, horses often signify travel between worlds. In my dreams and meditations, Sikimí plays a role very similar to the role he plays in my books. He carries me from the everyday reality of my den or bedroom into the locations I’m writing about. That is, if I want to visualize a Glacier Park scene, I imagine riding Sikimí along a trail I know. As I do this, it’s hard to know what is real and what his imaginary, but it doesn’t matter because, for me perception is reality.
A considerable amount of time went by between the writing of The Sun Singer and Sarabande. In part, that happened because The Sun Singer is told from a young man’s point of view and Sarabande is told from a young woman’s point of view. For years, I worried about being able to write believable thoughts and words from a woman’s perspective.
As Smoky describes in her post about Snake, I felt very blocked as I thought about just how Sarabande should be written—if I was going to write it at all. In my dreams and meditations, Black Horse helped by carrying me through the scenes contemplated for the novel. And while this was happening, I realized a very strange thing: I was seeing and thinking about the scenes as myself, but also as my title character Sarabande would see them and think about them.
We have seen comics and actors in movies and on TV shows suddenly shift from being themselves to portraying a real or imaginary person. Jonathan Winters and Robin Williams always appeared to go from one impression to another with great ease when they appeared on late night talk shows. I don’t know if they flipped an inner switch or what. Riding Sikimí through imaginary scenes in involving Sarabande was like flipping an inner switch. One moment, I saw and reacted to a mountain trail as an author writing a book; the next moment I saw and reacted to it as my character.
Once the writing was well underway, I could go back and forth between myself and my character without thinking about how I was doing it. Figuratively speaking, I was on horseback while I wrote because in ways I can’t really understand, my great Black Horse carried me into Sarabande’s heart and soul.