15 Mar Horse Trials
My horse and his girl were to have their first outing; just a little local show.
I had been invited to come and meet a group of horse-mad secondary school pupils by my friend, their school librarian. Some of the pupils at her school were complaining bitterly about the lack of new horse stories, some were even writing their own. So my friend asked me to come along for the lunch hour to chat and answer questions about the horse story I was working on and how it came about.
Just ‘a little local show’. Which was good because I wasn’t really an author was I? Yeah, I’d had a few short stories published. Okay, I’d been learning and practising writing for as long as I could remember. And yes, I absolutely knew what it was to live, breathe and dream horses, didn’t I? It would be fun, wouldn’t it?
Every showground has them. Those girls in their immaculate jodhpurs, strutting in step, flicking hair confidently over their shoulder and then letting it fall over their faces to talk behind. If you are on the outside of this in crowd you will worship and loathe them in equal measure. Three girls walked into the library. I found out later that they were known amongst their teachers, affectionately … probably… as ‘the triumvirate’. Always together, always in charge and often in trouble. The tallest and most leaderly of the three dived onto a bean bag, pulling her friends down with her, looked at me and said, “So I’m not a reader, all right? Dunno. Just can’t get into it. Well into horses though. Okay?” We both looked at the gauntlet lying on the floor between us. As I picked it up I thought ‘this is the one I’m here for’. “Absolutely,” I said and ran through the preparations I had made, hoping they would be enough.
There’s a form of anxiety dream where you are all set to do something you feel confident about and then in your dream you find the jumps have been raised beyond – well beyond – your comfort zone. My half hour chat at lunchtime somehow turned into an afternoon when the group was allowed out of lessons for a two-hour workshop with an author! My friendly librarian even gave out tickets as a way of turning my visit into an event – not a three-day event at Badminton but quite a jump from my ‘little local show’! (Note to self: this ticket idea was a winner, I would bear it in mind when I was a real author.)
What about my horse? He is amazing. What if these students didn’t love him as much as I did? And my girl? Was she ready to share a little bit of her story? The children attending the event were my potential readers, what did I want to say to them? I thought carefully about what extracts I could offer from my work in progress and realised that as well as bits I was happy with, it would be really useful to read something cumbersome, a bit unrefined, that was causing me problems and ask for their help. (What a great opportunity to sound out readers.)
And wait a minute! I am an experienced teacher; speaking to small – or large – groups of kids was surely not a challenge? What have I learned about gaining attention, managing behaviour and inspiring learning?
Variety would be important, we wouldn’t just talk and I wouldn’t just read and they might do a bit of writing. I reminded myself that while I love writing, for some this is really threatening so we’d write on the floor or roll big sheets of wall lining paper across pushed together tables and write standing up. We could use post-it notes instead of A4 white scary things and use a wall to make a storyboard.
Some pictures would be great! I packed up some sketches. I tucked in some vintage photos of me at competitions back in the day. I didn’t have a real book cover to show but I’d done a pretend one for a GEA Social competition that seemed to go down well (excuse me, it won right?). These would be handy if I couldn’t think what to say, would give me something to do with my hands and show some of the background to my story. (They would also save lots of words – ‘show don’t tell’!)
On the day, the book cover led to an insightful discussion about the ‘essence’ of a book and before I knew it we were talking about the difference between what happens in a book and what the book is about. I hadn’t imagined for a minute that we’d be discussing theme – as writers – but we did and taught each other a lot. As a teacher, you are constrained so rigidly by all the things you have to cover, so it was amazing to have the freedom to ramble and to explore ideas. (I’m going to remember that while I’ll need a plan, and will plan for more than I’ll need, I’m not going to be afraid leave the road and head up an enticing little bridleway if I come across one.)
I have a drama background; I could put on a persona if I needed to. On the day, I used my voice to bring my story to life but did not once have to consciously put on a character. (When I’m a real writer doing this, I mustn’t be afraid to be myself, to put my heart on my sleeve.)
And – hold the show – to have gotten even this far on the road to becoming a writer, there are things that I have learned about what children want and need from a story. I have learned as a student of writing for children that my readers want a mystery to solve. I know that children need action, energy and lots of levels from an accessible point of view. I know that young readers don’t ‘consider’, they ‘respond’. (Another time, I’ll pose a problem or riddle at the beginning of the session and come back to it at the end.)
We all like to get a present and while our time and preparation might be considered a gift, I made sure there would be juice and biscuits! (When I’m a proper writer, I could take a bookmark or postcard for everyone in the audience. I know! Stickers! Everybody loves a sticker!)
I had a brilliant afternoon. It was relaxed and giggly and challenging by turns. As a writer, I was given precious criticism from my target readership. Time spent with an amazing group of individuals who were all about the same age as my girl was an excellent research opportunity. My dedication, to both writing and teaching, has been refreshed by the hunger of these readers for new experiences and stories that understand. On a personal level, it was nourishment for heart and soul to be reminded that a passion – for horses in this case – can form an instant understanding that bridges age, life experience and personal circumstance.
The leader of the triumvirate made a beeline for me as I packed to go. Uh oh. She frowned like a teacher who hasn’t had homework returned in weeks and when she spoke it was a growl. “I want that book.” My book. She wanted my book. They have asked me to come again.
So I’m heading back to the manège to apply the wisdom these learners gave their teacher. I’m sure there are many anxiety dreams to come but for the moment I just … well, I feel like a real writer.
Susan Piper was born and raised in Canada. In New York and London, she studied acting. She now teaches French at a local primary school. A high point of her week is an after school ‘Story Café’ where children read, write, recommend and reveal stories. The club inspires stories and makes her heart sing. Susan has lived in Hampshire for twenty-eight years with her patient, encouraging partner, a tree surgeon. They live in a little cabin in the woods having given tenancy of the family home to the two grown up children she is so proud of. Next to the cabin is an even littler ‘room of her own’ so she has no excuse for not finishing that book!