When I was in grad school at an Old European University and then at an Old Ivy in the New World, mens sana in corpore sano— “A sound mind in a sound body”–was still very much a thing. We were encouraged to live a physical as well as an intellectual life, and offered any and all sorts of options to make this possible, from intramural team sports to fencing classes to horseback riding.
Eventually I graduated and went renegade and made my living as a writer, but the tropism toward physical activity (and horses) stayed with me. Only now, instead of keeping me from going stark mad with confinement in the library, or keeping me from turning into a common or garden Desk Slug, it became a source of inspiration all by itself.
I stacked the deck by buying a horse, which required me to go out and clean up after her every day. And that horse was a mare of rare and royal pedigree, which meant I was encouraged to make another one to carry on the line, and that meant I had two horses. And while number two was in production, my apartment rent went up and I took the cosmic hint and bought acreage on which to keep mama-to-be and incipient baby. But mama needed company, so along came another mare of rare and royal pedigree. And mares and baby made three.
It went on from there. And oh, the inspiration of the hay bill and the grain bill and the vet bill and the trainer bill and the farrier bill and…
The Muse feeds on shredded bills–they keep her sharp and highly regular. But it’s not all grim practicality and fiscal desperation. I won’t say there’s joy in the wielding of a manure fork on a hot and windy desert morning, but it’s good and not too taxing exercise, and it’s steady. There’s the local wildlife living its wild little lives around me: barn bunnies drinking from the pools that form when the dirty water barrels are emptied and feeding on stray bits of hay and dropped grain; the flock of blackbirds that’s lived around here since long before I moved in; the ravens that left a handful of corn in a water barrel one day (aparently that’s currency in ravenworld, along with rabbit vertebrae and the occasional coil of entrails); the roadrunner hunting lizards through the cactus patch; the coyotes ghosting through.
This morning a dust devil whirled right through me. The Navajo say that’s a spirit of the dead, and it’s not a good thing. But the dead don’t mean us any harm here.
It all goes in the writing. The way the horses live in their herd while I do servant duty. The wind blowing scents of dust and wildfires and creosote bush. The ritual of the morning: feeding, watering, cleaning, making repairs, moving horses from stall to turnout or back again.
I do some of my best plotting with manure fork in hand. Manure is wonderful fertilizer. I work my way through tangles in the story. Get to know characters. It’s an hour or two of necessary physical exertion that gets the blood flowing and clears the mind and leaves room for ideas to come in. It’s varied enough not to shut me down with tedium, and strenuous enough to keep me fit, but not so strenuous it makes me too exhausted to retreat to the cool and the quiet of the house and the day’s count of words.
It’s not optional, either–and that’s the way I want it. If I had to rely on a gym for exercise, I’d never go. I’d find excuses or just plain not bother. On the farm, horses have to be fed, watered, cared for. If I feed and water but skip the cleaning, tomorrow there’s twice as much of it to haul, and it takes twice as long. Best to keep up with it every day.
While I’m doing that, my writer brain is hard at work. And that’s the way I want it, too.