Notes from the Author

When I could no longer ride

The ground blurs beneath us. My horse’s hooves roar into a thunder. The wind moving past causes tears to stream freely from my eyes and I blink quickly to see the rolling grassland around us.

The quotation above is from the first paragraph of The Wilding. That’s how the novel started in my head and that’s how it begins for readers.

Mocha and me at Gibbes in St. Matthews, SC
Mocha and me at Gibbes in St. Matthews, SC

Over and over and over again, I was galloping my horse in my mind. It was just about the only break I got from the crippling, chronic pain that racked my body daily. And from that one scene, I wrote an entire book to escape from the pain.

The pills never helped, only taking the edge off the knife but then made me frustrated at the impairment on my cognitive ability that I rely on for my day job at the paper.

Like so many other people out there, I was suffering chronic pain from an undiagnosed condition. The doctors seemed clueless at best, inept at worst (one even accused me of drug-seeking despite my refusal to take anything harder than ibuprofen for six months). Some told me it was all in my head, no cause. The pain led to depression and some of the darkest places I’ve ever been in my life.

And while the pain scared me, it was the thoughts that scared me the most. What if I never rode another horse as long as I lived? What if I’ve galloped my last gallop? What if I just let the car fall off the edge of the road and drive into that tree?

That’s what the doctors don’t tell you when you’re suffering chronic pain: Suicidal thoughts come out of nowhere. I wish they had told me because those frightened me more than anything else. It’s a strange thing to not be in control of your own body, even stranger when you’re not in control of your own thoughts.

As the months wore on and the doctors had poked, prodded, and imaged nearly every part of my body, it became clear to me that I was never going to recover. I would never get in the saddle again. I tried to find things at first to cheer myself up: it’s not over because you are breathing, and you can finally break Buttercup to cart! But nothing worked.

In fact, I felt more like an ass because I couldn’t appreciate anything. How selfish can you be? You have a steady job, a nice house, a wonderful husband, two great horses. You deserve to be in pain for not appreciating all of this.

I felt absolutely dead inside. Looking back, that still seems so incredibly selfish. That’s not who I am. But I won’t judge a person for their own dark thoughts, so I’m asking the same leniency. Until you’ve been there, you have no idea what thoughts and actions you are capable of.

About the only time I got a break from my own body and my own thoughts bent on self-destruction was when I thought about galloping. I became obsessed with the last time I galloped my horse Mocha. Like a 10-year-old girl listening to her favorite song, I hit repeat.

And then as I wrote down the galloping, and I wrote some more. I re-imagined almost every time I was on the back of a horse over 25 years of riding. Pretty soon, there was a story there. It was no longer me doing it. It was Aideen. Aideen wasn’t living through me, I was living through her. She became the person I fantasized about becoming. Nothing wrong with her hip or her back. Nothing keeping her in bed all day, crying because all she wants to do is be normal again.

I wrote scene after scene, sometimes shaking like I do before I go cross country because I felt like I was there jumping my horse from rooftop to rooftop, or being chased by a bear.

That’s probably why I finished the first draft in 60 days. It was my only escape from the pain at first.

I joked last posting about my therapist being my horse. My horses ground me, spiritually and mentally. But at the time, horses caused me pain. Going to the barn wasn’t a relief, it was torture. I couldn’t even stand seeing Facebook friends post horse-y things. It was like they were taunting me. And then I was warring with myself for being so retched and selfish, and not seeing my horses.

That seems so strange now: looking back at how hurtful it was to see anything to do with horses, and yet how liberating the thought of galloping was or designing an entire nation dedicated to horses. I can’t reconcile the dissonance; I can only say that it happened.

Even in the darkest moments, I knew it wasn’t me. I did the only thing I could: I sought real, professional help. I was diagnosed with chronic pain depression and given tools to help deal with it. The counselor encouraged my book editing process (which had stalled as the depression grew), and also suggested the book Managing Chronic Pain: A Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy Approach. And the book told me what everyone is afraid to tell someone suffering from chronic pain: you can control it.

So I learned to shut out the pain. I made my pain zombies and I made my brain my safehouse. When the pain would start to increase, I would run from the zombies and get into the safehouse, and slam the door behind me. I could hear the zombies scratching on the door, begging to get in, but I would throw my weight against the door and hold them back. It worked so long as I wasn’t too tired to keep up the mental effort. I started coming out of the depression as I controlled the pain.

Then, because I was feeling better and could manage talking to doctors without breaking down into tears, I got a new doctor, who got me to the right specialist. He took one look and diagnosed me with a labrum tear in my right hip. An MRI confirmed and I was scheduled for surgery.

trotting
Mocha and me practicing dressage at Middleton in Charleston, SC.

It took more than eight months of going to doctors but we finally had it. Then I had to wait more than two months for surgery. But those last two months were cake compared to the previous eight months. There was light at the end of the tunnel! I was going to get to ride again.

There is that song that everyone references when something is taken from you and you appreciate it more once it’s gone. I don’t think that applies to me. I knew what was at stake. I think most riders know this. We are on borrowed time. If we’re lucky, we will ride in our 80s. If we aren’t, it ends today with a bad fall, or a car-wreck, or a financial situation where we have to sell our partners. Every ride is beautiful and unique because of this. It’s a butterfly.

But it wasn’t supposed to end like it did for me. I felt robbed and cheated and angry. I guess I’m not graceful in defeat. I can only wonder what I’ll do in my 80s when they try to hang my bridle up.

I don’t have a moral or an ending to this story. I don’t want to offer any sage advice, because I don’t have any. I have what worked for me through trial and error. The only thing I want to say with this post is this: You aren’t alone. Fight and rage on, even if you are so tired of people saying that to you. You know who you are.

I have been back in the saddle for a month now. I’m taking it easy, which is hard to do, although necessary. And I am so grateful that I’m almost on the verge of bursting into tears every time I’m at the barn.

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Of significant others and horses

See? Cute! Now if only I could get him to wear a helmet ...
See? Cute! Now if only I could get him to wear a helmet …

Sunday, my husband rode my horse Buttercup for a few minutes, and like millions of horse crazy people all over the world, I found myself thinking: I wish my significant other would ride with me all the time.

Oh the fun we would have! We would go on trail rides every weekend! He could go to clinics with me and we would better our riding together! We could see who can best whom in dressage (or more likely get the funniest judge comment; I already know he would win with his long legs on my short horses)! He could get his own horse! He would stop complaining about the cost for hay and vet bills!

And then I remember: I dated a horse guy before. It was romantic for a time, but then came a feeling of intrusion in my chosen sport and hobby. It became a competition between us. It became “Well you know, you could be doing this instead.” In short, it became an absolute mess.

Luckily for me and the horse guy, we parted ways. He was the only horse guy I ever dated, so my experience is limited. But I have to say, I really LOVE that my significant other isn’t into horses.

For one thing, it makes me really happy to see him with my horses. Like stupid, ridiculous happy. Instead of me feeling jealous or nitpicking how he’s handling them, all I’m thinking is “Awww cute! He never spends time with them and look how sweet he is! He’s trying!”

For another, I need my own damn thing. You can have yours. I need my own. I need my alone time with my own special thing that is completely mine. I realize that is a personal failing on my part. I promise I talk to a very expensive therapist about it (she just happens to have hooves and agrees with everything I say so long as I have peppermints).

http://equestrianryangosling.tumblr.com
http://equestrianryangosling.tumblr.com

For a while, my husband was an avid golfer. This worked out extremely well: I had my horses, and he had golf. Sure, I’d try to hit a few balls with him, but he knew it was just me trying to enjoy his hobby, just like him hopping on my horse to walk around wasn’t going to be a full-time thing. We were a couple with very different hobbies who came home to each other. I’d ask him about golf, and he’d say (in his best Ryan Gosling meme impression) “Tell me about all the cute things your horse did today.” My husband is no longer golfing but that doesn’t mean he will impede onto my hobby any time soon. And for that, I am thankful, even if I love seeing him with my horses.

How did you write the book?

L.C. Street
L.C. Street stays busy. Here she is interviewing a local politician for her job at the newspaper. (Dan Brown photo)

I get this question a lot. So I’m going to write this blog post with the hopes it will head off future questions.

How did I write the book? Well, mostly on my smart phone.

(Cue the shocked faces.) It’s true. Probably 75 percent of my first draft was written on my smart phone on a cloud document. The other 25 percent of the draft was written on a laptop or desktop. I own a typewriter, but I needed the cloud to make it work.

I get the question “how” a lot because, in this age, everyone is super ridiculously busy. They are waiting to retire or for the kids to leave the house before they sit down and write. They have great ideas but if only they had the time. My answer is this: you always have time for what you make a priority in your life. And certainly you have a few minutes throughout the day where you have down time. Maybe you are waiting for a meeting to start. Maybe you are sitting in the grocery store line.

That’s exactly how I wrote the book. I had three minutes here, five minutes there, and maybe, if I was lucky, 15 minutes another time.

I wrote the first draft of The Wilding in 60 days. It was messy and ugly, and I dread the thought of someone stumbling upon it one day and reading it. I should really burn it now that I think of it. I’m adding that to my to-do list.

But I had a first draft. And, to my surprise, there was a story there. It wasn’t very good, but it was there.

Then it took me 10 months to edit. But that’s another story.

It isn’t ‘just a horse’

One of the first school fights I got into was when I was in fifth grade. A gangly, stringy-haired girl who wore horse T-shirts and came to school with mud on her shoes from feeding horses was an easy target for would-be bullies. But don’t feel bad for me, I wasn’t a kind fifth grader. I’m pretty sure I tried to kick a few of the other kids.

I'd be embarrassed but I'm not. Look at that awesome T-shirt. It was a custom print of my horse. I was so cool.
I should probably be embarrassed by this epic photo but I’m not. Look at that awesome T-shirt. It was a custom print of my horse Snorty. I was so cool.

The fight was over the phrase “It’s just a horse.” You know like saying “it’s just a squirrel” when you run over a furry, confused critter running zig-zag across the black top.

In the horse world (the world of horse people, that is), a few of us actually refer to non-horse people as “muggles,” borrowing J.K. Rowling’s term for non-magical people. And that’s what it is: the difference between magic and non-magic. You have to practice magic in order to understand magic. You have to develop a partnership with horses in order to understand that it isn’t “just a horse.”

The closest relationship I can describe it to as a police officer and her K-9. They work in partnership toward the same goal, spend countless hours together, and their lives depend on each other. The K-9 is not just a dog. It’s a partner.

Yes, I did just say “just a dog.” I have two dogs and two cats. I love them dearly. I know they are intelligent and loving and each has her own personality (I also have 13 coturnix quail, and they too have their own personalities). But they are pets. Sure, there might be a scenario down the road where my gigantic 17-pound cat takes down an intruder (more likely to happen than depending on my dogs to do it), and then, yes, my life would depend on her. But that’s a hypothetical. My pets aren’t my partners. There is a snuggle-for-food mutual dependency going on here.

I don’t think I’m not doing a great job of describing this relationship without ticking cat and dog people off … Here’s another way I’m going to try to describe it. My horse Buttercup and I have known each other all of her life. I met her when she was a few days old. I’ve put in nearly all the training on her. We have seen each other at the worst and best moments. I have known her longer than my husband and longer than most of my adult friends.

L.C. Street and her beloved Buttercup. (Jan Taylor photo)
L.C. Street and her beloved Buttercup. (Jan Taylor photo)

Before I go into this next part, I’m going to preface this with I love my husband. He is my best friend and I rely on his support so much. He has helped make me the best person I can be, and what more can you ask for in a life partner? Now, Henry, if you are reading this, stop reading.

When Henry proposed to me, he jokingly told me to take the ring out to the barn and show Buttercup that he comes first now. My husband has a great sense of humor, and this was clearly a joke, but I couldn’t even laugh (he will tell you I take myself too seriously and don’t “get” his brand of humor; only the former is true). I’m not saying I would choose my horses over my husband if, say, some unrealistic, gun-to-head scenario played out. To me, asking me to put my horses AFTER my husband is the same question as asking me to put my husband AFTER my horses.

It is basically asking me to sever one limb to spare another.

Some of the feedback I’ve heard from the muggle beta readers on The Wilding has been “This is the exact relationship every child dreams of having with a horse.” What Aideen has with Esther is beautiful and thrilling, but that magic isn’t unique. There is magic whenever you create a partnership with a horse. The magic comes from the horse, not from the human. If we humans can get out of the way of our own desires and fixations, we can learn that magic.

So, if you think Aideen’s relationship with Esther is fiction, it isn’t. It’s the most real thing in the book. Esther isn’t “just a horse,” and neither are the millions of horses around the world. Horses have done everything from letting a sad child cry into their mane to helping to build empires.

If you’d like to keep saying “it’s just a horse,” I won’t fight you. I know better and I’ve come a long way from kicking people I disagree with.

Feminism in young adult fantasy literature

The Wilding still isn’t available to the public yet, but I’m getting responses from test readers now. One of the themes readers are picking up on is the novel’s strong feminism.

This is a deliberate choice I made as an author for three reasons.

Feminists don't wear heels or kiss their husbands. Or do they?
Feminists don’t wear heels or kiss their husbands, said no feminist ever.

First, let’s get this out of the way: I am an unabashed feminist. If we carried cards, I’d have one and a name tag. There was a time when I thought it was cool to bash feminists because I hung out with boys I wanted to impress and those boys thought feminists hated men. I’m no longer interested in impressing boys by putting down feminism. I’m interested in impressing boys by showing them how kickass girls are and how we’re more alike than different. And if I need to assign a label to myself to help them understand saying putdowns like “throwing like a girl” and “being a girl” are offensive, so be it. I grew up outdoors and playing sports, and now I work in a field dominated by men. I cuss; I spit; I burp; I fart; I scratch places I shouldn’t in polite company. All of those things don’t make me manly. They make me human.

Second, why would I go through the trouble of imagining a whole different world and society, and then bring in all the hangups of sexism? It surprises me when so many fantasy pieces not only use the Medieval era time but also bring in problems like sexism and racism. If you imagine another world, there are going to be so many things that transform the society living there. It’s like the sit-com premise that if you go back in time and step on a bug, then when you come back to the present, humans all have three eyes. Human nature is not inherently sexist, so why do we always assume a fantasy world must have sexism?

That brings me to my third and final point: The Wilding is set in the horse nation of Eachann. Has anyone ever seen sexism in a band of horses? If anything, a band is a great example of feminism. The alpha mare is as important as the stallion. There is a division of sexes, yes, but no one is more equal.

Basically, what I’m saying is this: why not create a world without sexism? It’s like a world filled with horses. What’s not to like?