For most of my life, when people asked me, “What do you do?” I rarely mentioned writing. Mostly I said, “I raise horses.”
And that was true—for thirty years I worked with my husband raising thoroughbreds, both to sell and to race, on various farms in Central Kentucky.
I was writing too, but the writing came hard, it was off and on. And the horses-well, racehorses are never easy, but they were always there. Each morning I’d go to the barn half-awake and look some sweet young speed-crazed maniac in the face, try to persuade it to walk or at least jog beside me safely to its own field, when it was all set to bust loose and run off into the next county. My horses commanded my immediate everyday attention and my writing did not. I felt dishonest calling myself a writer.
I had started out writing, in conjunction with the teaching job I’d taken at the University of Kentucky in 196l. The Sewanee Review published my first story in 1963, when I was twenty-five. But that year we got seriously into the horse business, and then my writing took a backseat to both my teaching and my horses.
When I left the University in 1970, my responsibilities to the horses increased, but I had more time to write. During the next ten years I published a story called “Ping Pong” in The Sewanee Review and one called “Clarence Cummins and the Semi-Permanent Loan” in the Gnomon Press anthology Kentucky Renaissance. I also was learning how to write a novel by finishing my first, which came out of my early life in Florida. It made the rounds in New York but nobody chose to publish it. Still it was useful to me; all the work you do as a writer is useful, and sometimes the work that’s not published is the most useful. The core of the novel was anthologized in the 1987 Concept as a story called “The Last Dragon.” I love that piece to this day and wouldn’t have missed writing it for the world.
During the next twenty-five years I wrote and published nine stories. The Southern Review took “The Screened Porch,” which was anthologized in New Stories from the South: The Year’s Best, 1991. “The Hanging in the Foaling Barn” won the first Thoroughbred Times National Fiction Contest and was anthologized in Prize Stories 1994: The O. Henry Awards. I wrote that story in just two days; but then, it had thirty years of my life behind it.
I found my way to poetry in the niches between stories, and in 2005 Larkspur Press brought out my book of poems, The Life Horse. My O. Henry story became the title story for The Hanging in the Foaling Barn, a collection which Sarabande Books chose for their Woodford Reserve Series in 2006.
At the age of 68, I finally admitted in public that I was a writer.
But there was a hidden force underneath my straggly intermittent writer’s journey.
It began when I was a young girl. There was a book in my grandmother’s library: The Boy’s King Arthur. I loved the picture on the cover, a knight on his prancing horse, but the book was just one bloody boring battle after another. I wanted A Girl’s King Arthur.
I encountered the Arthurian romances in a freshman Humanities course at the University of Florida and was captivated by their magic. Of course, the women characters were all ciphers, and so was Arthur. Still their forms stayed with me like blank dream figures that I had to recall. I needed to know those people.
I guess you could say that early on I had a vision. But a vision is a nuisance-you never really see it, it just keeps calling you, getting in the way of everything else.
So I just kept writing my stories while working around some very alive horses. But by the time I was forty I was also writing them around the loose-horse Arthurian novel that was always running away in my mind. I had to catch it.
I started out in 1978 with Merlin and Morgan, two of those charming egomaniac characters who take over your book-know everything, say everything, and never let anyone do anything. I let them go at it for a couple of years, till I realized there was no story happening, just a lot of highflown literary talk.
I gave up and wrote a story, “The Man Walking.” The Sewanee Review took it. I love short stories anyway, and I told myself, That’s my metier, get used to it.
But the Arthurian legends kept dragging me back into their rich dark chaos. I’d find fragments of conversations between people I didn’t know, visions of solitary places I’d never seen, indecipherable figures, dubious love poems, bits of sexy scenes.
I went at the novel again, beginning with Launcelot and Guinivere as middle-aged lovers. All they did was moon around lyrically at each other about the lost passion of their youth. That took another three or four years.
I couldn’t write it. I was pressing all the time. I went up every day to my workshed in the woods and tried, but I couldn’t make my way into it at all. My imagination seemed to have failed me, and the harder I pushed at it, the more resistant it became. My husband, who is always clear-headed, pointed out that the only job where trying harder makes a difference is digging ditches. I decided I’d spend more time outside and less time struggling with the novel. At one point I quit writing altogether and spent a year working with him on the farm. I loved it. I learned some things about myself I needed to learn. But finally I missed writing and went back to my shed in the woods. Still nothing doing.
One day, in desperation, I got down on the floor-I’m not sure why, but I did sit on the floor that one time, with my spiral notebook. I took up my pen and wrote blindly, without stopping, twenty pages of Part I, “Gawain and the Green Lace Lady.”
After another two years there came the next piece of the novel, forty pages which I wrote in two days. It was the second section of Part IV, “Gawain and the Horsewoman,” which was published as a story in the Sarabande collection.
Looking back on it, I understand why it took me so long just to get started on this book: I was making the whole thing up.
And it’s not a simple world. This is not your basic coming-of-age-in-Brooklyn novel. It’s not even an Arthurian period piece, set in medieval England or Roman Briton. It’s not about mythology; it is mythology. It all had to appear on its own. I had no specific reference for the world or the characters. I knew they were alive somewhere, already doing something, but I had to live with them for years and years before I could see exactly where they were and what they were up to.
Even when I was stuck on the novel, my imagination would not turn away; there was no room in there for another large piece of work. I could take breaks, write stories or poems, but the overall capturing of my imagination was impossible for anything but this. I kept going back to it, and I kept getting stuck.
I see now also that I was partly scared off by my material, what I sensed was waiting for me in the chaos. Andrew Lytle used to tell us in his writing class: “You have to take the risk!” Back then I couldn’t imagine what he was talking about. After I finished this novel, which is titled Chapel of Carnal Love, I had a pretty good idea.
To write this book I had to banish the crowd that had been looking over my shoulder all my writing years—my family, neighbors, acquaintances, critics, teachers. In their place I put the Art Group, seven women friends working in various art forms who meet every three weeks to do a little art for each other. With them for my audience I found the courage to write whatever I had to write.
Meanwhile the novel was gradually becoming its own time and place. I was glad to see a raccoon scramble out of my woods; we were not in the Forest of Briton any more. I still wrote it all higgledy piggledy, the middle of the second part, the beginning of the fourth part, all sorts of parts I had no idea what they were part of. I decided that chaos was good. I’d say, “Cool! I’m completely confused!” My confusion was the life in my tale. I had to keep getting lost in it. Or stop and write stories and poems, give it up for long intervals.
Ten years after I sat down on the floor and actually began the novel, I’d done seven of its eight parts. Then I was stopped cold again for four years. I’d gotten Guinivere into a terrible fix-or she’d gotten me into it, she’s a willful woman. I could not figure out what she’d do next.
I’d learned by then that there are hundreds of things in life that don’t work out. I accepted the possibility that this novel was one of them.
Sometimes you have to turn your back on the horse before it will come to you.
Then it did. It just came to my hand, like a loose horse that’s finally remembered to trust you. I sat down one day in 1999 and started writing easily, fluently, steadily. I didn’t know where I was going, but I kept seeing the next step before me, a trace of light in the dark tangle.
I understood later that the last long pause had come because I simply didn’t know enough to go on. I hadn’t lived long enough. Things did happen to me in those four years, clear things, things I had to take in, whether I wanted to or not. I had to live that part of my own life before I could see my novel whole. No amount of trying was going to work, no amount of writing skill. In fact, I had to give up on my writing skills. It took a different kind of skill to let it come out. A lot of it was to free myself from writing skills.
So this was the process I went through in trying to bring forth my novel. I never knew what I was doing. There was no pattern to it, no map to tell me when I’d gone wrong. I’d stop and write stories straight out of my real world, my life on our farms with my husband, all my specific references lovingly mapped and patterned. My poems also sprang from that real world.
Then I’d come back into my unreal real world. So it was an interesting journey among the three things that I was doing.
All journeys are a mess, and all journeys are journeys.
You have to turn loose before you can take hold.
I could have bulled my way through that last part of my novel, jacked some kind of ending onto it, but it wouldn’t have been finished. I would never have written the book I’d needed to write all my life. I wouldn’t have done it. That’s what Andrew Lytle used to say when I finally got a story right: “You’ve done it!”
I’m 74. It’s done now.
Susan Starr Richards was born in Orlando, Florida and grew up in Winter Park. She has degrees from the University of Florida and the University of Washington, and taught English for ten years at the University of Kentucky. She and her husband live in a 200-year-old log house on their ridge-country farm in the Outer Bluegrass of Kentucky. For thirty years they bred, raised, sold, and raced thoroughbreds. Now she helps care for their retired racehorses, keeps track of the birds and wildflowers on the farm, and writes in her workshed in the woods. Chapel of Carnal Love is her first published novel.
Horse image via flickr/jdj150