by D. Avery
Charli Mills has welcomed me to the ranch but does she know that it’s a steel horse I ride? It’s likely she doesn’t care what any of us ride, is simply happy to have us ride for the ranch, but when I was in the saddle today it came to me that riding a motorcycle and writing are not so different.
‘Cars are cages’ say the patches on the leather jackets; motorcycles symbolize freedom. On a motorcycle you are out there, riding raw, having to be more observant and reactive and aware of your surroundings. Writers too step outside of the confines and illusions of safety, to take the world in and interact with it on a more intimate and immediate level. Both activities are often perceived as risky and challenging; writing is both. But with riding, there are ways to minimize risk, which may apply to writing.
Bikers know that speed does not necessarily reflect skill. We get better by attending to form first, through practice. Bikers know that the bike will go where you point your head, so we are ever mindful of the cardinal caveat, to look ahead, to look through the turns. You need to be aware of the pavement right in front of your wheel, to see that while not fixating on it, while looking ahead at the same time. You need to simultaneously read the pavement, the traffic, the context of the road; in town, is a car door likely to open on you, out of town, a moose to lumber out of the woods? Riding is like keeping track of the details and the big picture simultaneously while you swoop through your writing, anticipating problems and adjusting as you go. Just keep a relaxed grip on the handlebar so you don’t over-steer. Maintain your momentum and look and lean through those twisties, bringing your story safely through to the straightaway.
Skillful riders make slow speed maneuvering, as well as high speed cornering, look easy and graceful. They smoothly brake or shift to maintain momentum at any speed; they find the appropriate pace for the conditions and context of their ride. They practice their riding skills, they build experience; they even get help from other riders. Lone riders can find mentors in print, and while reading about riding is not actual experience, it certainly prepares one to get more out of riding, to know what to be mindful of and to be fortified with advice for when one does encounter the realities of the road. Soon after reading David Hough’s motorcycle safety books I took my first solo road trip. I encountered just about everything he had written about, from the oil slicks in the rain to the lumber in the road, to the inexplicably angry redneck in the truck. I recognized the hazards and reacted appropriately to them because I had read about them. With further experience these encounters are less dramatic and reacting is more automatic and ingrained. In writing terms, I have practiced, and have honed my craft. But starting out, it was helpful to have the advantage of others’ experience, knowing what to anticipate.
Riding with others is also beneficial to skill building. One time, riding with friends, having pulled off to gas up and have a snack, we all noted the mileage on our odometers and to our amusement, none of us showed having traveled the exact same distance, with Jim coming in at the lowest. “I pick better lines”, he said. It was funny, but he was the most experienced rider, so I seriously watched him as we rode on. Because not only is it fun to ride with friends, it is an opportunity to learn tricks and techniques, to see how others tackle the same road as you. If someone has good form, watch and learn. But of course, ride your own ride, as they say. Know when to set your own pace and to make your own calls. You do not have to ride with people that do not feel safe to your ride. And if you don’t want to slow down for your group, you may want to ride with a different group or solo. Know your strengths and own your ride. And yes, we are of course still talking about writing, though I have never written with an offline group.
Riding in a group, to be safe, requires respect and road etiquette of the members. But group riding provides a risk reduction through increased visibility. But what do people see? Do they see a rebellious gang, both intriguing and intimidating? A group of risk-taking outsiders that they secretly wish to join? Riders or writers, with or without a cause, from the inside it feels good to be with people that ‘just get it’. We are bikers or writers because it’s what we do.
Writers and riders set out on adventures where anything could happen, their common goal to keep upright and between the ditches. How does one keep a two-wheeled steed upright? The same as you keep your story upright. Find that sweet spot of friction and momentum that keeps the contact patch humming with the road; the tension and pacing and rhythm of your words will keep your story from drifting or from skidding out of control. Practice and attitude will serve you well; envision the desired outcome. I remember an article in a women riders’ magazine about ‘riding it out’. Many riders have held the belief that dropping the bike is a legitimate and even inevitable strategy. In this article, the author suggested we visualize a more positive outcome when encountering a hazard, that we imagine riding it out instead of laying it down. We practice so that we can apply our skills and experience and will to recover from the patch of gravel; to making that quick swerve or quick stop to avoid the deer or the pothole. Similarly, you can bring all your skills and imagination to bear in your writing. You will hit rough patches; you can revise, you can choose a new line. But don’t lay it down. I never plan to, but when I ride I do wear the helmet and Kevlar in case I get knocked down, which is easier than donning the thick skin that writers must sometimes to withstand knockdowns and abrasions. Suit up, be prepared, and have fun. Go for it.
We are out there, vulnerable and exposed. We are out there, having a blast powering through turns, in the wind, being the wind. We are outside of our cages. We explore new roads, applying and building the skills and experience gained on familiar roads. We enjoy the ride. We write on.
D. Avery is from New England and teaches middle school. She is the author of two books of poems, Chicken Shift, and For the Girls. She blogs and writes fiction at Shiftnshake where she archives all her Ranch Yarns.
Raw Literature returns as an ongoing conversation about those first works we create as writers, as literary artists. Guest Authors share personal insights on their craft, its process, the experience of creating raw literature and what they do with it. Carrot Ranch is a dynamic literary community that creates raw literature weekly in the form of flash fiction (99-word stories). If you have an essay idea, pitch to Charli Mills, Lead Buckaroo, at firstname.lastname@example.org.