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The Writer Who Listens to Readers

I was once fortunate enough to speak with Monty Roberts at one of his shows in the 1990s. Roberts is an American horse trainer who promotes his techniques of natural horsemanship through his Join-Up International organisation, believing that horses use a non-verbal language, which he terms ‘Equus’. Roberts original best-seller, The Man Who Listens to Horses, (prompted, it is claimed by Queen Elizabeth after she had seen his horse training methods) marked the beginning of international fame: he now regularly tours the world with live demonstrations and runs an Equestrian Academy in Solvang, California and an "online university" to promote his ideas.

Though I’d seen him ‘perform’ on television prior to attending the show, I was still astounded to witness what he could do with horses. In brief, an untrained, ‘unbroken’ horse was brought into a circular arena with Roberts at the centre. When facing the horse, as he explained, the animal believed him to be being confrontational, and so distanced itself from him as far as possible on the edge of the arena, pacing around and around the perimeter as it sought to escape. Roberts argued that at a fundamental level horses wanted to be in affinity with humans and would rather approach them if not frightened off. To demonstrate this, Roberts turn side-on to the horse as it circled. Immediately, the horse dropped its head and slowed its ‘flight’ response. As Roberts continued to lower his gaze, removing his confrontational stance and remaining side-on to the horse, it sidled over to him to within a couple of feet. If Roberts turned to face the beast, it immediately ran to the edge of the arena and began seeking escape again; every time he turned away, it would approach.

What was even more remarkable, though, was the way in which Roberts, using a similar technique, was able to get the horse to accept a bridle and then a saddle. He would simply present the animal with the bridle, watch it flinch, then withdraw the bridle. By presenting the bridle and then taking it away, the horse was prompted into a ‘flight then approach’ sequence. Each time he presented it, Roberts would draw nearer to placing the thing on the horse’s head; eventually, after many sequences, the horse accepted the bridle without protest. The same thing then happened with the saddle.

Horses could be ‘broken in’ using these methods without any coercion: instead of literally ‘breaking the horse’s spirit’, the Roberts method obtained the cooperation of the beast with the result that horse and rider quickly entered into a symbiotic relationship - the relationship which, Roberts would have said, the horse would have wanted anyway if he or she had been allowed to construct it.

The most dramatic part of the evening, though, occurred when a horse was brought into the arena which had a history of refusing to get into horse boxes to be transported. It had taken its owners all day to force the animal into the box to get it to the show, and now it was presented to Roberts as an impossible task to get the horse into an empty horse box in the arena within twenty minutes.

Roberts began by leading the horse around, and then having the animal make a couple of steps towards the open box. Before the horse could exhibit any reaction, though, Robert would lead it away and around the arena, approaching again about a minute later. This was repeated over the next few minutes, each approach to the box being slightly closer - but with Roberts determined to lead the horse away before the horse itself could flinch. After about five minutes, Roberts had the beast place its foot on the ramp of the box, then walked it away; then two feet, then away. After about ten minutes, the horse was halfway up the ramp before being backed down it by Roberts and led away. In just under twenty minutes the horse walked all the way up into the box without a care in the world.

Now all of this might seem to have little to do with the subject of writing. And it might be considered a stretch to try to apply it to that field. But the same principles that Roberts was applying to the horses in the arena could be said to apply in any number of subjects, creative writing included. Not only is the writer like a horse, in flight from a topic, perhaps, until a less confrontational approach is taken, but, given enough walking towards and walking away, a writer can be led straight up into the action of writing using these methods.

More than that, though: if a writer can grasp the basics of this methodology, he or she might begin to appreciate that a reader’s ‘natural stance’ is normally (unless that individual reader is quite jaded by a set of their own experiences) one of desired affinity: the reader wants to enjoy what they are reading and will draw nearer unless driven away. What drives readers away? A writer whose face is too visible, who leaves no room for approach, whose structure and style put the reader off. On the other hand, a writer who ‘lowers the gaze’, who turns ‘side-on’ to the reader, who permits the reader to contribute, will encourage a closer relationship. In the end, the reader may feel safe and delighted enough to walk all the way into the book and be transported.

Fiction uses a non-verbal language too - even a non-written one, in the sense that it doesn’t exactly use words in a direct way in order to achieve results. I’ve named that language ‘fictivity’ elsewhere - other and better names may be found. The point is that if we do not learn that language, readers will seek escape from our work; using that language, they will enter into that symbiotic relationship with the writer which is the end result of effective writing.

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