“I keep forgetting that you’re famous,” a friend recently said.
“I’m not,” I told her after I finished snort-laughing. “My clients are.”
(Of course I wasn’t mobbed by screaming fans. That rarely happens – and then, only when I’m mistaken for someone else. The incident that occasioned this comment was me remarking that I don’t post current pictures of my family online. Fame has nothing to do with it. It’s a matter of valuing my privacy. But I digress…)
I got my first book deal by nearly killing someone. Though that book project led to several others, manufacturing near-death experiences are still not a method I would recommend to writers trying to break into the industry.
I had a horse who was…difficult. I grew up riding and training horses for a professional breeding facility. I have trained hundreds of horses. This one, however, kicked my butt.
Dyfed had the attention span of a gnat and at times I seriously questioned his intelligence. At others, I questioned mine for continuing to work with him.
Dyfed’s ace-up-his-sleeve was “ditching.” When asked to walk or trot under saddle, he would grudgingly comply. When asked to canter, he would try a whole arsenal of annoying tricks, including bucking and balking, before finally cantering. Then, he would speed up, setting his head and neck like concrete so he couldn’t be steered or stopped, start running flat out – and throw himself on the ground.
The first time this happened, I thought the horse had stepped in a hole. I hand walked him back to the barn, ignoring my own aching body, feeling culpable, searching him for any lameness. When the ditching began happening with frightening regularity, I called in veterinarians, chiropractors, and acupuncturists. Dyfed repeatedly got clean bills of health. I consulted horse training friends and knowledgeable professionals, but came up with nothing actionable. So I got wimpy and stopped cantering the horse. I seriously considered putting him down because he was too dangerous to ride and I couldn’t in good conscience sell him to someone else.
As I was nearing the end of my rope, and Dyfed’s time was running out, a friend met an up-and-coming young horse trainer at an equine expo and booked him to give a training clinic at her farm.
He came to Michigan from Texas, a young Australian with an accent so thick you had to pay attention to every word just so you could decipher what he said. Early on the first day a woman tried to explain to him what her horse was doing wrong. He shut her off mid-rationalization with a short “No excuses, Mate. Don’t tell me what the horse can or can’t do. Just get out there and work.”
He was so adamant that we not make excuses for our horses’ bad behaviors that he didn’t even want us to waste time telling him what those behaviors were. If we just did the exercises he showed us, he said, the unwanted behaviors would go away.
And he was right! The horses all responded quickly to his techniques when we worked them on the ground. Then it came my time to ride. Dyfed walked and trotted with no trouble.
“Lope him off, Mate,” the clinician instructed, using the Western word “lope” for “canter.”
So help me, I couldn’t. I just couldn’t make myself do it. I tried, but my heart wasn’t in it. The horse realized this and speed-trotted around the ring with me jackhammering on his back.
“No, no, no,” the clinician instructed. “Get off. I’ll show you. You’ve got to get the handbrake off.”
He jumped on my horse and asked him to move. Finally, after a few halfhearted cowkicks, Dyfed started cantering. He had a lovely, easy, rocking-horse gait, and I felt like an idiot for not riding through my fear.
Then, the horse picked up speed. He stretched out and began to cover some serious ground. “Um,” I said eloquently. “You might want to be careful—“
“This is good for him,” the clinician assured us. “He’s just—“
We never found out what he was just doing because Dyfed came powering around a corner, folded his front legs, and flung himself down in the dirt at a dead run. He launched the clinician from the saddle in a perfect parabolic arc.
Oh my Sweet Aunt Fanny! I’ve killed the man!
Fortunately, the clinician lived. Not only did he live, but he fixed my horse and showed me how to make the fix permanent. (Side note: Today, more than 10 years later, Dyfed is a dream to ride. Anyone can ride him without taking out additional life insurance beforehand.)
Later, during the lunch break, I approached the clinician and apologized for, you know, the whole flinging him on the ground thing. We got talking. He asked what I did. I said I was a writer, to which he replied, “I need one of those. This publisher wants me to write a book. I’m a horse trainer. I don’t know anything about writing.”
“When you’re ready to write, call me,” I said. Privately, however, I thought, “That’s not the way it’s done! Publishers reject manuscripts. They don’t assign them.”
Shows how much I knew about publishing.
Five years later, my phone rang. “Hey, Ami? You still want to help me write my book?”
I was 9 months’ pregnant at the time, so I said the only thing that made sense. “Of course!”
And that is how I wound up working with Clinton Anderson. When I met him, he wasn’t famous either. Now, with a television show, DVDs, multiple books, sponsors, Vegas venues and more, he’s a rock star in the horse industry.
My work on Clinton’s book has led to a variety of writing projects for legends in the equine and sports worlds. I’ve been privileged to work with Olympians, world record setters, and gold medalists. I’ve written for cutting-edge headline makers and for those whose decades-old records still stand. I’ve stayed in their houses, enjoyed their hospitality, and gotten unfettered access to their brilliance.
It’s not always fun being the working writer instead of the famous star. I’ve been places where the expert whose book I just wrote is so busy signing autographs that he refuses to shake my hand or even acknowledge me. Some of my biggest and most prestigious writing projects don’t even bear my name, which makes for interesting tap dancing when people ask what I’ve done.
Still, for the most part, I have the best job in the world. All because when someone asked me what I did, I said, “I’m a writer.”
When I speak to wannabe-working writers I advise them to take themselves seriously.
Do you want to be a writer? Good.
Do you write? Even better!
Can you absolutely, positively, no-questions-asked finish what you start? Can you take criticism and work within a deadline? Now we’re cooking with gas! If you have the skills and know you can deliver, when people ask you what you do don’t hesitate to tell them. Say “I’m a writer,” and mean it! Keep developing your craft and strengthening your skills. One day (perhaps when you least expect it) it will all pay off. You might not be famous, but you’ll be something even better: you’ll be working!
Ami Hendrickson is a bestselling author and award-winning screenwriter. Ami is the ghostwriter for several internationally recognized master horse trainers and other notable experts. She is also the editor of the official Trainer’s Certification Manual for the United States Hunter Jumper Association (USHJA).
Ami specializes in teaching writing and communication skills. She graduated with distinction from Andrews University and holds degrees in English and Education. She lives with her husband and daughter with their “vast menagerie” on a 100+ year-old farm in southwest Michigan. Ami blogs about the writing life at MuseInks. She tweets @MuseInks.