When I was a kid, I took several semesters of art classes at the local community college. These classes were for retired folks and the occasional homeschooled kid. (That was me; homeschooled in eighth grade.)
There was this gentleman, let’s call him, George, who took this class, semester after semester, year after year. He loved painting and over the years had drastically improved his skills.
At least once per semester, George would set up his easel and out would come … the brown horse. It was a large painting of a brown horse in a field of green.
And it was terrible.
You could barely tell it was a horse! The colors were muddy, the lines were uneven, the shading and tones of the paint … you get the picture. (Now, remember, George actually was a skilled artist. By this time, he’d started displaying and selling his works in local cafes.)
No matter what George tried, that brown horse was unfixable. There just wasn’t enough paint in the world – or an artist skilled enough – to make it look anything other than what it was: a crappy painting.
Then, one fateful blustery afternoon in early March—the kind of afternoon that makes you feel like you’ll never be properly warm again—our art instructor, Joanna, pondered George’s painting. She’d been watching him struggle with this painting for several weeks (in this semester). With a hand wrapped around her chin, she finally said,
“There’s nothing for it, George. You can’t save that brown horse. Your best bet now is to gesso the canvas and start anew.”
(Gesso is the white paint used to “prime” a canvas – and can also be used, copiously, to cover a painting.)
George was understandably upset. To my adolescent mind – I was floored. Give up? It couldn’t be saved?
Joanna, like many art teachers, had a habit of grabbing a student’s pencil or brush and with a few strokes, “fixing” a piece. A highlight here, a deeper shadow there, correcting a line (or in my case, adding in a table “horizon”) and the piece was noticeably and subtly better. If a teacher and artist like Joanna was declaring the brown horse dead, what hope was there for the rest of us?
So let me ask you this – is your piece (or passage) a brown horse? Here’s how to tell:
1. No matter how much you work at it, you can’t make the language work.
You’ve tried to convey and communicate your message and you’re still struggling. No matter what you do, you can’t make that section (or entire work) … work.
2. You keep putting it down – and picking it up.
Month go by and you think to yourself, “Yes! Now is the time where I can make that article, chapter, example work!” And yet after a few tries, it’s returned to the hard drive or drawer because it just Will. Not. Coalesce.
3. The thought of your manuscript fills you with the “shoulds” and a tiny bit of guilt.
This is the piece you’ve been told you “should” write. And yet, you’re just not feeling it. All those “you should write that in your book” add up and … you feel yucky about it.
4. You’ve hired several mentors or coaches for the same project and … it’s still not done.
You’d love to blame the coach – directly or their “system” but you know, deep down, that even if you followed their coaching, system, and advice, you still probably wouldn’t be done.
5. The edits and re-writes don’t feel like work – they feel like torture!
Edits are a fact of life – but this doesn’t feel like a minor surgery (or even an amputation) but rather doctors trying in vain to resuscitate a heart that has stopped beating – hours ago.
And your biggest indication that your piece is a brown horse is if these words are making you feel deeply uncomfortable – and you know, in your heart of hearts, that yes, indeed, you’ve got a brown horse.
It’s not your fault.
Brown horses come from not having the skills to write the message – it has nothing to do with the validity of the message itself. (Unless, you really don’t WANT to write a book and it’s a “should” book – from an external source telling you “you should write a book” and you have zero desire!)
I believe that everybody can be taught how to write. Everybody. Even you!
Years ago, a gentleman came to me wanting me to edit his book to make it ready for publishing. I discovered, very quickly, that it was a brown horse. The MESSAGE was fabulous – groundbreaking even. But the writing … it was heavy, pedantic, and didn’t match the tone and style he needed and wanted for his intended reader. No amount of editing was going to save that book from a complete rewrite.
This gentleman decided to take my edits—as much as I could give him—and keep rewriting.
And what about George? At the next week’s art class, he came in with a fresh canvas. Filled with a sketch of a still life – flowers in a vase. One of his personal specialties and one that the cafes always loved.
Joanna remarked that she’d see the brown horse again and she was pleased he’d decided to give it a rest.
He looked at her in surprise and said, “But Joanna, this IS the brown horse. I took your advice and gessoed the canvas.” And then he proceeded to splash vibrant red poppies onto the fresh canvas.
He admitted to me later, “I don’t even like horses! My wife thought I should paint something ‘western’.”
My friend, stories are what help us connect with the teaching. I told the brown horse story to a business colleague of mine – four years ago – and she STILL cites it to me when she’s wondering if she’s trying to fix something that is unfixable.
I told this story ONCE – and it’s had that lasting impact.
Imagine the impact your stories can have on your reader – when you’re telling them powerfully! With mentorship. No need to have your own brown horse from lack of mentorship.
So I invite you to join me for my upcoming class, “Finally Write Your Bestseller”, where I’ll deconstruct the ways to use story effectively and easily in your non-fiction book. Learn more here.
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