In its long and popular history with writing, the term “craft” and its associates—“toolbox,” “workshop,” “mechanics”—have always looked somewhat incongruous. Rather than bring the poet to mind, they evoke the technician or the engineer, paring back emotional intimacy in favor of writing’s nuts and bolts. Think of Kurt Vonnegut charting plot on a blackboard and supplying eight rules for writing. Or more recently, think of George Saunders’ A Swim in the Pond in the Rain looking for “structural pulses” and “organizational schemes.” Which is not to say the craft approach and its factory-fresh smell is in any way incorrect—there is no correct entry point to writing, given its subjective nature—only that what tends to get lost in the explanation of the joke is the joke itself.
Introduced by Cain as a “diary of sorts […] a diary of fiction,” A Horse at Night: On Writing is first and foremost a book about how writing might be lived and acted upon, how it is nourished and sometimes suffered. And while it would be reductive to categorize it as a writing guide, it provides privileged access to the writer’s process, to the unique creative and historical fabric that produced Amina Cain the artist. What it is not, however, is a book on craft. The author of three books of fiction, Cain is not interested here in charts or graphs, there are no blueprints for the perfect short story. “If you believe in writing as art, as I do,” she said in her interview with the Paris Review, “then you know that something can happen that has very little to do with notions of craft in the ways we usually talk about it. I hate the word craft when it comes to writing, [it] makes writing sound so boring and utilitarian.”
Instead, A Horse at Night approaches the writing as inseparable from the living, borne less from mechanics than random osmosis, the ripening of images and memory into inspiration. In this way, Cain bears most resemblance to Ralph Waldo Emerson, calling for a special kind of attention to the world, “absorbing everything around” like Emerson’s transparent eyeball. She is interested not only in the writing, but the cultural hills and rivers and skies that surround her, and how there is no distance between the self and that landscape, between the reader and the narrative.
Cain moves around this geography with a soft touch, lingering on those subjects most important to her: art, friendship, traveling alone, walking at night, the deserts of Los Angeles, her cats and the neighborhood coyotes, of which she writes with a complete affection. It is the subject of reading, though, where Cain is most generous, holding her influences on her sleeve. “After one gets out of the bath the feeling stays for a while,” she writes. “The same thing happens with reading, of course. When one closes a book it doesn’t mean the feeling of the book closes too.” Only 136 pages long, A Horse at Night makes reference to more than fifty other texts, sprinkling titles like breadcrumbs, not name-dropping (as she makes clear, some of these authors are Cain’s friends), but honoring.
As anyone who has read her fiction will know, particularly in regard to Indelicacy, Cain’s sentences are stunning in their clarity and in their breadth. A Horse at Night is no different. “I am not always writing a sentence to tell a story, exactly,” she writes, “but simply to be in the space of a sentence, to make things appear in it, to see what is possible.” To read her prose feels something like drinking fresh water in a generously lit room—the kind of light you might find in a film, perhaps, or a kitchen in spring. When applied to the subjects that matter most in her life, this leads to sentences of the most clear-eyed vulnerability, not unlike the work of Annie Ernaux. Or it can lead to a passage that, like a chant, accumulates in beauty:
“Write into the winter, and the summer, and autumn, and spring. Write into the snow and flowers and the wreaths and the wallpaper. Write into the painting and the flame of the long candle. Write into your own mind, turning and turning it. Write into L’Homme Assis Dans Le Couloir. Write into the floor, the wide planks of the mind. Write into the circular gravel driveway that brings your characters to you, that brings them to life. Write into the buffalo and the hare and the dog. […] Write into the tall ceilings. The others who were in the room. This tree that is itself in the shape of a ball. Into the shapes around it. Write into the holiday. Into the hedges that line the walk.”
Avoiding all the tropes of those popular how-to books, what Cain has managed to produce is something much more indispensable. As with Berger or Woolf before, A Horse at Night illustrates with painstaking accuracy how it is possible to live within art, as if it might play a role in everything we do or say or love, as if the self might be made up of more than the distinctly visible. More than learning the machinery of plot, what any young writer needs to know is that such a life—with its imperfections and impossible queries—is possible. “Once again,” Cain writes near the end of the book, “it’s freedom I want when it comes to writing, and in life, even within responsibility. Being unrestrained. Yet I know it will be different; it always is.”
A Horse at Night: On Writing
By Amina Cain
Dorothy, a publishing project
Published October 11, 2022
Connor Harrison is a British writer living in Montreal. His work has appeared at Lit Hub, Evergreen Review, LA Review of Books, and Poetry Wales, among others. He has work forthcoming at Action, Spectacle.