I am catching up on Helen Humphreys reading. Talking to a friend about Humphreys’ book The Ghost Orchard reminded me of a pile of her books on my shelf waiting to be read. I love Humphreys’ writing. It is the kind of writing that I want to read all the time and could devour too quickly, so I use the writing as a treat.

The reliable Humphreys is elegant, graceful prose contained in wonderfully crafted packages. However, it also seems to me as though each Humphreys book contains a surprise. Now, I would be satisfied reading a Helen Humphreys book, but who doesn’t like a surprise?

This past week, I read Machine Without Horses. I read the book mostly on a weekend during breaks from writing my own book. I am writing a guide for parents about marijuana and during my breaks, I wanted a completely different kind of book to read. I want to be inspired by great writing so that I could write better, but it helps to read something completely different from what I am writing.

Machine Without Horses was the perfect book to read on my writing/reading weekend. What I had not realized before starting this book is that the first part of the book is about writing the actual story Machine Without Horses which is the second part of the book. What I had not realized until I started reading Machine Without Horses is that this was a book that could help me write. That was one surprise about Machine Without Horses.

Reading about Helen Humphreys’ research and process for writing her book was inspiration for me. She described her hard work and it helped me to sustain my own effort.

In Part 1 of the book, we learn how the obituary of Megan Boyd prompted Humphreys to think about writing a story about her. Megan Boyd was a well-known Scottish fly dresser – this is someone who constructs those small fancy feathered flies used for angling. Here’s a picture of the Jock Scott fly, to show those who are not sure what a fishing fly is:

To learn more about Boyd’s career, Humphreys herself took fly-making lessons. The first fly she made was a Jock Scott. Reading about how Humphreys develops a story and a book, I learned that she immerses herself in her work – another clue for the inspiring writer, especially a part-time writer like me who only has a few hours possible for immersion every day.

Part 2 of the book, the story itself, takes the form of a “biography” of Megan Boyd, called Ruth in the book as a reminder that this is a work of fiction, inspired by the character but not actually about the character. It is worth reading even without Part 1 and Part 1 could also stand alone as a guide to writing.

But here’s another surprise: the title of this book is Machine Without Horses: A Novel. As I pondered that the author in her title refers to the whole book – not just Part 2, which has the story – as “A Novel”, I began to consider how Part 1 fits into the whole book, the whole novel. Whose story is this? Whose biography?

(Note: I read the 2018 Harper Collins Publishers Ltd. edition of this book.)

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