Hoofbeats, Drugs and Rock 'n' Roll: Stepping Outside Academic Writing

13th March 2023
5 min read
24th May 2023
Julie Coultas with horse Tally

Opening up to the world, putting words onto paper is hard. I spent half my life with no qualifications – unsure whether I could actually write. In 1975 I set out on a crazy endurance ride on horseback across England. The trek was the only time in my early life when I did write – a trek journal. Little did I realise that almost 50 years later, the tattered journal would help me to develop my creative writing skills.

But first I had to develop confidence. Mid-life, having laboriously passed a few exams, I applied for university. I was rejected not once but twice. Finally I got a place but knew little about the degree structure or essay formatting. University was a learning experience but not what I had expected. In my naivety I believed that I would possess a well-rounded body of knowledge after three years. I was disappointed.

I transitioned from arts degree in psychology to MSc in artificial intelligence. Rather extreme. I wanted to learn about logic, philosophy and even begin to programme. Again I was disappointed. But my rebellious nature and quirky approach to programming opened up opportunities. I studied conformity and people copying each other for my doctoral dissertation. Finally, I had found something that interested, even fascinated, me. I published on conformity from an evolutionary perspective. But then the field of study became repetitive, boring, was no longer exciting.

Stepping outside academic writing was difficult. I had learnt my writing skills through the scientific method, always having to show evidence, referencing. It was difficult to make the transition to creative writing. This is where my trek journal proved to be useful. Here’s the story. In the summer of 1975 my ex-husband and I set out on a crazy endurance ride on horseback across England. With no back up, little money and no-one to phone if we got into difficulties, we rode 327 miles sleeping under canvas every night. We rode 15 miles each day and slept in a field with our horses. One night, camping near the Savernake forest we were invited to the Watchfield Music Festival. So we even inserted some drugs and rock ‘n’ roll into our trek.

Typing up my trek diary was an easy transition into writing but it was autobiographical; I was still reporting fact based on memories. I wanted to take that a step further and write fiction. I began to write commentary on our horseback trek. Then I realised I had to put the trek into context. Why on earth had we done it? Why had we set off on the journey, giving up our life in Brighton, with nowhere to live when we arrived? What happened next?

I slowly realised that I could intertwine memory and fiction. This became my first book Hoofbeats, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll set in 1960s and 70s Brighton and New Brighton. I also discovered another type of research: What books were similar to mine? What was happening during the 60s and 70s that was relevant to my story? I wrote the book over a 9 month period and I also read extensively. My writing changed as I read and wrote. Consequently, when I reached the final chapter I realised that I needed to rewrite huge swathes of the first part. But this first book was instrumental in helping me to move further away from academia. I was ready for more.

My application for a Curtis Brown Creative (CBC) scholarship in October 2022 was successful; the course changed my whole perspective. For the first task, to write a 700 word piece, I chose to write from an object’s perspective – too nervous to write about fictional characters. During the course Tessa Hadley encouraged us to think about characters, locations, putting our readers in the moment; she also talked about ‘the dream space’, that place we allow ourselves to go before we start the writing process; imagining the characters, the locations, the emotions. It was a revelation to me. I learned so much from the course reader’s feedback and from my fellow students; some of their writing was amazing and their insightful comments on my own work helped me enormously.

At the end of the CBC course I felt that I had grown as a writer. Or perhaps my confidence had increased? During the course I started my second book. This book is different; it is in the third person, partly autobiographical; maybe categorised as autobiographical fiction? I have now found a new freedom in my writing. I don’t need to stick to facts. There are no restraints on what I can write. What a joy! I will always be grateful to my first book Hoofbeats, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll; it set me on my path as a writer. I will return to it soon but for the moment I am too busy exploring my new found freedom with words.

Julie Coultas came to the world of literature late in life. Her passions are writing, horses and psychology. She has written many blogs, including some linked to her academic work, and her passion for horses. Julie has also published academic articles and chapters in books. She's doesn't yet have a literary agent. 

Writing stage