Uncategorized, Writing

How to Use a Cow’s Horn as a Paintbrush by Ronald Mackay

Photo by Andrea Leopardi from Unsplash

For reasons more obvious to a teenager than to an octogenarian, our grandchild stopped reading. We gifted him our favourite books. We took him to the bookstore so he might select a book of his choice. But he had stopped reading.

Taking a cue from his love of his i-Pad, I sought out links to science-based podcasts trying to match the interests he had displayed since he mastered mental arithmetic before he was five. His response suggests compliance rather than enthusiasm. I strive to insinuate myself into that adolescent mind to uncover why.


Tidying my study, I found the framed photograph of my grandmother. Tinted 1940’s style, it captures the Nanny who consoled us when we were overwhelmed by shined boots and slung rifles in foreign uniforms marching to Polish orders that needlessly alarmed us.

I search that face, those trust-inspiring eyes that we took for granted, trying to fathom her thoughts at that moment, who they were with, what hopes she had for a future after such war.


I struggled to put myself in the place of a successful physicist but failed parent, trying to capture what impelled him to reject his first-born. To one who has never fathered but who has felt the comfort of a tiny hand in his, to choose never to set eyes on a child made in love, poses a mystery. The result was a play that, partially at least, satisfied director, actors, playwright, and audience.

Encouraged, I now in habit the mind of Leonhard Euler’s last and thirteenth child. Magda is motivated to assist her father resolve the 18th Century puzzle of the Seven Bridges of Konigsberg. Nightly, I occupy not only her adolescent mind, but that of her gentle mother and her father famous for reconciling conflicts inherent in Isaac Newton’s calculus.

Photo by Taton Moise from Unsplash

During the Cold War, within the walls of Horezu, a 17th century monastery on the Wallachian Plain, Pearl and I watched a Romanian artisan recreate an ancient and variously coloured ceramic stove. By hand, we watched him fabricate new tiles to match the old. Once dried, he traced the traditional pattern onto the new before their firing.

On his workbench sat a rack of cow horns each filled with a coloured liquid concocted by him. Colours that bore no resemblance to those of the finished tiles. “Firing will provide colour,” he told us.

To understand his unlikely choice of brush, I immersed myself in his crouched concentration. He used each cow horn as we first learned to use nibbed pens. Ink, neither too little nor too much. A light touch. Confident strokes following rules of penmanship and artistry.


This is what we writers do. We occupy the minds of those we are not, inserting ourselves into lives we know not. Seeking. This is what we must do.

Photo by Haseeb Jamil from Unsplash

20 thoughts on “How to Use a Cow’s Horn as a Paintbrush by Ronald Mackay”

  1. A beautiful and thoughtful essay, Ron. One person’s literary “appropriation” is another person’s literary achievement. Was William Shakespeare a teenage Italian lover? Was he a fairy queen? Was he a procrastinating Danish prince? Was he a hunchbacked English king? Should he only have written about being a bourgeois inhabitant of Stratford-upon-Avon? Mutatis mutandis, ask similar questions of Cervantes, Molière, Dante, and Samuel Beckett. If one can empathize with, and “inhabit” other people, and write convincingly from their perspectives, then do so, and ignore the naysayers!


    1. You have hit the nail on the head, Palmer. Perhaps it takes someone like yourself, steeped in the history of our literary tradition to so. To view the artist’s attempt to understand and empathise as a negative is often, alas, no more than a cover for resentment at her success.


  2. Good writers should be inserted not only in the lives of those who do not know, but also, and above all, in the essence of each reader, so that they feel identified with what the writer wishes to transmit. I think, my dearest Mackay, you do that very well.

    It is a beautiful and profound text with the wisdom of someone who knows many important aspects of life. Congratulations and big hug. Nila


  3. Turns out Shakespeare was a prince, at least an aristocrat, and he travelled a lot in Italy and never wrote about the bourgeoisie of Stratford because the writer using that name was not the businessman some claim wrote the plays without any evidence, but Edward De Vere, and he had no qualms about fitting himself in any character he needed to tell his stories.


    1. Although the point you make about Shakespeare’s identity us debatable Chris, what is crystal clear is that he exercised his right to inhabit the characters he needed to tell his stories.


  4. Of course the writing has to be done with respect and without stereotypes. And I do believe there are times when it’s not okay to write from the point of view of people whose voices have not been heard.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. A great piece, which manages to convey a message without being didactic. Empathy – the capacity to enter into the mind and heart of another, to see and feel things from the perspective of the other – is one of the gifts of the creative writer. It is also THE cardinal virtue of the Left (and takes precedence over such conservative virtues as duty, honor, loyalty, self-reliance, courage, and self-sacrifice). Empathy is the sentiment that motivates whites to protest against racial injustice, men to support the feminist cause, straights to march alongside gays, and citizens to advocate for immigrants. How it ever came to be denounced as cultural appropriation is a mystery for anyone who expects consistency in a moral viewpoint. Indeed, an attempt to preempt any such accusation was probably behind a certain US senator’s exaggerated – and unnecessary – claims of Native American ancestry.


    1. Congratulations, Denise, on your elegant and concise encapsulation of the matter. It was you who set me on the philosophical path in search of truth and for that I will always be grateful.


  6. Masterfully done, Ron. Almost a prose haiku.

    Isn’t intentionality what makes all communication possible as well as purposeful? Appreciating as we express ourselves, read, or observe what others might think of what we think they might think?

    Our cat does this too in a simple way each morning as she perches herself beside her empty food bowl with an expectant expression cast toward me.


    1. I have been waiting for someone to reply with something along these lines, though maybe Palmer, Nila, and particularly Ron have stated as much already:

      What writers do, but the cat cannot, is produce a story, argument, or account that compels us to believe and engage with those representations of others’ attitudes, motivations, and interactions to achieve certain goals. Characters may even be anthropomorphized, as in my analogy of the cat, or better, the dogs in Jack London’s Call of the Wild to tell a thrilling adventure story or the barnyard animals in George Orwell’s Animal Farm to convey a disturbing political allegory. No matter who or what may be represented, though, there is a potential danger, and need for critical correction, of creating or believing texts with the intentions of demeaning, misrepresenting, or even lying about or harming others.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Writers create lies to tell truths.
    We are often blind to other people’s truths.
    Empathy brings out our better angels, but doesn’t answer all our human and writing problems.

    And somewhere in there, we try to capture tiny parts of human experience and call it “the human experience” as if one universal reality speaks for all of us.

    As a writer, I’m aware of a few realities: 1) Writing about other cultures, other peoples, other ways of being human, calls for research, empathy, some writing skill and a lot of thought. 2) I am responsible for what I write. Calling it fiction doesn’t make me any less responsible. 3) I understand that I am a privileged Black Canadian woman. Writing about less privileged Black people in other situations and other parts of the world, without the research and thinking that would allow me to put myself in their shoes, would result in a false portrayal that could harm some of the very people I care about.

    Does all this stop me from writing? No. Writers write. But if we are lucky, we make the effort to understand. And we ourselves learn some truths in the thicket of lies we create, and that helps saves us from ourselves. Plus, there’s always the rewrite. Lots of rewrites.

    Liked by 1 person

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