Thursday, July 9, 2009

Everything I Know About Writing, I Learned From My Dogs

By Beth Terrell

I originally wrote this post as a guest blogger for "Working Stiffs," but I decided to repeat it here because I wanted to share it with you, and I don't think the two groups share many of the same followers. (It's a great blog, though, if you want to check it out.)

There is an old bumper sticker floating around that says, “Dog is my co-pilot.” As a writer, I could say “Dog is my muse,” or “Dog is my inspiration.” My husband and I share our home with two papillons: Luca (a.k.a., His Lordship of Eternal Cuteness, Light of a Thousand Suns) and our new puppy, Willow (a.k.a., She Who Seeks to Topple the Throne). While they never remind me to use the active voice whenever possible or to write 1,000 words a day (4,000, if I want to keep up with the tireless Joe Konrath), I have learned much about writing from them. Here are just a few of the lessons my dogs have taught me.

Love unconditionally. At first glance, this seems like a lesson for living, rather than a lesson for writing, but think about that manuscript you’re working on. Parts of it are polished and elegant, while others are awkward and rough. You give birth to a first draft that seems like the most beautiful baby in the world. Then you realize it’s a red, wrinkled, colicky creature that leaks at both ends and squalls like an air raid siren. You love it anyway. It’s that unconditional love that allows you to shepherd your little darling through the gangly, acne-pocked stage and mold it into the magnum opus you always knew it could be.

Take the time to do things you enjoy. Even a work-driven border collie occasionally takes a few minutes to gnaw on a bone or roll in a rotting squirrel carcass. We writers should do the same. Well, okay, not the rotting squirrel carcass. I lean more toward a Hugh Jackman movie and a box of Godiva chocolates. But you get the point: balancing work and play is important.

Savor every moment. We writers spend a lot of time in our own heads. I sometimes get so caught up in plans for the future (If only I could afford to write full time…Just wait until that hungry young agent comes to his/her senses and decides to offer me representation) that I forget to appreciate the wonder of creating worlds and people on paper. When Luca is sniffing the neighbor’s mailbox, he isn’t thinking about what he’s going to do when he gets home or which halter he’ll wear to his clicker class. He’s completely immersed in the messages left him by that sweet little terrier mix down the street. He’s living in the now. It’s easy to focus so intently on the goal that we forget to enjoy the journey.

Feel everything intensely
. Can any creature express such utter happiness (“ahhhh, belly rub”) or such utter misery (“Crate? What do you mean, crate?”) as a puppy? It’s easy to fall back on facile descriptions of emotion, but a writer who can convey genuine emotion has a rare gift indeed. Watching the sincere emotion of my dogs reminds me to strive to be genuine in my writing.

Be gregarious. Luca loves people. On our walks, when he sees a stranger in the distance, he wags his whole body as if to say, “Look, Ma. Somebody over there wants to meet me!” His joyous greetings elicit smiles and outstretched hands. As a shy writer, I watch him work the crowd and realize that folks really aren’t so scary. All I have to do is show an honest desire to get to know them. (Of course, just to hedge my bets, I wrote Luca into my second book so he could accompany me to signings and attract the crowd.)

Don’t pee on the carpet. Okay. I already knew that one, but let’s think about it for a minute. Couldn’t we metaphorically equate our dogs’ soiling the carpet with the kind of self-sabotaging behavior some authors engage in (procrastination, missing deadlines, badgering his or her agent at all hours, boasting about his or her accomplishments ad nauseum, etc.)? A dog who can’t control his bladder misses out on opportunities to visit public places and other people’s homes, while a well-mannered, housebroken pup may go to the dog park, to a friend’s house, on puppy play dates, and outdoor craft festivals. Likewise, a writer who can’t control his or her behavior may alienate agents, editors, and potential fans. I know of at least one well-known author whose obnoxious behavior at a signing ensured he would never be invited back to the bookstore that held the event. On the other hand, readers will often buy books by authors who have been kind to them, even if those books might not ordinarily be in their sphere of interest.

And finally: Carpe diem, because no one can seize the day quite like a dog, especially one with literary aspirations.

1 comment:

Mark W. Danielson said...

All good advice, Beth. Lucy was always at my side when I wrote at home, and now Maxx has taken her place. Both are excellent muses and editors, carefully listening to my words as I read them out loud, and then giving their nod of approval. Of course, it's easier getting things past my pooches than my wife Lyne, who applies much more scrutiny to my work. :)