Each dog brings a certain set of gifts to the family that welcomes it into their home. It also brings certain behaviors that may or may not be quite as welcome. If you are raising a puppy you have many opportunities to train them right from the start. If you adopt an older rescue dog you get behaviors that might have been encouraged by previous owners but that you find unacceptable. Stopping some of those unwanted behaviors might be easier than others. It’s a lot like writing a book- some books just seem to write themselves, entire chapters come out with very little revision needed, the plot falls right into place and the characters are so interesting that you can’t help but turn the page to see what happens next. Other books come out in bits and pieces, starts and stops, where we often think it is the worst thing that was ever written and can’t possibly be fixed except for those days we think every word we write is tinged with gold.
Zoey came to us at about 15 months old and with no known history except being found as a stray and spending a few weeks with a foster mom. She was loving and playful and responded well to verbal corrections from the start. The first night we had her, she jumped on the bed, the only piece of furniture our dogs are not allowed on, but when I told her off she jumped right down. The next morning she put her front two paws on the bed and I told her off and again, all four feet on the floor. She tried the same trick with sniffing food on the counter but a simple “leave it” was enough to discourage this behavior. Now we can be working on dinner with raw meat on the counter and she is happily sprawled on the floor, not even trying to counter surf. (Not that I would trust her with the meat on the counter if we left the room.)
But all bets were off when she decided she wanted to play. Zoey has no bite inhibition. Previous owners likely thought it was “cute” to have a little snowball puppy mouthing on them. The trouble is that once those adult teeth come in and a dog hasn’t been taught not to clamp down on hands and arms and legs, someone is going to get hurt. In this case, it was me. The first month we had Zoey, every time she wanted to play she would nip at my legs or jump up and nip at my hands and arms. She would get into this manic mode where she was all fired up and nothing I said or did would stop her. My arms and legs were covered with bruises because she didn’t know to not to bite down on me. And of course I made it worse because I didn’t want her to bite so I pushed her away and that merely made her think it was okay to keep playing with me. My hands were just another set of paws tapping her on the shoulder and inviting her to chomp on me. I tried turning my back on her so I could ignore her but it just gave her free access to nip me.
I’ve tried to turn my back on books that didn’t want to be written but the characters haunted me, begging me to keep trying until I got their story right. Some of them are still begging because working on them is more painful than ignoring them. I do not know that I will ever be able to write the essays I want to write about my life in New Orleans. I don’t think Flyboy’s story will ever be finished. And I am starting to think that a particular essay I started on friendship will remain unfinished. It just hurts too much to go on with it.
Our trainer taught us to teach Zoey to “get a toy” so she would always have something in her mouth. That has worked nicely for when Zoey wants to zoom around the yard. She grabs a toy off the porch and runs with it in her mouth. As long as she has the toy in her mouth she can’t nip as she is going by. But as soon as I walked across the yard to the glider to sit for a while she took that as an invitation to nip. And if I forgot to bring a toy with me it was very painful trying to make my way back across the yard and into the house where I could do a time out, leaving her on the other side of the patio door. The same thing would happen in the house, when we would sit down to eat. Zoey would nip at our feet or legs, ripping clothes (and, sigh, skin) in an effort to get us to play with her.
We started working on the “stop” command, which worked great for our trainer who had perfected the necessary low voice to get Zoey’s attention. (Our trainer can also stop her with a stare. I haven’t mastered that yet.) So I tried working with “stop” in less frantic moments, in the house, and it seemed like it was kinda worked. Except it didn’t. Because when I needed it most was when Zoey was in frantic, manic mode. That was when she was hurting me the most, so in pain and frustration, my already high voice rose even higher in pitch. The more she nipped me, the higher my voice went until “stop! stop! stop!” sounded like a really bad falsetto in a really bad song. (Plus I couldn’t seem to keep from repeating the command which is confusing to the dog.)
I tried practicing lowering my voice but I just couldn’t get it low enough to sound more like a command and less like an invitation to play. So I parked myself in front of the mirror and practiced saying “stop stop stop” in a bunch of different voices until they all ran together and then, finally, something different came out of mouth. Instead of STOP I said STOOP.
That second “O” makes a difference. My voice automatically dropped lower. Go ahead and try it yourself. I’ll wait.
Impressed? I was. I tried “stoop” with Zoey in the house and it seemed to work. We went outside and I got her riled up then asked her to “stoop” and she did. I think she was a little surprised at herself. Now I can play tug with her (one of her favorite games) and ask her to stop (stoop) then sit then to out the toy before we do it again. And she is doing it!
Here’s my theory. Zoey is a heavy mouthy dog with no training. When a dog (or a person) does something we don’t like, we ask them to stop. I’m guessing that Zoey has heard the word STOP so many times, in so many different voices, that it ceased to have any meaning to her. I needed a new word to communicate to her what I wanted her to do. And I needed a word that would allow me to naturally lower my voice so it would register with Zoey as a command.
The right voice makes a good story great. It’s the difference between finishing a book and remembering a book. Sometimes a character comes to me, whispering in the voice that I know rings true. But other times finding a character’s voice is a battle, a battle that has to be won in the beginning because I can’t write a bunch of crappy lines to be revised later if I can’t hear the character’s voice. The current work-in-progress isn’t easy. I write a poem I love and realize it doesn’t work in the plot. I dink with the plot and realize it doesn’t work with the characters. But the hardest thing to nail down has been the voice for each of the two main characters. I started off thinking in simple terms, one girl in a good situation who was nice and one girl in a bad situation who was bad. Then I flipped it, good girl in bad situation, bad girl in good situation. That felt better and one of the girls immediately started speaking to me but the voice of the bad girl in a good situation never sounded true and believable. It was forced because I was freaking out about writing something that cut so close to the bone of my own life story. The closer I got to me, the more “off” the voice sounded. I had to force myself to try a lot of different voices, which meant throwing away thousands of words that didn’t work, until I found the pulse of this girl who was me but not me. Until I could hear her whispering to me, begging me, to get her story down.
Zoey has made amazing progress with her nipping in just the last week. I’ve continued to use STOOP as my stop command and it continues to work for Zoey. That’s not to say that all nipping has disappeared. But when it starts, I can stop it with just one word, the right word for me to get my message across in the way that Zoey needs to hear it.
Love might be the first ingredient needed for training a dog or started to write a new book but all too soon the love of starting something new fades and reality hits you, this is not going to be easy.
When I first fall in love with a story idea, deeply enough that I have a rough idea of the plot and how it is all going to end, I can almost see the finished book on the shelf. In my vivid imagination it is simply a matter of showing up at the keyboard or notebook every day, putting in a good day’s work, and voila, in no time at all, I have a book I can be proud of, a book my agent can sell, a book my friends and fans can buy. A brand-new book.
But of course there are no places to stumble when I am just writing in my head. The trouble starts when I sit down and start to type.
Zoey has two personalities. When she first wakes up in the morning she is a lovebug who gently nuzzles my head and neck, pushing her body close into mine as if she’s trying to merge with me. I eat it up. I’ve waited so long for a dog who wanted to be mine as much as I wanted it to be mine that if that was all she did all day, I’d probably be happy. But of course that’s not the way it works out.
When we go outside and Zoey wants to play, her other personality comes out. The one that was never taught that you can’t play with humans the way you can with other dogs. She nips at my calves and my hands. She jumps high enough that she could nip at my face. My arms and legs are covered in bruises. Some fading to the yellow green. Some fresh and blue from earlier today.
We are working with a trainer to curb this habit by teaching her the “stop” command. We play tug with a toy, tell her to “stop” and “sit” and then she gets a treat. The fact that she is food motivated helps a lot. I do this many times with her throughout the day but sometimes she doesn’t want to stop. It’s like a switch gets flipped in her brain and she is in manic puppy mode (albeit a puppy who weighs 65 pounds with steel-clamping jaws) and she doesn’t hear the word stop. All she sees is my hands and she is jumping, nipping, pouncing, ignoring the word “stop” or “no”, ignoring the toy I am holding out for her to take instead, ignoring my internal pleas for a magic fix to make this all stop once and for all. But it doesn’t stop. Still she tugs on me, on my clothes, on my legs and arms and hands and skin. And it hurts, it really hurts, and part of me wants to just turn my back on her and crawl into a ball and cry because doggone it, IT HURTS, and I don’t like getting hurt and just half an hour ago, this dog loved me so much she was melting into me.
All this happens in a period of a minute or two. Maybe three. Never long. And I do eventually break the mania, get her to stop, get her to sit. Reward her. Exhale. And it is done.
Later, in the house, with Zoey snoring at my feet, I can count up my battle scars. I can recognize that I got her to break the cycle sooner than the last time. I can give myself credit for staying calm (at least outwardly) and for making progress with this wonderful, slightly wild dog we brought into our lives just three short weeks ago.
But when it is going on, in the midst of trying to not get hurt and trying to train her to stop and trying to stay calm, it seems utterly impossible. In those 2 or 3 minutes of Zoey’s most important training, I think I can’t do it. I’m not a good enough dog trainer to curb this habit, I don’t have the skill set to bring Zoey to her full potential, I don’t know what to do next.
Yet somehow I do. I get through it. I am building my own muscle memory with teaching “stop” and getting her to do the puppy zooms with a toy in her mouth, another safe way for her to release all that energy she has wound so tight. The time for thinking and planning what I am going to do needs to happen before we go outside and engage. In the middle of a tornado there’s no time to think. I need to build the habits that will allow me to act.
It’s the same thing with writing. I face the blank page and I think I have no idea what happens next. I’m not good enough to pull off this intricate plot. I don’t have the skill set to make this the book I envision so clearly in my head.
And yet I do. I’ve been building my writing muscle memory for years. You sit down. You show up to the blank page and you move forward. Sometimes in little baby steps that don’t seem obvious until you are out of the writing session and looking back at how far you have come.
Training a dog or writing a book both come down to the same thing, a willingness to do the hard work. The kind of work that makes some people give up writing or other people throw away a wonderful dog.
Let yourself get lost in the moment. Trust that you know what to do next.
Saying goodbye to our last wonderful dog, Cassie, was heartbreaking. But it was also heartopening because it mean we could go rescue another dog, another German Shepherd, who needed a home.
I contacted Cassie’s foster mom, PJ, who works with German Shepherd Rescue of Northern California. After I told her about Cassie I asked her to keep an eye out for another dog for us. She said she had one right then that she thought would be a good match. It was a female white German Shepherd that hadn’t been posted to their website yet. I made an appointment for us to go meet her right away.
Cassie had totally bonded with my husband. This time we were looking for one who would bond with me. And if I were lucky, my heart dog.
Two weeks before Christmas we drove about an hour away to meet PJ and this new dog they were calling Noelle in a parking lot. I had seen one picture of her and been told she had a sweet personality. That’s all I had to go on. The picture was okay but it didn’t capture the essence of the dog.
When PJ and Noelle got out of the car, Noelle’s tail was wagging and she looked up at PJ as if to say, “Time for fun?” My husband stayed back, even though I knew he was dying to pet her, and let me touch her first. As soon as my hand stroked her back, Noelle leaned into me, pressing against my legs and wagged her tail even faster.
I looked back at my husband and told him, “I love her.”
He smiled and said, “I can tell.”
We did our due diligence and walked her around the parking lot, pet her some more, and then, too soon, I handed the leash back to PJ. We started the hour drive back home to discuss the possibility of bringing this particular dog into our home. (No matter what we wouldn’t have been able to take the dog home that day since the rescue group needed to do a home check to make sure we were set up to live with a GSD.)
As a writer, I never run out of ideas of what to write. I have 7 novels waiting in the wings, a list of 23 potential essay topics and a notebook full of snips of poems-yet-to-be. But before I can sit down and actually dig in to do the work I have to have one idea that obsesses me. One character that has me head-over-heels in love with it, so in love that I am willing to follow it through the pain of outlines and crappy-first-drafts, the frustration of writers block and the joy (tempered with frustration) of multiple revision. I have to love a story a lot to be willing to go through all of that.
It’s a lot like making the commitment to bring home a new dog. Not just any new dog, but a rescue dog where you have no idea of the history of the life she has led before becoming a part of your family. Would she like other dogs? Would she chase cars? Would she dig hundreds of holes in the garden? It’s a gamble. The foster parent can give you a general idea of temperament but most dogs don’t show their full personality until they are in a new home for 2-4 weeks. This is what we were told about Noelle: she was found wandering as a stray in Monterey. She had ears full of foxtails. She had no tags, no collar, no microchip, and she hadn’t been spayed. (All marks of an irresponsible owner.) She appeared to be sweet-tempered but PJ had only had her a couple of weeks so there was still much of her personality to uncover.
But I knew. I felt that tug on my heart the same way I do with a story idea. I wanted this dog. I needed this dog and she needed me.
Halfway home I asked my husband if I should call PJ and tell her we’d take Noelle. He said we should at least make it appear that we had spent some time discussing it and I should wait until we got home. An eternity later (okay, an hour) when I called PJ to tell her we wanted Noelle, she said, “What took you so long?”
In just a few (oh-so-long) days, after the home visit, Noelle, whom we decided to call Zoey, came home to her forever home with us.
I can’t start a new book without a title that I feel has a pretty good chance of sticking with the book after it’s published. I can’t write a story without the right names for the characters from the start. And I can’t write at all if I’m not feeling the love for the book or essay or poem that is waiting to be written.
I’ve been in the writing business over 25 years. Along the way I’ve written and sold, greeting cards, short stories, essays, picture books, educational books, poetry, newspaper articles, magazine pieces, and novels. I’ve even done some ghostwriting. I love the act of writing. I love it so much that I often took writing jobs that came from a heart other than mine. Those were always the most difficult and least fulfilling projects to work on. On the flip side, there was a time in my life that I was working three stressful jobs just to try and make ends meet, worrying about my kids who were fighting some hefty battles, and dealing with some health issues of my own. Yet somehow, in the middle of all that, I managed to write Hugging the Rock. How? I loved the story I was trying to tell. I loved the characters. I didn’t mind giving up sleep in order to squeeze in a bit of writing. I wrote poems on scraps of paper while sitting in the parking lot at work trying to find the energy to go inside. I brainstormed plot complications on my lunch hour. I even called myself to leave messages on my answering machine with ideas I didn’t want to forget.
Love gives you the energy to do things you think you can’t possibly do.
Experts often say that it takes 30 days for a rescue dog to bond with their new family. I feel like it took about 30 minutes. The hour long drive home, up and over the Santa Cruz mountains, didn’t phase Zoey at all. She stretched out on her comforter in the back seat and rested. (Poor Cassie never really enjoyed riding in the car and serenaded us with high-pitched barking everywhere we went.)
At home at last I walked Zoey around the house on the leash and then let her go. She took off to sniff and then kept coming back to check in with me. She ate her dinner and took care of business in the backyard and when I invited her up on the couch to sit with me (something I have always wanted but never had from any dog I have ever owned) she didn’t hesitate a second. She folded her body like a noodle to fit into the space next to me on the couch, plopped her head on my thigh and one paw over my leg, and went to sleep.
And just like that I felt the love swell inside of me and overflow.
I know training Zoey won’t be easy. I already know she is a mouthy dog who was never taught that it is not appropriate to play with human hands and feet like they belonged to another dog. I have bruises up and down my arms and legs. But I understand. She is still a puppy, even at 15 months. She is sweet and loving and has had absolutely no training. This is the challenge. This is the fun. She is smart. Oh so smart. And food motivated. The combination makes her a joy to train. I’ll spend the next six months or so getting to know Zoey’s personality and the rest of her life working with her, training her, and loving her just because she deserves to be loved.
I’ve taken some time off from my current WIP, a young adult verse novel. This week I am ready to go back to it. I never fell out of love with my characters or their story. I had just fallen out of love, a little bit, with being me.
But Zoey has changed all that. She won’t make writing any easier. In fact, she will cut into a lot of my writing time and reading time and sleeping time. But what she gives back to me is priceless. Her unconditional love and her belief that I am the center of the universe give me the confidence to be okay with being me, the best and only Susan I can be.
Like I said, love gives you the energy to do things you think you can’t possibly do.
I wrote a letter for the Dear Teen Me website.
It was both harder and then easier than I thought it would be. By the time I was done writing the letter (and staying within the word counts) and then sorting through the photos, I had ideas for at least another dozen letters.
I think it’s a great exercise for writers trying to bring up some youthful memories.
You can read the letter here and see some funny old photos of me and my sense of “fashion” too.
I signed up to be part of this wonderful crazy-making idea that Ed DeCaria came up with – a March Madness Poetry Tournament, where poets are assigned a word and matched up in head-to-head battles. They have to write a kid appropriate poem. Readers vote, winners move on to the next round. Some of the words are insanely difficult. Some are silly. The poems are great fun to read, many of them are light, funny verse.
The seeding is random and the words range from 1 (easy) to 16 (how will I ever use this in a poem). I was seeded, randomly, at 16. Which meant I was going to draw the tough words. The word I drew was “nonconfrontational” Uh, huh. To use in a poem for kids.
Here’s what went through my mind. Is he crazy? I can’t use this in a poem for kids. I can’t use this in a poem for anyone. If he wants nonconfrontational, I’ll give him nonconfrontational. Well maybe I won’t because he lives in Chicago and I’m in California but boy, if he was here. Gee, if I was a real poet, I would probably feel differently about all this. I might look at it as more of a game, a challenge, maybe it would be fun. Oh man, looking at the discussions from other people it sounds like there are going to be a lot of funny poems. I don’t write funny poems. I write poems that break your heart and hand them back to you with an apology and a roll of Scotch tape. I can’t do this. Why did I sign up for this? Okay, maybe I can write funny. Rhyming couplets would work, right? I Sure, let’s give it a try. Oh man, that didn’t work. Double Dactyl, yes, it’s the perfect word for a Double Dactyl, the only problem is that I’ve never written a Double Dactyl in my life. And they’re supposed to be funny too. I am so not a poet yet. I need to study more. I need to learn all these forms. I shouldn’t have signed up for this. I’m not a poet.
Does any of this self-abuse sound familiar? The things we writers do to ourselves. I actually considered quitting without posting anything. Yes, dumb, I know.
But here’s what finally came to me. I was trying to force myself into a mold that no one told me I had to fit into. I don’t write light and funny verse. I don’t read much light and funny verse. I’m not a light and funny verse kind of writer.
So I decided to do something radical. I decided to lean into my strengths.
And as soon as I let go of all those preconceived ideas of what I was SUPPOSED to write, the poem came together. In ten minutes.
Writing is tough enough. Let’s not make it any harder than it has to be. Lean into your strengths. You might just surprise yourself.
I hope you’ll go read my poem for the poetry match-up. Voting is only open for the next day and a half and you can only vote once. So please read, vote and share.
And of course, I hope you’ll like my poem, At 13 I Walk on Eggshells, enough to vote for it.
When I woke up this morning I knew I wanted to write something about how quick we are to see the negative in our lives and in ourselves and how seldom we celebrate ourselves or feel bad talking about something that went well for us. We can shout it from the rooftops for family or friends but all too often we can’t do the same for ourselves. Many of us have negative loops that play in our head, telling us we’re not as good as we think we are, telling us that book we’re trying to write is a waste of time, that piece of art isn’t really art, and that meal you thought came out so well was boring and overcooked. I’m all for changing the tape on that background noise. How about you?
Here’s the new chorus I want to hear in my head. I’m forcing myself (I’m saying “force” because it’s not a habit yet.)
- I’m good at writing. Not just writing in general but I’m good at writing the kind of stories that get under your skin and tug at your heart and sometimes make you cry.
- I’m good at taking every day moments, like something that happens in the garden or an observation of my dog or a teaching moment in the classroom, and writing about them so that most people can relate to the situation and the story.
- I’m good creating a home that is welcoming to all who come to visit.
- I’m good at reading fast.
- I’m good at supporting my friends and kids and encouraging their dreams.
- I’m good at listening.
- I’m good at making other people feel at ease.
This isn’t an easy thing (for most people) to do. I know I’m good at other things but when it came to actually putting them on the list I found myself hesitating. Maybe next week it will be easier to add to it. I also stopped myself from being snarky and saying how good I was at doing things that were bad for me because I don’t think that goes with the spirit of the exercise. You don’t have to qualify your talents. You do have to accept them.
It takes practice for most of us to be able to talk about what we do well so here’s your chance. Tell me what you do well. Don’t counter it with I do this but I stink at that. Trust me, I had a corresponding negative thought for everything I posted. Start each sentence with “I’m good at . . . ”
Ready, set, go!
Today, in some parts of the blogsphere, it is known as Thankful Thursday. Thankful Thursday was started by writer L.K. Madigan, an amazing woman whom I met on Livejournal. Today is also the one year anniversary of Lisa’s death. Jama Rattigan has a wonderful tribute to Lisa on her blog.
“It is good to love many things, for therein lies strength, and whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done with love is well done.” - Vincent Van Gogh
I’m interested in a lot of things. Writing novels and essays and poems. Making art. My dog. My California native plant garden. The birds and other wildlife that visit my garden. Photography.
Any one of those could be a full-time job and sometimes I make myself crazy jumping from one thing to another. And sometimes I beat myself up for what I fear is a lack of focus on any one thing because I worry it will lead people to think that not specializing in any one area of my life means I’m not very good at any one thing. Of course that’s complicated by the fact that I am quick to shout out my shortcomings and less quick to announce things I do well.
In moving old blog posts over here to my new blog I’ve been rereading a lot of posts, seeing if they still hold up over time and if I should keep them around. I noticed a disturbing trend, there was a lot of guilt, a lot of beating myself up for what I did and didn’t do. If I stopped blogging for a while I reentered the blog world with a long list of explanations. If I didn’t finish a book project by my personal drop dead date I got out the old hair shirt and wore for weeks and weeks. I whined a lot about my deficiencies as a writer, poet and artist. I called myself a rotten person, wife, mother, daughter, and friend. I gave a lot of space to the negative things in my life. Wow, what a bummer, eh?
There weren’t very many posts where I shouted out about how great I was doing with a book project or how a poem came together absolutely perfectly or how a piece of art went from the picture in my head to the picture on the page in a way that made me gasp. I have those moments but I didn’t write about them very often. I’d like to change that. I’d like to celebrate the every day moments of my life, the weird, the wacky, and the wonderful.
Today was a pretty typical day. The first thought I had when I woke up was about how to fix a design issue on the garden site. Which got me to thinking about the garden blog. Which got me to thinking about how I wanted to relaunch this writing blog/website today which meant I needed a blog post. So I stayed in bed, closed my eyes, and sorted through some possible blog topics. Greg Pincus just wrote a post about social media guilt and I thought about writing a response to that since I’m returning to blogging after a long absence. I decided not to because sometimes giving voice to something I’m thinking about gives it power and for once I wanted to step back into blogging without making an apology. I blogged. I stopped. I decided to blog again.
Because I want to write more Of Dogs and Writing posts I wondered if I could find a way to link them together. Which for some reason made me think of National Poetry Month and the project I have planned for this year and my Kickstarter idea for next year. Then I thought I should really write about exhibiting my art in a gallery for my very first show which has me alternately excited and petrified. (I don’t expect everyone to like my work, or to buy it – though that would be nice – but I sure hope I don’t overhear anyone talking negatively about it.) All that thinking reminded me that it was probably time to reread my three “go to” books: Art and Fear, Callings, and The Creative Habit.
Keep in mind I had all these thoughts before I even got out of bed. That’s the way my mind works.
By afternoon I had checked in with a couple of friends, titled and priced my art for the show, worked on the cover of the art journal that is also going into the show and took Cassie to the vet. In-between times I spent in my chair in the corner of the library taking pictures of the birds and then later, I wandered around the garden and captured some great shots of a few newly blooming plants.
It was a busy day. I didn’t finish any one thing and yet I am profoundly happy. I saw some progress on a couple of projects. I jotted down ideas for an art series and some notes for a poem about Cassie, and brainstormed my Kickstarter poetry project. I spent the day doing things I love.
I’m a lucky gal. I can finally not only recognize but accept that my life is always going to be a patchwork sort of life made of blocks of time devoted to the various things that interest me. Maybe that doesn’t make me an expert in any one thing. Or maybe it does.
I’m pretty good at being me.
Really. Just a little thing to share some new words of a new project with my weekly goal's group, not my critique group of published writers, a group of readers who would just be listening for story and not thinking about construction and whether or not the book had the potential to sell.
It was just a little thing to read seven poems about one of the sisters in my novel. Really. Just a little thing. Or was it?
I've been away from writing and sharing and critiquing for a while so the thought of putting myself and my words out there made me feel all quivery in my stomach, just like a brand-new writer. But I printed out some pages and put them in the car before I could give myself a chance to change my mind. After all, I didn't have to read them if I didn't want to.
At my goal's group we go around the room and share the progress we've made in our creative life over the last week and talk about our plans for the coming week.I listened to a couple of friends, one beating herself up for not getting things done and another who regularly sets and achieves her goals. And then it was my turn.
The last few months while I've been getting physically healthy I've been doing a lot of thinking, trying to let go of excess emotional baggage (okay, all emotional baggage is excess and needs to be dumped.) I've spent many years measuring my writing worth against too many of the wrong things — Whether I write like someone else or as often as someone else. Whether I sell to a certain publisher or make a certain amount of money. Whether I get mentioned some place or not. Whether my reviews are good or bad or whether my books are even reviewed.
Like I said, all the wrong measurements.
Because for me, my writing worth can't be measured by what someone else does or doesn't do for me or to me.
I needed to remind myself of that. The reason I write may not be the reason anyone else writes and that's okay. I've felt a change in my writing self the last few months. Less need to compare, to feel jealously, to worry that I am somehow not doing it right.
I'm doing it the only way I know how. My way.
Writing has always been my way of making sense of the world. I write to discover who I am and why I think and feel the way I do. I write to explore the implications of choices I have made and to investigate the whys behind those choices. I write because writing defines me.
So today, when it was my turn to share about my week, I picked up a few poems and shared a bit of my WIP with readers who just wanted to hear an interesting story. They laughed at what I thought were the funny places. They gasped when I shocked them. And I could see in their eyes that question that every storyteller hopes to see in their audience, "What happens next?"
The best stories, the ones that stick in our hearts and minds, are the ones that reflect life as it is, not as we wish it were. The ones that bring us up close and personal. Sometimes the significance of a piece of work is not just in the work itself but in the memories each reader, and each writer, brings to it.
This is why I write.
I'm going to try and remember that.
1. I’ve been cleaning my office this week and have succeeded, at last, (probably for the first time in YEARS) in having no miscellaneous paper pile. But I don’t think it will last for long unless I can figure out better homes for things I touch a lot in the office area. I tossed a multitude of PR material for books that are no longer in print. That felt odd.
2. Like my current WIP folders. I have, in no particular order, Plant Kid, the sisters book, Max the dog book, the dog essay book, another MG verse novel and a whole bunch of loose poems. I do a lot of my writing by hand and all my editing off the paper so I need to keep lots of papery things around. I have three baskets on a shelf behind my desk but paper has to go in it vertically. That’s okay for file folders but I have little snippets of paper or pictures and things that fall out. There’s no room on my desk for the folders.
3. I have two empty drawers in the file cabinet in my office so yes, I could put the folders in there but there’s something weird about me (okay more than just one something weird about me but here’s ONE weird thing) I like to have all my stuff out where I can touch it, see it, not hidden away.
4. I have three drawers of nothing but potential books and articles. Some started and then abandoned. Some just filled with ramblings and research. These go back 15 years at least. I’m thinking I should go through them and if the idea no longer appeals to me, I should toss them. But that feels really weird to do.
5. I also have giant stacks of papers from books that have gone through various versions and have editorial marks on them. I’m not famous enough to think they should be donated somewhere. I’m about ready to toss them but it feels weird to think about doing that too.
*** Okay, this is not office related but LiveJournal related. Why can I no longer choose html formatting??? Also my tags no longer auto fill??? And when I look at this in the preview, it shows no date at all.
Last nights #kidlitchat on Twitter had a two-sided topic. One question was what to do when you are blocked with a current writing project. That one generated, as expected, a lot of great tips for jump-starting the writing machine.
But I want to talk about the other side of the question that didn’t get much (if any) discussion – what, if anything, can we do to jumpstart or revive a stalled career?
I guess the first question is, what’s a stalled career? So much of this business is out of our hands. We can control one thing, the manufacturing of a product to sell, a book, a poem, an article. A speech to give, a class to teach. We can control to the quality of that product and we can control the completion of that product but the actual sale of that product, the sale which builds our career, well, we have no control over that.
So is a stalled career one in which you used to sell and now you don’t? Is a stalled career one where you made it to one level of income and you’re trying to jump to the next level? Is it that you want to be more known that you are now? What is a stalled career?
And the bigger, more important question is, what can you do about the state of being stalled? Because if you can’t do anything you might as well just hunker down and get back to work on what you can control – the writing.
I’m interested in your thoughts.
I picked up this wonderful muse at a little shop in Pacific Grove called Tessuti Zoo. I’m trying to find the perfect name for her. Suggestions, anyone? , originally uploaded by susanwrites.
I decided my new artsy self needed a new muse. I picked up this wonderful doll at a little shop in Pacific Grove called Tessuti Zoo. I’m trying to find the perfect name for her.
I’m taking an online class right now in creative journaling with Kelly Kilmer. One of the things I like about it is that it is a work at your own pace sort of thing. All the lessons are already posted and you can do one a day or none a day or ten a day or whatever. I also like that she is talking about layout because I’ve been trying to “see” things rather than “hear” stories and it’s still a struggle for me. What I have learned is that I could spend days (I kid you not) trying to copy a template and never be happy with what I am doing but once I finally gave myself permission to not follow the rules and just use the template as a jumping off point, things fell more into place. I am so conditioned to following rules that I expected the art police to show up at my door and yell at me for not creating to plan.
Silly, I know.
This is one of the pages from my journal for this class. I’m using pages from an old DayTimer because even though I have some nice brand-new books with clean pages but this is a lot of practice stuff and I figure why not use up some old stuff? I like the way this page came out. It makes me smile to think of all the wonders waiting to happen just because of what might or might not be in my pocket.
I’m thinking about my WIP, about Flyboy, and how the last few months I’ve taken a lot of classes trying to shake things up in my head in order to better get them down on the page. One class had me thinking about theme and major story questions and when I finished that class I thought, “Oh yeah I’ve got it now. I know where I’m going.” Another class had me thinking all about traditional mysteries and by the time I got to the end of the class I was sure that’s what I was going to do except then I remembered that I didn’t even read mysteries.
Do you see where I’m going here? I got so hung up on trying to follow someone else’s ideas of the rules for my story that I forgot, for a little bit, that it was MY story.
Sometimes rules are needed, to keep us safe. And sometimes they are just guidelines to get you started in case you’re feeling a little bit lost.
Remember you’re the only one who can tell your story. Tell it, please.
A lot of people took the holidays off from blogging and online activities intentionally. I took some time off but it wasn’t so intentional. I was in one of those dark holes I fall into sometimes and it sorta surprised me. But here I am and now I’m wondering how to jump back into things because it feels a bit odd to be away from everything for a while. It was good for me, though. I realized that online noise is just as noisy to this introvert as going to a crowded cocktail party so my brain has had a chance to rest. And then hubby and I got sick and this year’s cold has been a bugger to shake. I’ve beaten myself up a few times about things that haven’t gotten done and stuff that’s fallen through the cracks. But you know, sometimes you’re the windshield and sometimes you’re the bug.
Writing is one of those things that fell through the cracks. I think I know why. Or at least part of the reason why. I was working hard on Flyboy and making great progress. Then I took a few classes. The classes were all wonderful and helped me in a lot of ways but I have ended up with feedback from way too many people and it just short-circuited my brain. I needed the time away from everyone’s input so I could just let it go and then return to the project with their comments in the back of my mind but not so forward that they overtake me. At least that’s the plan.
Lately I’ve been thinking about things that soothe my soul.
Birds. We don’t have anything fancy or unusual in our yard but just seeing the little house finches or the mourning doves hanging around the yard makes me smile. They help me feel connected to nature here in the big city. And they make me feel that little things, like our native plantings for wildlife, can make a difference
Unexpected love. Cassie isn’t an affectionate dog but sometimes she just seems to know when I need a little something and will come over and nudge my hand with her nose. It might not be an all-out love fest but for her it’s a big deal so it means a lot to me.
Hearing from a friend. An email (not a Tweet or a Facebook message) but an email from a friend that speaks to my heart is a good one. Or a phone call. I do love to hear the sound of a friend’s voice.
I can see those things, or the need for those things, in my writing. My characters are always looking for where they fit into a family or a group because they need to feel needed, to feel loved, to feel wanted.
What about you? What are that things that soothe your soul? Do those things show up in your writing?
Many years I was told that I could probably have a good career in writing, under one condition. I had to get out of my own way.
20 some odd years later I’m still trying to figure out how to do that.
What do I do to block myself? I’m a big procrastinator for starters. I listen too much to other people instead of to myself. I let the fear of not being good enough outweigh the joy of writing. I worry about selling sometime instead of finishing something. I compare myself way too often to other writers or their work. Mostly I think it is a case of not believing in myself even when my friends and family continually tell me I should.
I’m older now. Wiser too I hope. I’m trying to kick all those negative thoughts to the curb.
How about you? What are your personal writing fears? What do you feel are your roadblocks to reaching your writing goals?
And more importantly, what are we going to do about it?
It’s Saturday morning and I am up and awake early for me, 8am.
The dog is quiet. Husband is still sleeping. The house hugs me like a favorite sweater. It is a perfect time to write. I open my manuscript and then . . . it is 11am and I have written but not in any of the three WIP.
Oh novel, how do I ignore you? Let me count the ways.
I ignore you with days in the garden and training the dog and
reading books that do nothing
to show you my fickle love.
I ignore you by following the trail of shiny things to buy on Ebay and
picking up total strangers on Facebook to play
endless games of Lexulous.
That is how strong is my need
to ignore you.
There is no question that I love you novel, do not fear.
I love you to the depths and heights of my ability, beyond even,
and yet there are days when my ability to ignore you
is even greater than that.
Rather than spend time with you
I clean the house that otherwise, were I to love you truly,
would be left to gather dusts for weeks.
There are closets I clean that, were I to not,
would still hold clothes just as well.
And spiders left to spin the webs in the high beams wish I ignored you
not quite as much as I do.
Yes I fear
I ignore you too well.
© Susan Taylor Brown, 2009
Many people get dogs, especially German Shepherds like Cassie, because they want protection. They want a big dog bark when someone comes to the door or they want to know that when they go walking late at night no one is going to bother them. A lot of people attend special training with their dogs to bring out those protective instincts or even send them away to special “guard dog” school. I’ve always been of the mind that if you train your dog with love, that dog will love you right back and will instinctively learn when you need protecting.
Cassie is spoiled rotten. Some might say that removes her need to guard and protect. She is also a huge people person and loves nothing more than having someone come to visit so she can jump up and down for nose tackles and butt scratches and do the wiggle worm dance. When the doorbell rings and it is someone she knows on the other side, it’s like watching a comedy show. She KNOWS she is supposed to go to her rug where she can see the front door but I have enough room to open the door and let the person in before she says hello. She does it, reluctantly, sitting on her rug, wiggling in place, with that little high pitched welcoming sound she makes that gets faster and faster until I release her to say hello.
But when someone comes to the door that she doesn’t know, it’s different. Before I even open the door she knows there is a stranger there. She barks a lower bark, not alarm bark yet but one that tells me to come check this out. She waits on her rug without wiggling or whining, watching while I open the door. I haven’t trained her to do anything but go to her rug when the doorbell rings. The distinctions are hers alone. And I have not trained her to do anything if I were to open the door to a threat but I have no doubt that if I reacted afraid of what was on the other side, she would do something to protect me.
I can fool myself and say that my backyard is for wildlife but really, it’s for Cassie. The birds and other critters can do what they want in the front yard but out back Cassie rules and she decides who gets to hang around. Birds and bees and butterflies are all welcome as long as they don’t mind her nosing around. The doves can hang out on the log while she is napping, working on her suntan. Even the squirrels are tolerated with little concern. But of late in the evenings around 9pm, there has been a possum popping up over the fence in the corner of the yard. Cassie has charged the fence again and again telling the possum it is not welcome here. On Monday for some reason the possum decided to come out in the daytime. Cassie was in the house but she charged the patio door with an alarm bark so loud I expected to see a hoard of masked criminals with guns waiting under the maple tree.
But no, what I saw was this.
Cassie was doing her job. Her front hackles were raised and she kept moving closer and closer to the fence until I was afraid she was going to jump up and try to do something to the possum. And then I worried what the possum might do to her. I know possums like to play dead but it was unusual for this one to be out in the daytime. I called Cassie off and she returned to my side, reluctantly, while the possum paced back and forth on the fence. When I caught a picture of the possum going in the other direction, I understood. She had something to protect too.
Cassie’s job, trained or not, is to make me happy and to protect me. She fulfills both of those jobs wonderfully well.
My job is to write. I have never been formally trained in it (save a few conference classes) but I come to it instinctively, knowing it is what I am meant to do with my life. To tell stories that cut to the heart with emotional honesty.
Over the years things have happened to make me wonder if I should keep on writing or just give it up. This isn’t a plea for sympathy because we have all been there at one time or another. Sometimes a bad critique has made me forget anything good anyone has ever said about my writing. Sometimes someone who supposedly loved me has said something so cutting that I wondered what made me ever think I could write at all. Sometimes it was just the act of getting one more rejection on something that felt so close that made me, for just a moment, wonder if I was doing the right thing with my life. I have had times where I told myself to just go ahead, to just quit and make a new life that meant doing other things, things that were not writing. And whenever I do this I get the biggest pain in my gut and I want to hide in a corner, curled in a ball and just sob.
Because I know I can’t quit.
Sometimes I greet writing like an old friend coming to visit. I get so excited that I am dancing in my seat and ready to do a few nose tackles of my own. Sometimes the writing is like a stranger come to call, one I don’t know well enough to understand if he is friend or foe until we have wrestled for a while. There are times when writing is so hard that I just sit at my desk and want to cry because toothpicks under my fingernails would hurt less than what I am trying to do and yet . . . and yet, there are times when writing is so easy that I forget it is my job, my business, my only livelihood.
If you are meant to write, if you feel that calling in your bones to tell stories, don’t let anyone scare you away from your dream. You will have good days and bad days. You will have sales and rejections. You will have times when you are prolific and times when you are blocked. But if you want to write, then write.
Love the writing, love the work. Then protect what you love.
We are on the downward path of weaning Cassie off the steroids and as a result we are beginning to see a bit more of her old self returning. The side effects are lessening more and more each day. Today she was not happy to hear me use the blow dryer because she knew it meant I was leaving the house. And when I came back after being gone just a short time, she was interested enough to sniff me all over for any new smells and then give me lots of kisses to say welcome home, I’m glad to see you. She picked up a stuffed monkey a few times and chased her “egg ball” around the room for a while tonight.
And I smiled.
Less than a year ago I didn’t even know this dog existed and now, now I can’t imagine not having her in my life.
I have talked to other people who have had dogs with similar and worse diseases. Some were told to let the dog go, to put it down before the illness got worse, to save themselves the pain, the money, the struggle of dealing with a young dog who had a disease that would cost them both time and money for the rest of their lives. Not a one of them did. They all stuck with their companion through it all.
I am struggling with Flyboy’s story. I broke my own pattern and started with plot instead of character. I feel like I’ve been dropped off in a foreign country where I don’t know the language. I have journaled him, written letters, journaled more, interviewed him, written more letters, ignored him, cossetted him and even yelled at him more than a time or two. And the simple fact remains, I have no idea what’s going on with the story at it’s most basic level – what does Flyboy want more than anything else in the world and what is he willing to do to get it.
How can I be working on a book for over 20 years and still not know what it’s about?
When I was writing Hugging the Rock I wrote at least 10 versions of it all the time telling anyone who asked that it was a story about my daughter and her relationship with her father. Along about version 15 I realized it was about me. And along about version 17 I finally admitted that it was about me and my dad.
I didn’t get there all at once. I had the help of a fabulous editor who constantly pushed me to go a little deeper each time, to peel away a little bit more of my self-preservation until I was raw and exposed and filled with nothing but absolute emotion and no place to put it except for there, on the page.
I’m not there yet with Flyboy. I don’t have an editor with a vision of the end story that can be my guiding light. I have to get to a certain point on my own. What I have is a sixteen-year-old boy who is a lot like I was at that age, wondering where he fits into the family dynamics. A square peg in a round hole. I can see the pieces, I just don’t know what to do with them. It’s like Cassie’s bumps, we could see them, but until someone put them under a microscope and looked real close, they were just bumps under the skin.
And I think I figured something out today. I don’t think it’s Flyboy that has to go under the microscope for a closer inspection – I think it’s me. I need to reconnect with the part of me that is a part of him. Until I do that, he’s just a name on the page, not a flesh and blood character that will have you rooting for him as you turn the page.
It might sound easy, like giving Cassie the right medicine once we got the correct diagnosis, but I’ve been there before. I know better. There are going to be side-effects from going deep. It’s not going to be pretty, not at first. It’s going to hurt to look at some of those parts of me that I know need to go into the story.
Some people might give up on a story after 20 years and no results. Especially knowing the path ahead of them.
But the thing is, me and Flyboy, we’ve been together a long time. I can’t imagine not having him in my life. He’s counting on me to tell his story.
My dog Cassie is at the vet right now getting a further biopsy of the odd bumps that have suddenly appeared on various parts of her body. I had postponed having it done because I wanted a second opinion. Somehow hearing my regular vet tell me that she had never seen anything like it over 25 years of practice didn’t inspire a lot of faith in her ability to solve the problem.
Actually, the vet didn’t inspire a lot of faith on several levels. I took Cassie to that vet two times. Once after we got her for her heartworm test and once when the bumps appeared. Both times were odd. You have to know that Cassie’s most favorite thing in the world is people. She has a passing interest in other dogs and she likes to eat but her world is brightest when there are people to meet and greet. Everyone is instantly her best friend (sorry about that kissmarypearson and those ear nuzzles forbeckylevine ) and she lives for meeting new people.
So at the vet Cassie was just being her wonderful Cassie self, so excited to see people that her whole body wiggled like a snake, faster and faster as she waited for the vet to bring her face low enough to be sniffed.
But the vet never did.
Eventually Cassie gave up waiting and jumped up and the vet was not happy. Cassie tried to sniff anywhere she could but the vet was wearing a dress (both times – what’s up with that) and the vet was not happy. She never once got down to Cassie’s level or let her sniff around.
Cassie was not happy. And I wasn’t happy either. What kind of vet shoos the patient away from her? Why wasn’t she trying to make friends with her or at least acknowledge that she was in the room? I had used this vet before but never noticed this behavior perhaps because Chelsie, my last dog, was about as opposite in personality as a dog could get and very anti-people. She was much smaller than Cassie and I’ve come to the conclusion that this vet feels much better with cats and small dogs.
It takes a certain kind of person to love big dogs. It was time for a new vet. But first, those odd bumps needed to be taken care of and I called in the experts.
I found a specialist, a dermatologist, so alas, we can’t use him as our regular vet but I love him. His practice is in an old house and all the rooms are set up like family rooms with family furniture and end tables and bookcases and not a single metal table in sight. On the first visit he sat down on the floor and let Cassie snuggle and kiss and love on him and she was thrilled. He’s had a lot of experience with these sorts of bumps and I feel confident that once we discover, from the biopsies, WHAT they are, he will have the right course of treatment in mind. When I dropped Cassie off this morning the girls in the front office were making such a big deal over her that she never even gave me another look. And that’s okay.
What does this have to do with writing? A lot I think.
Many writers have days when they think the words have left them completely. Some writers have those kinds of days that turn into weeks and months where it seems like they can do anything BUT write. I know. I’ve been there. And here’s what I came up with.
I think the words are always there, like Cassie, full of energy and just waiting for us to notice them, just waiting for us to get down face-to-face and be there. Cassie doesn’t expect anything special from the people she meets – she just wants them to stop what they’re doing and “be” with her. Sometimes we’re lucky and if we ignore the words they come up and smack us upside the face and remind us to pay attention. Plant Kid is forever whispering to me and Max gives me a growl every so often. Flyboy, he’s a bit different. Aloof, always watching, waiting for me to make the first move and spend time with him.
Sometimes I think that’s really all we need to do with our writing – just be with it. Get down on the floor and play. Forget about deadlines and publication. Forget about what your teacher said you needed to work on or what your critique group said was a weak idea. Don’t worry about what order the scenes go in or even if a certain scene belongs in the book. Surround yourself with people who will understand your writer self.
Embrace your writing with all the tail wagging, face licking enthusiasm of a dog who is meeting a new friend and who has absolutely no fear about looking stupid.
The words are there, right in front of you, waiting for you to notice them.
I just read this absolutely charming post by Jim Averbeck and it reminded me that I do have a story to share with you.
On Tuesday I went to Hicklebee’s to see Susan Patron. I went early in order to do my part for the economy and buy lots of books. While I was there, a teacher was there with his junior high book club. Valerie (one of the owners of Hicklebee’s) was showing the girls the famous autographed doors and bathroom. Every time an author comes to visit, they sign the wall. The girls were having finding the names of authors they knew like Meg Cabot and J.K. Rowling and Lois Lowry. Then one of them asked if she had Dr. Seuss and Valerie said no. She did have a Dr. Seuss story to share though and the girls brightened up a bit.
Then Valerie pulled a book off the shelf right next to where she was standing. She told them it was a fabulous book about a girl and her father. She said that would probably make them cry but in a good way. And then she said, in a rather conspiratorial voice, and the book was written by a woman by the name of Susan Taylor Brown who just happens to be this woman right here!
And with a flourish she pointed at me, standing a few feet behind her, and the girls did one of those collective gasps that made me feel like a rock star.