Of Dogs and Writing

Curb Your Enthusiasm

There are certain triggers for Cassie that let her know that someone is soon going to be leaving the house. My husband puts on his belt or his shoes. I swap out sweat pants for jeans or use the blow dryer on my hair. Any one of those things sets her off whining and pacing and jumping up and down with no thought of respectability or former training. Someone is going someplace and she doesn’t want to be left behind.

Most of the time, if the two of us are going somewhere, she goes with us. But by the time we’ve done the blow dryer/jeans/belt/shoes routine she has worked herself up into such a frenzy that it is no longer about being with us but about being in the white heat of the moment. It’s not good for her. She never calms down even after we’re in the car. She just keeps up that constant high pitched bark that I translate into “Please don’t leave me behind. Please let me come along. Please. Please. Please. I’ll be your best friend.” By the end of the trip, whether to the parents for dinner and a playdate with her cousin Circe or a longer drive to the beach, she’s exhausted in the way that a new baby is when you’ve had to let her cry herself to sleep.

I’ve seen this happen with writers sometimes. They act before they really think about what they are doing. They don’t read or follow guidelines for agents or editors. They decide to write a book in a genre that is hot at the moment even though they don’t feel passionate about that genre. They don’t read in their chosen area. They badmouth agents, publishers, reviewers in open forums online, forgetting the fact that the Internet is the world’s largest elephant and it never, ever forgets. They are so excited to be a part of this wonderful crazy business that they are jumping up and down and getting in everyone’s faces without thinking about what that might look like from the other side.

No, I don’t have a particular incident or person in mind as I write this. I was just cleaning out some files and came across a note that I had taped to my computer monitor back when I was running a 2400 baud modem (in other words, a long time ago.) The note said simply that you needed to act like a professional long before you are published.

I’ve started working with Cassie to diffuse her triggers. I might change into jeans and then go sit back at the computer for half an hour. Move the blow dryer into another room and use it but go nowhere. When she realizes no one is picking up their keys she settles back down again. After she’s calm, we can leave and it is usually a much more pleasant experience for us all.

The children’s publishing world is a small one. People move around all the time. Writers become editors and editors become agents and you never know who you will meet that will help you grow. Editors and agents are interacting with authors on Twitter and Facebook, blurring the lines between work and after hours fun. Think before you dash off that smart-aleck response to someone but at the same time, don’t be afraid to interact. I know, it sounds like a slippery slope but you can mange it if you just slow down and think before you act.

Put that enthusiasm into your writing and let your work speak for yourself.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009|Categories: Of Dogs and Writing|Tags: , |13 Comments

You Gotta Want It Enough

When Cassie first came home with us we had lots of toys waiting for her. Squeaky toys and soft toys and tug toys. But the one I was most looking forward to was the ball. I wanted a dog to play catch with and I was determined to start things off right with Cassie from the start.  Dogs and balls, they go together, right?

I rolled the ball. She yawned. I tossed the ball up in the air expecting her to catch it. She let it hit her in the heard. I rolled the ball again. She laid down and went to sleep.

She had no idea what to do with the ball.

Over the past year she has learned to fetch a little bit, especially with the egg babies, but she is just as happy kicking it around on her own.
We’ve tried throwing things up in the air for her to catch and she just watches them come back down again, usually to bonk her on the head. I prepared to give up my dream of playing catch with her.

The other day my husband and I decided to play catch with one of Cassie’s egg babies. We tossed it back and forth over Cassie’s head a few times and then suddenly, she jumped up and snatched it out of the air. We were both so surprised, and happy, that we shouted “good girl” loud enough to scare her.

We tried it again, back and forth, back and forth, and then boom! She jumped up and grabbed the ball just before it reached my fingers.

Once we had something she wanted she “miraculously” learned how to catch. She was still the same dog as she was before she started catching the ball. I didn’t train her to do anything differently. She had to make the decision that she wanted the ball badly enough to jump in the air and catch it.

There are some people who want to write because they can’t NOT write. There are some people who want to “have written” more than they want to do the work.

How badly do you want to write? Do you want it enough to do the work? Because that’s what it takes.

Thinking about writing isn’t writing.
Talking about writing isn’t writing.
Dreaming about writing isn’t writing.
Only writing is writing.

Millions of people dream of publishing a book someday but that’s all they do about it —dream.

If you want to write, you have to be willing to take chances.

Go ahead now. Ready. Set. Jump!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009|Categories: Of Dogs and Writing|Tags: , |12 Comments

Fear

Cassie is a rescue dog. That means she came to me with a whole lot of baggage. Some of it I know (a stray taken to the pound, adopted, then returned) and some of it I can only imagine. We’ve worked to overcome what we can. The separation anxiety is mostly gone now. The nervous barking has calmed down a lot. She doesn’t mind if you touch her anywhere, pick up any of her feet and tickle between the pads, lift her tail or brush her all over. I can put drops in her ears and stick my fingers in her mouth. Use a Dremel on her nails? No problem.

But she is still fearful of getting hurt. And I think it is emotional more than physical. I see it in the way she is afraid of small dogs, running to hide behind me as they approach. If I come at her with a hand over her head, she cowers. If I reach for her collar from the side, she drops her shoulders, puts her ears back and waits for the worst thing to happen. And if she goes out back and the angry teenage boy in the house behind us is yelling at his mom, she turns and runs back into the house. She’d rather cross her legs and hold it than walk out into all that angry noise. Some of these issues I still hope to overcome. Some of them, that fear that something bad is going to happen that cancels out all the good, I may never be able to completely take away.

I write from a place of constant fear.

There are the basic fears that many writers have. Fear of not being good enough. Fear of no one liking what I write, even after it’s published. Fear of success and fear of failure. Fear of being judged a certain kind of person because of what I do or don’t write about.

But the biggest fear is probably that someone will learn something about me, sometime maybe I didn’t want them to know, maybe even something I don’t know myself, all because they read my stories so closely they found the pieces of me woven between the words.

It’s what I fear and yet, it’s also why I write.

Those pieces of me that make it into the story, my heart, my blood, my tears, are what connect me to the reader. Even if it is just one person, just to know I touched someone with my words, well it’s powerful enough to keep me coming back to the keyboard no matter how afraid I might be.

My last book, Hugging the Rock, was a heart-wrung kind of story. Because of the subject matter the reader came to the book expecting to have me stomp on their heart a few times. One of my favorite reviews came from Cynthia Leithch Smith (Cynsations) who said in part, “It’s also a whole-heart book. You feel your whole heart break and re-knit as you read.‘ I admit that I like it when people tell me it made them cry. The writing of it all made me cry too.

Flyboy’s story is different. It’s not a funny story yet it’s not one that you would come to expecting to have your heart broken and put back together again. But that’s what I’m trying to do. And to do that I need to run headfirst into the angry noises and let them rain down on me.

It’s not easy. I don’t trust myself. But I do trust the story.

And I’m trying not to cower or pull away.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009|Categories: Of Dogs and Writing|Tags: , , |20 Comments

You Don't Do it Alone

Cassie’s favorite toy continues to be one of the various egg babies she has all over the house. An egg baby is basically a soft ball with a squeaker inside. It rolls but it doesn’t bounce. They come stuffed inside various plush animals and she has to remove the egg babies from the pouch in order to play with them. The blue one is her favorites. She kicks it and then chases it. Brings it to me, drops it, and then steals it back until I say, “My turn” and then she lets me throw it for her. She’s developed a variety of sounds to accompany her playtime. Yips and growls that vary in pitch mean that she is just fine chasing it around by herself. A steady bark in medium tone means it has rolled under the buffet. A short bark, like doggy morse code, means it is under one of the bookcases. If I don’t get up right away she comes and gets me, giving me the come hither glare until I say, “Show me” and she races off to wherever it is lost and lays down, nose pointed to its hiding spot. Many a time I think she’s lying to me. I don’t see an egg baby anywhere. I tell her again to show me and she doesn’t move. She just lays there, drops her head to the floor and continues to point with her nose. I have to look a little harder but she is always right.

I didn’t teach her this, this pointing thing. I just asked her to show me and followed wherever she went. The rest she has put together on her own.

There is a chair in the library that she has created a special game with. It’s a big leather chair and she can maneuver her way all the way around it (though it is a tight squeeze on the backside.) She kicks an egg baby until it rolls about 10 inches under the chair. Then she crawls close enough to slide a leg under the chair and push the egg baby through to the other side. And of course when it comes out the other side she has to start it all over again. At first I thought it was a coincidence but then I just sat back and watched. For easily 15 minutes she played the game. Grab the egg baby. Run from my office to the library and drop the egg at the last possibly second until it rolled under the chair. Then push it out one side (chew and squeak), drop it again so it rolls under the chair, push it out and repeat.

I might have said this before but she’s a smart dog.

This morning I watched her playing the game for a few minutes. The egg went under, the egg came out. Again and again and then. Well, and then it didn’t. She circled the chair a couple of times and then collapsed in front of it,  making one of those big dog sighs that make her sound almost human. I waited for a bark. A long one, a short one, anything that would tell me she was asking for something. Nothing.
Eventually she turned to look back at me, then back at the chair, and then that sigh again. It’s the kind of a sigh that makes her sound about 100 years old.

I got down on the floor next to her and looked under the chair. The egg baby sat smack dab in the middle of the space. No matter which of the four sides of chair she would try there was no way that her leg was long enough to reach it. She’d done the math and she knew, she just couldn’t do it.

I reached under and pushed the egg in her direction and she jumped up and started the game all over again.

If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time you know I’ve been working on Flyboy’s story for a long time. And I’ve had a hard time getting myself back into the fiction mode again. I could list any number of reasons, excuses, whatever, but I won’t. But slowly and surely I’ve been writing again. The words have added up and Sunday I realized I had 60 pages. 60 pages! It was enough to give me a sense of the story and where it was trying to go. It was enough to bring Flyboy and Spencer to life. It was to introduce the Cessna 310 and the Stearman.

It’s not a pretty clean and polished draft. There are gaps in logic, holes in the plot, too much detail in some places and not enough detail in others. I felt great that I had racked up the pages and then I felt horrible because I knew there were all these things wrong with it but I had absolutely no idea how to fix them. Luckily my muse (Maude) has a wicked sense of humor and she came along and bopped me with a marshmellow hammer enough times that I finally got it.

I was too close to it. I couldn’t reach the pieces that needed fixing because I couldn’t see them. I needed help.

It was time to send it to a few first readers.

Some people, there are a few of them, have early drafts that read like they are close to being submitted. Some people, there are few more of these, edit so much as they go that by the time they have 60 pages it is very close to the 60 pages you’ll see in print. Then there are people like me, and I know I’m not alone, who write really rough early drafts that get the heart and not the meat or the meat and not the heart or pieces of it all but not enough to be called close to done.

A good critique group, a handful of trusted readers, or even just a single person you can share those early pages with can make all the difference. Alone you might feel stuck and unable to reach where you need to go. With help, anything is possible, even filling plot holes and bridging logic gaps. But you have to be willing to ask for that help.

Give a little bark or a big sigh but let someone know you could use a hand reaching what’s just out of your reach.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009|Categories: Of Dogs and Writing|Tags: , |12 Comments

Play the Game

Cassie and I have a snack game we play every day sometime around noon. It’s been long enough since breakfast and still too far til dinner that she gets a little grumbly in her tummy. So I ask her if she wants snackies and if it’s time to play the game.

The game is simple. I take 3 of her dog biscuits and break them into 4 or 5 pieces. Makes it look like a veritable feast. (Sorta like putting our diet dinners on a salad plate.) Then I send her to her crate in a down stay while I go hide them. I put one under a giant pile of toys. I shove some inside the well-chewed bones around the house. I put on the chair, the edge of the coffee table. I put one under her blanket. You get the idea. Then I release her and let her go “find” the treats. It’s great fun because she loves to find them and then she gets to eat them. It exercises her brain and tires her out at the same time. Bonus for me, she usually takes a nap afterward.

I may have mentioned a time or two that Cassie is a smart dog. Today I said “snackies” and “play the game” and suddenly she disappeared. I didn’t think much about it at first. I just went to the kitchen and grabbed a few biscuits. Then I went looking for her. She had already gone to her crate and laid down and was giving me her best “focus” look. She was ready to play the game. She knew what she had to do before we could play. She wanted her reward.

I’m working on Flyboy’s story. Now. Still. Whatever. It’s gone well. It’s gone, well, not so good. Some days I can write 1,000 words, solve plot problems in my sleep and craft sentences I find so brilliant I want to write them in gold. Some days I write three sentences and I call it a good day. On Monday I reread what I had written so far and decided it didn’t stink as much as I thought it might. Last night it seemed like the most boring story ever. EVER. Today it looks fixable.

This is the way the game is played. I know what I have to do to get there. I have to put myself in the chair and write one word at a time. It’s hard. Every day I fight it. I fight going to my office chair. I fight opening the manuscript. I fight putting my fingers on the keys. But I want that reward, the finished book.

I just need to take the first step and sit in the chair.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009|Categories: Of Dogs and Writing|Tags: , |9 Comments

Want a Cookie?

Cassie’s favorite word is COOKIE. (It’s one of my favorites too.) For Cassie a cookie is any kind of a treat that isn’t her regular kibble. There’s a Cassie cookie jar in the kitchen and another one in my office. If I want to get her to move, to go anywhere, all I have to do is ask her if she wants a cookie and she pops up right away. When company comes over and I want to put her through her tricks, I reach for the cookie jar.

It’s nice having a food motivated dog. It makes training her a lot easier.

But not all cookies are created equal. Asking her to stay for five minutes at home with no distractions is easy peasy and worth a regular cookie. Asking her to stay for two minutes at the park with all sorts of activity going on around here, well that gets a better treat. The higher the level of distractions for her the better the treat has to be. (And usually the stinkier too.)

I am in awe of dogs who can be put in a down stay and stay there for what feels like forever. I’m up to about five minutes with Cassie in a zero distraction zone and with me out of her sight but it is never consistent. At least not yet.

Yesterday I worked in my office for five hours. It was a big deal to me, moving from the uncomfortable yet comforting place on the couch to the comfortable place in my office. I was productive (even with the window guy here all day) and I felt a little more professional working in my, well, work environment. It felt so good that I berated myself for not doing it sooner.

I’d like to say I got up this morning and went straight into my office and worked there all day but I can’t. For some reason I never made it back in there today. I’m going to try again tomorrow and shoot for just an hour. If I don’t expect Cassie to do a long down stay right off the bat I shouldn’t expect it out of myself either. I’ll build up in increments just like I am doing with her.

Anyone have a cookie? Chocolate chips are especially high value for me.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009|Categories: Of Dogs and Writing|Tags: , |12 Comments

The Sniff Test

During the week my time to work in the garden is governed by how many times Cassie rings the bells to go outside. When the water starts to drip in the bird bath we must go out so she can inspect the area and then retire to her hill to watch as the birds flock to the water. Several times a day we need to go out so she can nose along the coyote mint, nuzzling the bees as the scoot from flower to flower. How it is that she hasn’t gotten stung yet is anyone’s guess. When bugs skitter along on the ground she follows them, eyes on the prize so fiercely that she often trips over things in her path because she is watching the bug instead of where she is going. Of late she is fascinated with our resident Charlotte, the garden spider who has set up camp in the water feature area and can often be found waiting in her web which is just in line with Cassie’s nose. Luckily the “leave it” command seems to be working and Cassie only pauses to say hello to Charlotte before moving on.

In the mornings I am frustrated by her constant need, every hour, to go outside for something or another. I am grumpy, still waking up, and trying to get to work. But as the day goes on I find myself adapting to her rhythm. While she investigates the bugs I pull a weed or two, repot a plant or move some rocks. When she is tired we go back inside and I can go back to work for a little while.

Today I was pulling up some lovely Yarrow to divide and put into pots to grow until fall. As I separated the plants Cassie came over to check out what I was doing. I held the damp roots toward her nose and she sniffed them all around then slowly sniffed the length of the plant and back down again. She sat down and stared at me and I wasn’t quite sure what she wanted. I went back to teasing the roots apart into individual plants. As soon as I pulled another one apart she began the sniffing process again. By the third time I was also looking closely at the plant, wondering if someone had sprinkled liver or some other doggie delicacy around the leaves. Of course I found nothing.

I laughed at my silly dog doing what we call the Cassie inspection and quickly finished up the potting so we could go  back inside.

I’m taking a writing class right now, one of those look closely at your work, tear it apart so you can rebuild it stronger than before kind of classes. This is a very good thing for me.

When I got the first assignments I read them over several times and couldn’t wrap my brain around what needed to be done. I wanted to pull open my story, go right to work, turn in the assignment, collect my pats on the back and move on.

But I couldn’t do it because I couldn’t get it and I couldn’t get it because I wasn’t taking the time to look closely at what needed to be done. It’s not that I thought the story was already perfect. Far from it. It’s that I wasn’t willing to look at it word by word, as closely as Cassie sniffs those plants when she does her inspections.

I’ve always said I was a seat-of-the-pants kind of writer. An intuitive writer. I didn’t know what I did or why I did it but I knew what needed to be done. Or so I thought. Now I wonder if I was just getting by or just plain lucky.

Today I opened the assignment and tore it apart, sentence by sentence, until I began to finally see how I could apply it to my work. At first it felt forced but as the day wore on I began to feel little light bulbs clicking on. By the time I had done a couple of the assignments I could see how the few changes would strengthen and deepen the story.

Writing a first draft in fast, hot heat is a good thing. It lets you get the story down while the emotion is bubbling at the surface. But the next draft, that’s where you need to slow down and reflect word by word, motivation by motivation, until you get to the heart of what it is you are trying to say.

From now on I’m going to try to remember to slow down and give my writing the sniff test before claiming it’s done.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009|Categories: Of Dogs and Writing|Tags: , |9 Comments

You've Come a Long Way Baby

Sunday marked one year since we brought Cassie home from the German Shepherd Rescue group. A lot has changed in our girl in that year. A lot has changed in us. When she came to us, Cassie was a shy, not quite nervous but very tentative dog. Her ears were close to her head a lot as though she wasn’t sure if something bad was going to happen to her or not. Her mouth was usually closed, no happy smiling doggy face. She jumped up so high and so hard when you came in the door that it’s a wonder she didn’t break someone’s nose and she always had something to say. She had pretty bad separation anxiety and when my husband would leave the house she would make herself crazy running up and down the stairs and in and out of the house looking for him. For a long time she just wanted to be in the room with us, not necessarily being touched by us. So we let her. She didn’t know what to do with toys so we bought all kinds of them and let her experiment and pick out her favorites. Some she goes back to every so often. Some never captured her attention. And some, like the egg babies, she plays with every day.

She didn’t know much when we got her. She was young and a stray but I don’t think anyone spent much time with her during that important bonding time. But in the last year she has learned the basic commands like sit, stay, wait and sometimes, come. She’s learned how to ring the bells to go outside and to ring the outside bells when she wants to come back in. She’s learned a lot of tricks like waving bye-bye, shaking hands, spinning, rolling over, find it, tell me a secret, and my favorite, peek-a-boo.

She’s come a long way baby.

None of these changes in Cassie happened to overnight. They took time. They took patience. And some of them took a large amount of “do overs.”

It’s been 9 months since I was laid off from the day job. I’ve been up and down. Twelve different kinds of nervous wondering if I could “make it” as a full-time writer. Make it is hard to define but for me it means not having to go back into the cubicle.

Because I was worried about all sorts of things I’ve spent the last 9 months focusing on doing as much freelance work as I could, wanting to prove that I could do what needed doing. The last few months have been hard, filled with a lot of work, a lot of deadlines, not much time for fiction, and no small amount of stress. I was whining a lot.

As I sat here tonight looking at my beautiful dog I realized how very much my life has been enriched in just this first year with her. I’ve learned patience as I’ve worked to get her to bond with me. I’ve learned how to laugh more because of her silly antics and funny noises. I learn love teaching her new tricks. I love watching her get brave in new situations. I love seeing her happy face staring back at me because she is just so happy to be here, now, living this wonderful life she is living.

And I started thinking about all I had done in the last 9 months. Designed and installed our wildlife garden. Taught social networking for authors in a variety of places both online and in person. Wrote a bunch of articles and a ton of WFH projects. Did a haiku a day for the month of April. And wrote a goodly number of new pages on Flyboy and Plant Kid. Nothing to sneeze at as long as I don’t fall into the trap of comparing myself to other writers who live different lives than mine.

I’ve come a long way too. I just needed to slow down long enough to recognize it.

When was the last time you stopped and really took stock of how much you have already accomplished in your writing? We spend a lot of time talking about goals and how we are always reaching for that elusive dream on down the road. I suggest you take a few minutes to just stop and turn around. You don’t have to let go of reaching for that goal but maybe you ought to take a good look at just how far you’ve already come.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009|Categories: Of Dogs and Writing|Tags: , , |9 Comments

A Matter of Trust

Cassie likes to nap in whatever room I am in. When I get up to go into the kitchen for a drink of water she move from her bed to the center of the library so she can still see me. If I stay in the kitchen too long she will move to her rug in the entry area, the closer to see me. What she doesn’t like is when I go in the bathroom and shut the door. If the door doesn’t latch, she pushes it open, again and again. If it is completely shut she will lay down as close as she can get, nose facing the door, so as not to miss me when I come back out. It’s like she’s afraid there’s an escape route in there that she can’t see and I’m going to leave the house, leave her, without saying goodbye.

I tell her trust me. I’ll be back.

She’ll often respond with one of her big dog grumbles as she sinks to the floor to wait.

I use the phrase trust me a lot in our training. At the park I ask her to jump on and over a variety of strange things. Sometimes she hesitates, pauses to glance at me, make sure I really want her to jump up on that spinning merry-go-round. I say, “Trust me” and then give the command and she always does what I ask.

I treasure that trust and do my very best not to abuse it.

When you’re writing a novel a lot of things can happen that you didn’t plan on. You hear writers say that something came out of nowhere but it works so they let it stay. And sometimes you have to try a bunch of things that don’t work just so you can figure out what might. With me it usually starts with a character who wants to go someplace or something that makes no sense to me. My job as a writer is to follow him wherever he goes and to trust that it will all make sense later. And even if it doesn’t make 100% sense later, chances are that it will probably lead me in just the right direction I need to go. The story will tell itself to you if you let it.

For the last 20 years, no matter what version of the novel I was working on, Flyboy has always had the same main goal. Always. Recently he stood up on the page and pointed me in a different direction. This, he said, this is what I want more than anything else. Really.

Moments like this scare me in my writing because I am so afraid of doing the wrong thing, of messing up the story, of missing the target and falling on my face. Is this really the direction I want the story to go? If this is such a great idea why didn’t I think of it 20 years ago? What if I spend all that time following him down this new path only to find out that it goes absolutely nowhere?

Regardless of all those thoughts, I know what I have to do. I have to explore all the possibilities. I have to follow Flyboy down a new path and see where it takes me.

It’s just a matter of trust.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009|Categories: Of Dogs and Writing|Tags: , |13 Comments

Finding Your Place

Cassie has a rug about 10 feet from the front door. It’s her place to go to when the doorbell rings and she has to wait until we tell her she can get off it and say hello. The idea, of course, is to keep her from hurling her giant self at the person coming through the door. In the kitchen she has a rug too. It’s her kitchen place and if she is in the way in the kitchen we can tell her to go to her place and that’s where she waits. In the library, which is where we spend the evenings with our laptops and the TV, she has another place. When she’s done playing for the night she crashes there, getting up to rotate every so often but most of the time staying there as though it were a giant doggy playpen. She has another “place” in my office and yet another up in our bedroom. And of course she always has her crate when she wants to retreat to her cave.

I think she likes knowing that when life gets too overwhelming and she needs a break she has a place she can go to rest and restore her spirits. When she’s feeling rejuvenated (or when we release her from a stay) she bounds forth ready to be here, be now, and be real.

What a smart dog.

I have a place too. I have a beautiful big office with a view of my new garden. There are still things to be done there, tweaking and some more shelves and I probably ought to throw a few things away, but it’s a beautiful room with a big antique oak teacher’s desk for my computer and an antique library table facing it, covered with my latest research books. I have a comfy reading chair facing the garden with a view of the bubbling rock and the bird bath.

But I don’t write in my office.

Instead I sit on the couch in the library with a lapdesk on a pillow across my knees. I shove a couple of pillows behind my back and type in a position that is far from ergonomic. I know this because my shoulder is getting worse and my wrists are complaining and basically I hurt all the time.

What a silly human.

Right now it’s late evening. Cassie is curled up in her bed in front of the fireplace, grunting or groaning every so often, reminding us in her doggy voice that she is still here, still watching over us. Her tail goes thump, thump, thump, and I have to smile, wondering what she’s dreaming of.

What a smart, happy dog.

Me? I’m sitting on the couch, hunched over the laptop, trying to remember if I have any Motrin left to take later.

I don’t know what keeps me from writing in my special place but I think I need to figure it out.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009|Categories: Of Dogs and Writing|Tags: , |16 Comments

Morning Routines

Cassie is better than any alarm clock I’ve ever had. At 6:30 she stands up, gets out of bed and then plops down on the floor next to me with a groan that sounds like she is 100 people years old. I think it is a warning to me that it is about time to get up. At 7am she sits up and watches me. I peer at her from between mostly closed eyes. She comes over and nuzzles my hand then moves back a few steps to her sitting position. There’s no way I’m getting up at 7am so that’s my cue to roll over and tap my husband on his shoulder so he can get up with Cassie and get ready for work. As soon as I poke him awake she runs to his side of the bed and lets loose a flurry of moans and quiet yips and such a variety of noises I’ve never heard from a dog before. She only makes them in the morning. For him.

I have no idea why she doesn’t wake him up first but this is our routine. During the week I get to sleep and on the weekends my husband (yes, one of the good guys) gets up, takes her out and then brings her back to bed again. She likes having breakfast about the same time ever day, after her morning walk and before her morning nap.

Every day, At 9:15 and 3:15, the dripper turns on to feed the birdbath. She can’t hear it but still, at 9:16 and 3:16 every day she rings the bells to go outside and watch the water flow from the top bird bath to the lower one. She needs to work on her suntan twice a day, once in the backyard and once in the front courtyard. Before bed, every night, there is the nightly inspection of the yard. She walks the fence line, sniffing in a purposeful fashion as though to make sure everything is as it should be before bed.

With Cassie there is a time to eat, a time to exercise, a time to work, a time to play and a time to nap. She staggers her events throughout the day with a regularity that amazes me. Cassie’s been with us almost a year now and I’ve watched her go from a nervous, sad dog to a mostly calm and always happy dog. Stress for her is mostly a thing of the past. She follows her routine, filling her day with the things she loves, and crawls into her fluffy dog bed at night, making another, different, assortment of sounds that say to me, she’s a happy dog.

I’ve been laid off from my old day job for eight months now. The only routine I have is that I have no routine. I’ve never been especially good at setting them in place but now that I am writing full time I can see the need for one. I need time to read, time to write, time to exercise, time to garden and time to sit still with Cassie and just be. My ability to focus on any one thing has been hard of late for a variety of reasons that don’t really matter here. Some of it is, I think, about getting older. I used to be able to jump from diapering a baby to making dinner and talking on the phone (back when they had cords) and not skip a beat. Heck, some days I did that all at the same time.

I think I’m going to take another lesson from Cassie. No more Superwoman trying to do it all or do it all day all the time. I’m going to chop my day up into bite-sized pieces that work for me and see if I can plug them into a routine that works for me.

Any routine that includes nap time has to be worth checking out, right?

Wednesday, July 8, 2009|Categories: Of Dogs and Writing|Tags: , |4 Comments

On Guard

Cassie has had it easy lately. I haven’t been doing as much work with her as I have in the past. Partially because a lot of the basics are trained and she just needs to be reminded of them and partially because, well, life has felt like a little too much in places. A little too crowded and sometimes a little too overwhelming because I feel so ill-equipped to deal with, well, “stuff” to use the technical term.

But Cassie’s a smart dog and has been learning things on her own.

Things like, there’s Al, the good postman, who always wants her to come out to say hello and give kisses; Mark, the okay postman, who mostly ignores her, and Frank, the big bad postman, who is terrified of her, especially when she goes right up to the screen door to say hello. So now she whimpers when Al comes so I can let her out into the courtyard and they can both get what they want. When Mark comes she waits majestically at the screen door, tail thumping when he says hello. And when Frank comes she stays on her rug, far enough away from the door for him to feel safe enough to deliver the mail.

Things like, Uncle Bryan and Uncle Dave are soft touches when they come over to visit because if she sticks close to them, treat magically falls from their fingers into her mouth. And if she performs tricks without being asked, they fall even faster.

Things like, if she rings the bell enough times I’ll eventually stop what I’m doing and go out back with her, if only to sit on the loveseat and watch her watch bees or work on her suntan. She gets what she wants and I get a break I didn’t know I needed until I had it.

What impresses me most of all is that she is learning how to keep guard of me without me doing anything at all. We’ve had a lot of strangers in the house lately. I’m selling stuff on craigslist and the roof guy was over and then the window guy and each time there’s someone new, Cassie has a routine. First she barks like crazy from her place about six feet from the front door. Then, if I let them in, she sniffs them all around and follows us whereever we go. If I stay standing, so does she. If I don’t open the screen door and someone, say a sales person, stays on the other side, she barks until I either let them in or they go away.

I haven’t been blogging a lot lately. Haven’t done much on Facebook or Twitter either. I messed up in a couple of places. I gave away some power and forgot to grab up some power that was offered to me. It’s messed with my head in a lot of ways. And anything that messes with my head, messes with my writing.

Today the roof guy came over so we could sign the papers to get started on the new roof. Cassie went through her whole routine –  barking, standing, following. When we went into the kitchen and sat down at the table she finally decided it was okay to sit down too. But she placed herself a slight distance away, between the roof guy and me, facing him. It was a classic German Shepherd guard pose and I wish I had captured it with a picture.

I wasn’t ever in any real danger but I like the idea that she is there, watching out for me when I might be too out of it to watch out for myself.

This is what I want to learn how to do with my writing life. I need to figure out what I love to do, what I tolerate doing, and what makes me so mad I just want to run away and not do at all.

I need to find my sweet spot, the things that make me want to write, whether or not treats magically fall from the sky.

I need to remember that sometimes taking a break from doing something I love in order to do something else I love is exactly the right thing to do.

Mostly I need to learn how to guard myself. To step back, watch and wait.

To remember that no one is going to care about my writing, my words, my work, as much as I do and if I don’t care enough to guard them well I shouldn’t be surprised when they are taken from me.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009|Categories: Of Dogs and Writing|Tags: , |14 Comments

Devotion

Cassie goes pretty much everywhere I go. When I change rooms at home, from my office to the library, she follows and plops down into her bed in that room. When I go into the kitchen, she follows and either waits by her food dish, hoping goodies will magically appear or waits on one of the rugs with her “adorable dog is starving and you ought to feed me goodies now face” until I cave in and give her a treat. Even when I go into the bathroom, she follows me. If I don’t close the door all the way she noses it open. If I do, she lays down, nose pointed right at the door, waiting for me to come out again. When I work in the front yard she waits in the courtyard, keeping guard. When I work in the backyard she is right there, nose poking into everything I do.

I love this. I love this devotion more than I can say. And I try to echo the devotion right back to her. She has tons of toys. She gets two meals a day abd yummy treats for doing tricks and sometimes just for being cute. She has fresh water in the house, in the front yard and in the backyard. She goes on daily walks, rides in the car and sleeps in the bedroom with us. Spoiled rotten, oh yeah. And like I said, I love all of this. Really I do.

However. As many of you know Cassie has a set of bells she rings when she wants to go outside. It’s become quite the routine with my husband and I working from home, one of us just getting settled at the computer and her highness rings the bells. The other one of us will yell “I’ll get it” and come to open the door. We never know when she needs to go out to do her business, when she wants to go out and work on her suntan, or when she merely wants to get our attention so we will come play with her.

But now there is a new trick. In the evenings my husband and I are usually both in the library with our laptops on our lap. Cassie, after her dinner, is reclining in her bed in front of the fireplace. After a bit of a nap she rises, stretches, and walks over to ring the bell. I get up and open the door, expecting to see her bound off to the bushes for some private time.

But no. She just drinks the water out of her bowl on the back porch and comes back inside. We have a large house but not so immense that it is that much farther to walk to the kitchen for her water. In fact, it’s probably almost equal distance.

Does she do it because the water tastes better outside? That’s what one person told me, that the chlorine would have evaporated faster from the water outside so it would taste better. Does she do it because it means one of us will have to get up and wait on her? Sometimes it feels that way. But maybe she just does it because it feels good and she wants a change and it makes her happy to drink her water outside in our lovely garden.

When an idea is new, I follow it everywhere. I read all I can about it. I am its best friend, its shadow, its devoted dog companion. If you keep writing long enough you will have more than one project and not always in the brand-new devoted companion stage. I’m working on several projects at once. There’s Flyboy’s story which is in the getting it down on paper in a crummy draft stage. There’s Plant Kid’s story which is still in the soaking up all the stuff I can about plants stage. There’s the class I’m teaching which is in the how can help them learn it all in a short time stage. And I’m working on a couple of articles that are in the interview stages.

I used to beat myself up because I didn’t work on my writing the same way other people did. I knew lots of people who picked a project, started it and then worked on it until it was done. I thought that was what I had to do in order to be a success writer. Well I tried. I tried and tried and tried and I just couldn’t do it. My brain didn’t operate very well that way. I found that some days I was okay working on just one project and other days I got bored or stuck or just wasn’t in the mood but when I switched to another project, it was full speed ahead. I have finally (mostly) accepted that this is my process.

Sometimes I have to make myself stay in the room with a particular project because I’m on deadline but sometimes I can follow the words wherever I want to, just because they make me feel good.

Doesn’t that just make this the best job in the world?

Wednesday, June 24, 2009|Categories: Of Dogs and Writing|Tags: , |6 Comments

Digging for the Good Stuff

Cassie has a lot of toys but only a few favorites that she returns to again and again. Mr. Monkey is one. A large stuffed monkey that she picked out when we went to the local pet store after a visit to the vet a few months ago. She carries him around every day and never tears him up. But her absolute favorite toys are the egg babies. In my continuing quest to find a ball like object that she would enjoy I brought home this.

It’s a turtle with a pouch in the bottom and you stuff the little plush egg babies inside. It took Cassie about 30 seconds to figure out that the object was to get the eggs out of the turtle. I can get four of them inside. Once she “guts” it, she chases those little eggs all over the house. She throws them in the air and then pounces on them. She kicks them like soccer balls. She tosses them under chairs and then pushes them out with a leg stretched under the chair. (I’ve seen her do this enough times to know that it’s on purpose.) Once in a while she lets me play with her, dropping an egg baby at my feet. But I usually only get to throw it once and she will amuse herself for half an hour or more. When they roll under a big piece of furniture she lays down in front of it and gives a different kind of bark. Once that must mean, hurry up. I need my egg baby and I need it now. The egg babies have squeakers in them and I always smile as I see her race by me with an egg baby in her mouth going “squeak squeak squeak.”

When she’s had enough, she’ll climb into her bed for a much needed nap. A hour or two later she will ring the bells on the patio door. It’s not to go outside for a potty break. It’s because it’s playtime (again!) and all her egg babies are spread all over the house. We have turtle egg babies and chick egg babies. I stuff as many as I can into the tummy pouches of both, make her go through a bit of her training routine, and then give them back to her to start the whole game all over again. We do this six or seven times a day. She never gets tired of digging out the egg babies. She never gets tired of throwing them and chasing them and carrying them around.

I’m working on a couple of books that deal with topics that I don’t know a lot about. That means research. And I’ve never been very sure if I was any good at researching. I save everything because I take horrible notes and then it takes me forever to find stuff. I have a rotten memory, another reason to save everything or buy so many of the research books. But there’s something about the dig, something about having to find the story within the research that makes me smile every time. When I first start reading about a new topic I’m convinced it was a crummy idea and there is nothing there that will make a story. I’ll read for a while and then walk away and go play with some other kind of writing. But an internal bell rings, drawing me back to the research, and I dig in again. Same topic. Same book. Same page. But I dig deeper and discover something. Maybe a name, maybe an event, but something that makes me happy enough to carry it around with me for a while. To toss it in with my other words and see what happen. And because when I do this something magical usually DOES happen, well it excites me enough to want to go back and dig some more.

I repeat this process over and over again on a book, dig deep, find something new to me, play with it for a while, let it rest, then dig some more. I never get tired of digging, of discovering, of playing with my discoveries.

I think it’s good to remember that there are times we need to dig deep and times we have to let ourselves just play. In the end it all (usually) comes together in a story but it’s hard to remember that when we are fighting the process.

Gotta go. I’m pretty sure I just heard a bell.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009|Categories: Of Dogs and Writing|Tags: , |6 Comments

Speaking Up

I think a lot about the life Cassie might have had before she to live with us. We’ll never know the real story but I can piece together some of it from the adoption agency, some more from what the pound report said, and because I’m writer, I can imagine even more than that.

We were told that she had been found running as a stray, taken to the pound, and then adopted. She was back at the pound in a few days after being told that she made too much noise and didn’t get along with the other little dogs in the house. I can buy that story because I see how she acts when she sees the little dogs on our walks. This 70 pound dog stops and backs up until she is standing behind me, putting me in-between her and the dogs that are barely the size of the stuffed gorilla she plays with at home. She will nose around me, wanting to sniff but afraid of what might happen if she does. She’s been burned before.

The part of the story I know is that the people who adopted her from the pound had several small dogs. They adopted Cassie and named her Patton. Yes, for a female dog. Cassie barked a lot and didn’t get along with the other dogs. She went back to the pound. End of story.

Or is it? The part of the story I made up goes like this: Woman had several small dogs that were spoiled rotten and had the run of the house. Man wanted a watch dog. A big dog. A man’s dog. Goes to the pound and sees a German Shepherd and knows they are supposed to be fierce dogs. Doesn’t bother to learn about the breed, about their intense love and devotion and NEED to be a part of the family. Takes the dog home and chains it in the backyard. Doesn’t try to get to know it. Doesn’t give it any love. Doesn’t let it come in the house but lets the little dogs out all the time.

Close your eyes and I bet you can see what I see. Patton/Cassie on a chain, unable to get away from the little dogs who are yapping at her, biting her ankles, doing whatever they want to her. And she just has to take it because she can’t run away and no one seems to care what is happening to her.

She could have turned mean. She could have chomped down on those little dogs or the people who were supposedly her caretakers. She didn’t. All she did was speak up, she barked a lot, which was the only way she had to express her displeasure with her current situation. Thankfully she didn’t have to stay there long. While she is better with little dogs now she is still nervous, tentative when it comes to saying hello, unsure if the new little dog will be a friend or not.

I’ve started three different dog stories today and now, here it is 10:30 pm and I haven’t finished a single one of them. It’s been one of those days that’s rough around the edges where nothing seems to be going right and I am either opening my mouth and sticking my foot into it or running into brick walls that only seem to get thicker instead of crumbling at my feet. It’s a frustrating kind of day where not much gets done and your self-worth goes down instead of up because you can’t for the life of you figure out what it is you keep doing wrong. All you want is to connect and the only way you know how to do that is to speak up.

Writers write to connect with the world. Not everyone is going to agree with you. Not everyone is going to want to hear what you have to say. Not everyone who needs to hear you will hear you and a lot of people will hear you and forget you.

But still you try.

Because if you’re lucky the right people, or just one right person, will hear you.

And your world, and theirs, will never be the same.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009|Categories: Of Dogs and Writing|Tags: , |23 Comments

Why Wait for Permission?

The other night before feeding Cassie her dinner I made her run through a bunch of training routines. We are working on long stays with me out of sight. After about 10 minutes of working on stays I went through some of her tricks . . . roll over, take a nap, peek-a-boo and my favorite, tell me a secret.

She was hungry, really wanting her dinner, but I knew that to reinforce the idea that nothing in life is free, I needed to make her work for her food. Because I had done so much with training before feeding her I decided not to use the Buster cube. I filled her bowl with all the food at once and walked away.

It was completely quiet. So quiet that it took me a minute to realize that I was not hearing the sound of a hungry dog eating her dinner. I was not hearing the chomp, chomp, chomp of kibble between her teeth. I was hearing, well, the sound of waiting.

I turned around and looked at her. She was looking at me. Intently. Focus, they call it. And I realized what had happened. I had forgotten to release her, to give her permission to eat. My poor hungry dog was watching me, giant streams of drool starting to fall from her mouth as she waited for me to tell her okay, go ahead and have your dinner, you earned it. Of course as soon as I realized what I had done I released her and she broke focus and began to eat as though this was just another step in her training. Which I suppose, it was.

You know where I’m going with this, don’t you? Are you waiting for someone to give you permission to write? Are you waiting for someone to release you so that you can tell the stories only you can tell?

Don’t.

Don’t wait. Don’t believe you need permission from anyone to write. Don’t believe you need to wait until someone moves away or dies or in some way, real or imagined, gives you permission to write.

If you really feel like you need permission from someone to write, let me know. I’ll send you a personally crafted permission slip so you can release yourself to tell the stories you are meant to write. I mean it.

Writing is hard enough. Why make it any tougher on ourselves?

Wednesday, June 3, 2009|Categories: Of Dogs and Writing|Tags: , |22 Comments

Nothing in Life is Free

Cassie is a smart dog. She’s like that really smart kid in school who starts acting up because he’s already reading 4 grade levels ahead of everyone else. So with Cassie I practice a line of training called, Nothing in Life is Free. I use it for everything from going in and out of doors, putting on leashes, saying good morning while I’m still in bed but most of all, at feeding time.

Cassie loves her food but I don’t just put her food in the bowl and walk away. That would be too easy. Sometimes I start off slowly using a game similar to the “shell game” where I put a few pieces of food under some, but not, all of the bones. First she has to “find it” by smell, then she has to lift the top off in order to get to her food.

But usually dinner time is about Buster and Leo. Buster is on the left and Leo is on the right. (I didn’t name them that, that’s what they’re called. The Buster cube and Leo.) Before she can have breakfast or dinner the first thing Cassie has to do is find wherever she has left Buster and Leo. She knows “find it” and she knows their names so I have her find Buster and tell me. She puts her paw on it and barks. Then I pick it up. Same thing with Leo. Once I put her food in them I put them on the floor and make her wait.

Cassie’s release word is “danke” so before she can eat I’m saying things like wonka, fonka, bonka. I do a bunch of fake words and then throw in the real one. She pounces on Buster first and proceeds to roll him around the room until she gets all the food out. There’s a bit of a maze inside Buster and she has to keep rolling it until the food works its way up to the top and out of the hole. Leo works a little differently. The holes are smaller and rolling doesn’t work. She has to pick it up and throw it down to get a few pieces of kibble out.

Doing this has stretched her eating time from three minutes when she would just inhale everything in her bowl to about twenty minutes of working the puzzles to get the food out. It challenges her brain and she realizes that if she wants to eat, she’s going to have to work for it.

Writing isn’t easy. Sometimes you just have to be patient. You need to sit and wait, ignoring all the wrong words until the right words come along. Sometimes you know what you want to write about but you can’t find the right vehicle for the story. You have to sniff around until you find it. Sometimes getting the right words down in the right way is like working those pieces of food out of the Buster cube. You turn them over and over again and only a few of the right words fall out but it’s enough to keep you going. Sometimes the story fights you every step of the way until you want to throw it across the room. And maybe that’s what you need to do, get mad at it because if you’re mad, you’ve got your emotions involved and if you’ve got your emotions involved the story is going to reward you. Eventually.

There’s no quick and easy path to writing a book or getting published or staying published. It all takes time.

Nothing in life is free. Not for dogs. Not for writers.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009|Categories: Of Dogs and Writing|Tags: , |13 Comments

Protecting What You Love

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.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009|Categories: Of Dogs and Writing|Tags: , , |28 Comments

Old Ideas Become New Again

It probably won’t surprise anyone when I say that Cassie is a spoiled dog. I can’t seem to go anywhere without bringing home a toy for her. A couple doors down from Hicklebees, my local independent children’s bookstore, is a thrift shop. First I buy books for me then I go next door to buy her a stuffed animal. I don’t think she ever had toys when she was a puppy so I find myself wanting to give her back her puppyhood. Of course I can’t do that but it doesn’t seem to stop me from bringing home toy after toy after toy. It took us a while to figure out what toys she loved best. Stuffed ones. Big ones for gutting and little ones to carry around and use for playing fetch.

I love to watch the way her eyes light up when I ask, “Did I bring you something?” She dances around on her hind legs like I’m waving a steak in front of her nose. When I give her the toy she runs off to the other room, tossing it into the air then stomping on it to hold it down while she growls and barks at it. It is a pure joy moment, much like those writing times when the idea captures us and we write for an hour or two or three with no knowledge of how much time has passed.

Cassie has so many toys that I think it starts to boggle her mind – what do I play with next? So periodically I gather up a bunch of them and put them in a box in the laundry room. A week later I can take a toy from the laundry room and introduce it like it is a brand-new, never been seen before toy. Her eyes light up and she is off and running.

Ideas are like that. Sometimes I have so many of them that it’s hard to focus on what to write next. I dance from fiction to poetry to articles. I open files, reread old pieces, old beginnings and get excited about the piece as if it were a brand-new, never been seen before idea.

We writers get a lot of advice about powering through no matter what and how we need to get a crappy first draft down so we will have something to revise. Most of the time I agree that it’s the right thing to do. But not always. I put Hugging the Rock away several times because I couldn’t find out the right format for the story and then, once I had that figured out, I had to put it away because I was afraid to write it the way I knew it had to be written. I’ve put Flyboy away a dozen or more times over the last twenty years.

It might make me a slow writer but it doesn’t make me a failed writer.

If a piece isn’t working for you, for whatever reason, it’s okay to put it in the box for later.

Perhaps a little time is all that’s need to make it seem like a brand-new idea, the idea of a story that will bring you pure joy to tell.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009|Categories: Of Dogs and Writing|Tags: , |8 Comments

Up Close and Personal

My dog loves to follow the bees. Actually all kinds of bugs. If it moves, she follows it. Sometimes they get away. Sometimes they don’t. Tonight she caught a spider that was trying to hide under the recliner.

But she likes bees best of all. In my garden I have huge, fat bumblebees and giant carpenter bees. They dance around the Lupines, buzz the Ceanothus trees, kiss the Clarkias and even rest, sometimes, in the heart of the Poppies. These are hardworking native bees so they are working all the time. Not like those sissy European honey bees that only come around when the sun is shining bright.

Cassie doesn’t run and chase the the bees as much as she wants to get up close, nose to nose with them like she does with me. Sometimes I look out there and she is standing, nose to nose with a Lupine as tall as she is, not snapping at the bee, just watching as it hovers in place. When the bee moves, so does she.

I’m worried that she is going to get stung one day. Heck, I know she will. It’s just a matter of time.

I like that every day it is the same thing for her, up close and personal with the bees, following them around the garden wherever they go. She stands up, awkwardly, on her hind legs when they fly out of reach and shoves her head into a bank of Clarkias when a bee dives under a leaf. She’s brave, that dog of mine.

I follow the words.

Some days I get closer than other. Some days I have to stretch on my tippy toes to find the treasure almost hidden out of reach. And some days I have to dive into a mess and just hope to find the words on the other side.

But every day, I’m up close and personal with the words, trying to tell the truest story I can tell.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009|Categories: Of Dogs and Writing|Tags: , |10 Comments

The Heart of it All

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.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009|Categories: Of Dogs and Writing|Tags: , , , |14 Comments

Fighting the Good Fight

We are now into the second week of Cassie’s treatment for Cutaneous Histiocytosis, a treatment that includes a month of steroids to make the bumps go away and long term treatment of Atopica (Cyclosporine) to keep them from coming back. While the steroid treatment will end in another few weeks she will likely be on Atopica for the rest of her life. While she is on the Atopica she can’t have live vaccines and heartworm medication isn’t as easy as it used to be so it becomes a trade-off for other potential health issues.

I don’t like like it. Sure, I like that the bumps went away but I don’t like what the medicine is doing to Cassie. She eats, drinks, takes care of her business outside, but that’s it. She’s not interested in playing or going for walks. She doesn’t race up the stairs as soon as she hears the door open when the last person gets out of bed. She doesn’t chase bugs outside. Jumping up on people when they come to the door? Forget about it. She barely thumps her tail hello anymore.

Getting better has basically sucked the life right out of her. Now I am hopeful that once she is on the reduced dosage of Atopica that she will bounce back to her former self but it’s a bit scary. Because what if she doesn’t? What if we have to decide whether to continue the treatment and have a shell of a dog or discontinue it and deal with what happens next?

I’ve been sitting here tonight, trying to figure out how to connect this to writing.

What do I say? That sometimes we can try too hard to fix things? That sometimes when you think the writing is perfect, it’s really just a shell of what it is possible? That sometimes you write crap and you try to fix it and it’s still crap but you keep on keeping on?

Maybe what I say is that if you love something — your dog, your art, your writing — if you love it, you don’t give up without a fight.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009|Categories: Of Dogs and Writing|Tags: , |21 Comments

We All Need a Little Help

Some of you might remember that we’ve had a bit of a health worry about Cassie. She had some bumps show up on her side, leg and muzzle that we thought we be just a fatty cyst but ended up sending us off to the specialist for a biopsy and long 3 weeks of waiting for results. While I was waiting and worrying, Cassie, being Cassie, just went right on living her life. She didn’t care about the giant patches of shaved fur. She didn’t stay awake at night wondering about the diagnosis. She just lived. (Note to myself…quit worrying about the rosacea already and just live.)

Yesterday we finally got the results back from the biopsy. She has something called Cutaneous Histiocytosis. The vet says if she had to have a disease, this was the one to have. It’s not life threatening but possibly lifelong expensive if she is on medication for the rest of her life. Still, we know what we’re dealing with and can make informed decisions going forward. But we couldn’t have gotten the diagnosis without the help of a specialist that I felt comfortable with and trusted to take good care of Cassie.

I’ve been working on Flyboy’s story. It’s an old story being made new again. Some of the plot points are 20 years old. I’m attached to them. So attached that I can’t see what’s wrong with them.

Writers are a stubborn lot. Sometimes too stubborn for our own good. We need to remember that we don’t have to do it all alone. Sure, when we sit down at the computer it’s just us but once we have a draft and need a second set of eyes, we should have a support system that we trust to give us feedback. If we are stumbling around and trying to figure out which end of our plot is up, we should be able to bounce our ideas around with a couple of writer friends.

I’m grateful for my writer friends who watch me chase myself around in circles then listen to me whine and then, once I’m ready to admit that I need help, offer to brainstorm with me until I feel comfortable enough to let go of some tired old ideas and embrace some new ones.

Cassie is going to be okay. And so is Flyboy, thanks to a little help from my friends.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009|Categories: Of Dogs and Writing|Tags: , |16 Comments

Following Your Instincts

A few days after we adopted Cassie, Bridget, our adoption counselor, came by to check on Cassie. She also brought Cassie a stuffed frog. Cassie tossed that frog around a few times. Then she sat down, ripped a hole in it, and started to pull the stuffing out. I was embarrassed that Cassie had torn the new toy right in front of Bridget. I took it away, shoved the stuffing back, and told Bridget I was sorry.

Fast forward a couple of months. We had our first session with Cecelia, a trainer, in our home. Cecelia observed Cassie for a while and I commented on how much Cassie enjoyed her plushie toys. When Cecelia asked me if Cassie ever ripped them open to get the stuffing out I explained about the episode with Bridget’s gift. Then Cecelia surprised me. She said that was good. That Cassie was just following her instincts. As long as she wasn’t eating the stuffing it was fine, good even.

I felt so bad. Here was our brand new dog who felt comfortable enough in her new home to do one of those things that dogs know how to do by instinct, totally gut something with great joy and abandon, and I had put a quick stop to it all.

Bad dog mommy.

I’m a writer. A writer writes. And sometimes a writer doesn’t write. Sometimes she daydreams. Sometimes she reads. And sometimes she ignores everything to do with writing in order to get back in touch with who she is. Which is a writer.

I know all that. Yet sometimes I’ll let someone else’s idea of what I should or shouldn’t be doing stop me from what I know in my gut is the right thing for me. the right thing at that moment in time.

After that first visit with Cecelia I went out and bought Cassie a couple of large stuffed toys. Her favorite is a bright orange gorilla. She played with it for weeks and weeks until one day she found a little hole at the neck. She pulled out a bit of stuffing, just a little bit, and then looked up. Was she waiting to see if was going to put a stop to her following her instincts? Maybe. I just smiled and said, “Good dog.” Pretty soon her play room was covered with pieces of stuffing. And Cassie had what they call a “happy mouth,” partway open, her tongue hanging out just a bit, almost, but not quite a smile.

I had to smile too as I picked up all the stuffing, pushed it back inside the gorilla, and gave it back to her. She doesn’t gut it every day but when she does, she goes at it with great gusto, growling and tossing it back and forth before settling in for a good gutting.

And while Cassie’s doing that I try to follow a few instincts of my own, to listen to my body and what it is telling me it needs right at that moment, trusting that I am doing just what I am meant to do and knowing that it always leads me back to the words.

How many times have you wanted to write something but stopped because someone laughed or scolded or told you that you should be doing something else instead?

Don’t listen to them. Listen to yourself. Follow your instincts.

Good writer.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009|Categories: Of Dogs and Writing|Tags: , |14 Comments

Getting Past the Fear

Before I had Cassie, I had Chelsie. The two dogs could not have been more different. Chelsie was afraid of everything, thunder and lighting, firecrackers, gunshot, most people (especially men) and sneezes. Yes, if you sneezed she would leave the room. Cassie is not afraid as much as she is cautious. But I would say she is cautiously optimistic because she is always willing to try new things. She might make a lot of racket about it, bark like crazy when she is unsure of herself, but she always tries.

For example, water. When we first got Cassie it was summer and I was out in the yard a lot. I noticed when I would water the plants she would stay far, far away. I’m guessing she got squirted with the hose as punishment or something before we got her.  So I got her a wading pool, put it out back, filled it with water, and tossed in a few toys. Then I ignored the water and her.

She ignored it too.

After a few days she was interested enough in the toys to stand by the edge and wait for them to float over so she could get them out. I pretended like I hadn’t noticed but later I put the toys back in the water. This went on for a few weeks until one day the toy she really, really wanted was in the center of the pool and no matter how long she waited, it wasn’t drifting over to the edge. So she put one foot in the water, stretched her neck out as far as possible, snatched that toy, and ran away.

I went in the house before I started to laugh.

It became her personal mission to get anything that went in the pool, back out of the pool. Toys, sticks, leaves and bugs. Anything that floated on the surface was fair game.

But there was one toy, one she really liked, that didn’t float. It sunk. Right down to the bottom of the pool under about 10 inches of water. She got really good at using her paw under water to move it to the edge and then up the side of the pool and back out again. Obviously the goal for her was not to get her pretty little face wet.

I had different goals. I wanted to see if she would decide to put her face in the water on her own. So I grabbed more toys that wouldn’t float and filled the pool with them. It took a lot of effort for her to work them over to the edge with her paw and it wasn’t quite as much fun on the 5th and 6th toy as it was on the first. By now she was quite comfortable just standing in the water so that’s what she did, stood in the pool, over her toy, and stared at me.

I stared back. I could almost see the little wheels turning in her brain. How badly did she really want that toy? What would happen to her if she put her head under the water? What would her human expect from her if she did this very scary thing?

I decided to ignore her. This was her battle, not mine. I went in the house and peered out from between the slatt of the shutters. After much internal deliberation Cassie shoved her nose under water, grabbed that toy, and jumped out of the pool. Her proud tail waving high like a flag annoucing her brave accomplishment.

What did I do? I went back outside and put all the toys back in the pool. And now diving for toys (and bugs) is one of Cassie’s most favorite things to do.

I think the key for Cassie was lots of exposure and no pressure. The same thing we need to do with our writing. When you want to write in an area you haven’t written in before you need to immerse yourself in it. If you want to write picture books you read 100, 200 of them before you even start. If you are switching to mysteries you read lots and lots of mysteries. And then you just dive in. You try. You pause. You try again. You put one foot in the water, then the other and before you know it, you are diving under and writing your first mystery from start to finish.

Today is the first day of National Poetry Month. There are so many wonderful events happening out there in the blogosphere and I was struggling with how I was going to participate. I’ve decided to challenge myself to write a poem a day, a haiku, inspired by my California Native Plant garden. I have long been a fan of haiku though much of what I have written of it was back in high school. I know the basic structure, 5-7-5 and the basic theme, nature. I like the idea that they are short but often many layered. I think haiku could be a wonderful way to introduce more people to native gardening.

This challenge is huge for me on several layers. I am fearful of anything new or looking silly while doing it. I am not a native plant expert so I will have to research oftentimes before I can write. And most of all because doing it, finding a way to combine poetry with my native garden, matters to me a great deal.

I changed my mind from my original post and I will be posting my daily haiku.

Shouldn’t I try to be as brave in my writing as Cassie was about water?

I think so.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009|Categories: Of Dogs and Writing|Tags: , , , |16 Comments

Here I Am

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 kiss Mary Pearson)and those ear nuzzles for Becky. 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.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009|Categories: Of Dogs and Writing|Tags: , , |36 Comments