Of Dogs and Writing – The End of a Chapter

I have been trying to write this post for several days. Many of you, over 250 of you, have already read about this over on Facebook but because Cassie was responsible for the start of my Of Dogs and Writing posts, I wanted to write about her here on the blog at least one more time.

Last week, at the all-too-young age of 5, we had to make the difficult decision to put Cassie down. I will not go into reliving her many medical issues right now. All I will say is that her quality of life had fallen to such a low point that it was kinder, to her, to let her go. It is never an easy decision to make but I am firm in the belief that it was the right one. Still, that doesn’t mean the experience was easy. My husband and I have cried a lot of tears.

Cassie was a special dog, a heart dog. Even though I have had dogs all my life Cassie taught me how much I didn’t know about having, training, and living with a dog. And I loved every minute of it.

Cassie wasn’t that interested in other dogs. She was polite enough to wander over and say hello.

But she wasn’t interested in playing with them and couldn’t see much use in chasing them around the yard.

So she was an only dog. A spoiled, only dog who had her own Lazy Boy chair. It was good for presiding over the kingdom.

And it was good for napping.

Cassie took her naps very seriously. It was always a good time for a little shut-eye.

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Her favorite TV show was Pitbulls and Paroles and she would come into the library and hop in her chair whenever she heard Tia’s voice. She also loved anything with horses or chickens in it.

But she was terrified of the movie The Hurt Locker.

She was very smart.

And very brave.

And willing to try anything I asked of her when I said the words, “Trust me.”

She loved being up on things for the best view. Like guarding the patio.


On the chest guarding the library.


Keeping an eye on what’s happening in the kitchen.


Pretending to be invisible on the antique settee.

She didn’t even mind if getting up on things made her look silly.

Or got her dirty.

She was the official inspector of all boxes that came into the house.

She was also the home improvement building inspector.


She wasn’t very good at playing hide and go seek.

But she knew exactly which door held the leash, and which door hid the high value treats.

And she was sure the water features in the yard were just big doggy water fountains.

Her favorite toys were a giant orange gorilla and a little blue ball.

And her favorite place to be was in the garden.

In the garden is where I learned many of my life lessons and writing lessons from Cassie.  It’s where she taught me to be still, to be in the moment. Which is why I am not going to grieve forever for Cassie, although there will always be a Cassie-sized hole in my heart. To grieve always is to allow yourself to be locked in the past. That’s not what Cassie wanted. That’s not how Cassie lived.

So we have opened the door of our hearts to a new rescue dog, a white German Shepherd named Zoey, who will have more lessons to teach me and more love to give me. We’ll pick Zoey up in just a few hours. And she will sleep in Cassie’s bed and play with Cassie’s toys and wander in Cassie’s garden. And she will bring me back to the here and now, in the moment.  And I think that will make Cassie happy.

For those of you who have asked, donations in Cassie’s name can be made to the German Shepherd Rescue of Northern California which is where we adopted Cassie. As an all volunteer run non-profit, they can use all the help they can get.

Farewell my wonderful friend. You will be missed by many. Thank you for the lessons. Thank you for the love.


Wednesday, December 19, 2012|Categories: Of Dogs and Writing|Tags: , |50 Comments

Of Dogs and Writing – When Things Have to Change

I am watching Cassie dream. She is in her chair, her head hanging off the side at such a funny angle that it looks like it should hurt, except she does it on purpose all the time. First she thumps her tail, slowly then with more force. Then she whimpers and yips and her feet start to run in place.  Her entire body shakes and shivers in her sleep the same way it does when she spies a squirrel on the  fence in the backyard.

In the past, every time this would happen, my husband and I would watch with indulgent doggy-parent smiles, imagining Cassie chasing squirrels in wild open places.

That was before.

A couple of weeks ago Cassie begin having seizures. Watching an animal you love (or a person) have a seizure is one of the most terrifying things you can imagine. It is like a scene out of The Exorcist and the helplessness you feel is all-consuming. The first one sent us racing to the ER to have Cassie checked out. Between the ER and assorted friends and research we learned how very common canine seizures were and how some dogs were able to live a long and happy life without medication and others needed the help of some kind of drug. The ER vet said she would have another seizure, there was just no idea when that might be. It could be a few days, a few months, a few years.

For the next week my emotions ran full spectrum. First I cried. My writer’s imagination was unable to break free from the thought of my life without Cassie in it. I had not had enoguh time with her yet. Later, as the seizure-free days began to add up, I let myself think that we were one of the lucky ones, that it was a freak thing that wouldn’t change our lives and more importantly, wouldn’t change or threaten Cassie’s life very much at all.

I was wrong.

Last weekend Cassie had a cluster of Grand Mal seizures that sent us back to the ER and had her in the hospital overnight. After meeting with her regular vet and discussing options, she is now on anti-seizure medication. Just like that, our lives and Cassie’s life, has changed. Having a dog in our home is no longer an easy thing to do. There is medicine to take at the same time of day, twice a day, every day, for the rest of her life. That means if we are going to be out late, we need to make arrangements for Cassie. There are blood tests to monitor the drug levels and her liver functions. There is the month-long adjustment to the medication, during which time Cassie is constantly whining for food because her body thinks she is starving. There is the ataxia, the wobbly back end that has her walking drunk. We need to monitor her going up and down the stairs of our two-story house. There is incontinence.

There are some books that are easier to write than others. I wrote a picture book (that sold and stayed in print for many years) across a single weekend. Granted, it had simmered beneath the surface for years but the first draft was very close to the final draft. Hugging the Rock wasn’t easy to write (many times my husband would find me crying while I was drafting poems) but once I found the form for the book, it came out pretty fast. Flyboy is a novel I worked on for over twenty years before putting it away and deciding that maybe I didn’t need to finish it or if I did, it would be later, down the road.

The book I am writing at the moment isn’t easy. It isn’t my story of my relationship with my dad (or lack of one) but it is inspired by it. It isn’t the story of me and my newly-found sister, but it is inspired by that as well. When I began the book the ideas came fast and furious, like one of Cassie’s dreams, and I filled my virtual index cards (aka, Scrivener) with the ideas as quickly as they came. For the first time in my life I had an outline before I had a finished book. I gave myself a bit of a break and then settled into writing the first draft. I thought the outline would make it easy – I just had to pull up the next card and write the next poem. Repeat again and again until the book was done.

But of course it didn’t work out that way. I would write a few poems and I would lose the voice which made me think I had never had the right voice for the character to begin with. I would add a new character or a plot point and suddenly I would have to revise the outline to make everything fit. Another day I would pull up a card and have absolutely no idea what I was talking about and what my intentions had been at that place in the plot. And of course on those days I convinced myself that I had no business writing this book at all. That my best writing was behind me. That I couldn’t do it again, had lost my touch, you name the self-abuse, I heaped it on myself.

But there were also those days when I pulled up a card thinking it was just a snippet of what I should write next and I would discover a poem nearly fully done and filled with such vividness that it made me gasp or cry. The ones that are filled with characters so real that I am sure if I saw them walking down the street I could call out their name and they would turn around. Those are the days, the poems, I hold onto when the writing gets tough.

As I am typing this, Cassie is sitting beside me whining for the mini-meal I have promised her in another ten minutes. I fear she is going to go hoarse with the constant whining but I know she will survive. We are adjusting on many levels. We are breaking her meals into smaller ones through-out the day. We are taking her outside for potty breaks more frequently rather than waiting for her to ring the bells. We are walking with her up and down the stairs and blocking her from them when we have to leave her home alone. We are making lists of people who could help us if we need to be gone at a time when she needs her medication. We are revising our lives around this very special dog we love.

At the same time, we still do the same things we have always done with her, play ball, wrestle with her big orange gorilla, and go for walks

When you make a decision to bring a dog into your home and make it a part of your family, there’s no guarantee that it will be a perfect fit. There are always adjustments to be made of one kind or another. Cassie’s first year with us was filled with a different kind of medical concern as we worked to diagnose the auto-immune disease she had and then, eventually, find the correct medication to keep that under control. We made that work. We will make this work too.

When you commit to writing a novel there is no guarantee that the story you first start to tell will be the same story when you finally type “the end” and close the book. You have to be willing to make adjustments along the way as your characters come into their personalities and begin to take over, as mine always do. You have to be willing to fight your way through the multiple garbage drafts and revision and spend a lot of time gazing at the screen or the blank pages of your notebook and asking yourself, okay, what happens next and how can I make it work?

Some days are easier than others.

You don’t give up on dog or the book just because things get tough. A mountain in your path just means you need to find another way to get to where you want to go, whether that’s to the end of the book or to a happy dog chasing squirrels in the backyard.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012|Categories: Of Dogs and Writing|Tags: , |7 Comments

Friday Five – the Bliss edition

Bliss #1
I’ve embarked on a journey of looking back at high school, pulling back as many memories as I can. I’m trying to remember more of that conflicted teen that I was so I can carry that into one of the current WIP novels. What I find in my memories is a mix of bittersweet. The bliss is in being able to notice this and move on.

Bliss #2
I’ve had so much fun working on this little art project. It’s made me happy to paint and glue and doodle. Here’s just one page.

If you haven’t seen them on FB you can click over to Flickr to see some more. I decided this small size will be perfect for a new journal of my favorite positive words. For someone who never did art as a child, someone who never even liked to color, this new art adventure feels like I woke up in the morning learning how to talk to animals. It is so wonderfully strangely perfectly me.

Bliss #3
Having so many books in my home library that I can choose to read and reread again and again. Each night I grab a couple to take upstairs, devour them, fill them with little Post-it flags and think how lucky I am to have them at my disposal for any time day or night. I can choose from writing books or art books or history or fiction or so much more. Lucky, blissful me.

Bliss #4
I rarely read the newspaper except for things that catch my eye as I pick it up to put in the recycling. Today I actually turned a page and right there was an article that totally fits into the major plot point of another WIP (Max’s story.) I had had a feeling I was on the right track and boom, there was the anger-making, very sad, proof. Bliss!

Bliss #5
When we yanked out the lawns a few years ago and put in the native garden I saw an immediate increase in bugs and bees and birds. But what I didn’t see were butterflies. Today there has been a pair of Swallowtails flitting around the yard, from verbena to verbena. The blossoms aren’t the typical landing pads that butterflies prefer but it doesn’t seem to slow these two down. Sitting at my art desk, painting pages in a new journal, Cassie at my feet, birds playing in water at the bubbling rock, and Swallowtails dancing across the yard. Pure and utter bliss for me.

Here’s to a blissful weekend all around.

Friday, May 20, 2011|Categories: Life With Dogs|Tags: , |16 Comments

Just another Saturday night

CT, originally uploaded by susanwrites.

Cassie watching one of her favorite TV shows, Pit Bulls and Parolees.

Saturday, January 29, 2011|Categories: Life With Dogs|Tags: |10 Comments

post-company nap

room1, originally uploaded by susanwrites.

I had company for a few hours today. Cassie considers it her job to make the rounds to see everyone, bring out her toys and show them off, go through her tricks, and basically beg for attention. This is all well and good except it means she doesn’t get her afternoon nap.

Once everyone went home and the house was quiet she sprawled on her couch and zonked for a much-needed 2 hour nap.

Monday, December 20, 2010|Categories: Life With Dogs|Tags: |7 Comments

at the end of a long day

cassie, originally uploaded by susanwrites.

I’m not the only one tired of all this house stuff.

Saturday, December 18, 2010|Categories: Life With Dogs|Tags: |8 Comments

Becoming Who You Are

When Cassie first came to live with us it became apparent very quickly that she hadn’t been socialized around other dogs much at all. In fact, piecing together the few stories we knew about her it appeared the most of her interactions with other dogs had never been very positive. We wanted to change that. We wanted her to be as comfortable and as confident around other dogs as we were.

First we introduced her to my brother-in-law’s dog, Circe. Circe is a high energy German Shepherd that truly never stops moving. Poor Circe was dying for someone to play with but Cassie, after a few cautious sniffs, preferred to stay close by our side. We introduced her to the neighbor’s dogs, a trio of senior citizens who barely came up to Cassie’s knees. One of them barked twice quickly sending Cassie back to her hiding spot behind my legs.

At the dog park Cassie would take a few steps toward a dog but then as soon as the other dog showed any interest in her, she backed away. Over time, on her walks around the neighborhood, she has run into some of the same dogs over and over again. Mostly one or two sniffs is enough for her but after 2 years she has, at least, stopped hiding behind us.

I’ve written all my life and whenever people ask me what I write I’m often a bit flip about it and tell them, “Whatever I can get paid for.” In later years I’ve amended that to say that mostly books for kids. And it’s true that I’ve written and published all sorts of things from working at newspapers to writing for parenting magazines to short stories and articles about the craft of writing. I’ve written books for kids of all ages. I’ve been published in a lot of places and a lot of countries. I’m a writer. I know that and I’m pretty confident about that (even if my confidence wavers from manuscript to manuscript.)

But I never said to anyone, “I’m a poet.” I’ve never claimed it. And the less I claimed it the more it grew to be something that belonged to other people and not to me.

I think that’s because most of my poetry has been written from an organic and instinctive place to help me sort out emotions behind some pretty intense life events. Through-out my career I’ve studied characters and plots and theme and setting. I’ve read poetry but I didn’t study the craft of poetry. I don’t understand a lot about rhyme or scansion or poetic forms aside from haiku. And when people blog or write articles about what it means to be a poet or a verse novelist or to even think poetically, well, I look at every article as though it were written about me, about my deficiencies as a poet. For some reason I felt like I had to learn more, write more, publish more before I could claim that title.

For the last few weeks the lady next door has been dog sitting for her brother. Mya is a lovely, small boned Golden Lab with sweet eyes and a hunger for playing catch. She’s been in the backyard a lot the past year and I’m sure she and Cassie have sniffed through the fence a time or two. Last week, when I had the front patio door open, Cassie starting barking like crazy. It wasn’t her “something scary is out there and I’m protecting you” bark. It was different. She barked loudly then stopped. A few seconds later there was an answering bark. They went back and forth a few times until I finally went to check it out. I figured someone was walking their dog and had stopped in front of our house and Cassie was just confused about what to do.

But no. It was Mya on the front lawn next door, straining to get to Cassie and Cassie at the screen door straining to get to Mya. They’d never met face-to-face before but they were pretty excited about the possibility. I let Cassie out into the courtyard and my neighbor brought Mya over to say hello. I’ve never seen Cassie so happy to see another dog. They sniffed each other quite thoroughly (something else Cassie doesn’t normally do or allow done to her) and Cassie even gave a play bow, the first I’d ever seen from her.

My current work-in-progress, like all of my stories, is a healing journey. Not an easy one as I mine my past for emotions to carry to the page. It’s written in verse because, well, because that’s the way the voices have come to me. Before I dug into the project in earnest, I reread many of the verse novels on my shelves. Some were free verse. Some were filled with a variety of poetic forms. Some were told in a single point of view. Some were told in many voices. Some made me cry and some made me laugh. At first each book I read made me feel like there was no way I would ever be able to finish mine. That I just didn’t have it in me to do right by the story in verse. But by the time I finished rereading about 30 of them I was filled with something different than confidence. I’m pretty sure it was acceptance. Acceptance that I am a poet and poems are one vehicle I use to tell my story.

For the past few days Mya has been coming over for short visits and each time I watch Cassie greet her new friend, I am amazed at her level of confidence in approaching and allowing herself to be approached by this young and very active dog.

As a writer I am always asking why. Why does this character do this thing in this situation? Why would that character react that way?

Why would Cassie decide this was the one dog she would let be her friend?

Why now, after writing poetry (and a whole lot of other things) all my life, am I finally willing to claim that being a poet is, indeed, one part of who I am as a writer?

Maybe the why isn’t really that important.

Maybe it’s enough to just be who I am supposed to be.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010|Categories: Of Dogs and Writing|Tags: , |8 Comments

Hard at work!

cassie, originally uploaded by susanwrites.

Cassie says all this home renovation stuff is exhausting!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010|Categories: Life With Dogs|Tags: |2 Comments

You Get What You Give

Getting a new dog is like getting anything brand-new. You bring it home and for a while — days, weeks, months — it becomes your entire world. Such was the case with Cassie. When we first brought her home her separation anxiety was so bad that she would follow me into the bathroom, refusing to wait on the other side of the door. And of course there were the classes we took and the initial obedience training that meant focused time working together each day.

But time marches on and suddenly I look at Cassie and see not a nervous rescue dog. Not a puppy or a doggy teenager but a grown-up dog who is secure because she knows we love her and she has a forever home. We can leave her loose in the house while we are gone without worries about coming home to find accidents or something chewed up that we wished we had put out of her reach. It’s nice having this new and more mature relationship with her. Oh, we still play the back and forth game to open the doors when she rings the bell but life is a bit calmer because she is less needy.

Or is she? Just because she’s not in our face begging for attention doesn’t mean she isn’t needy. When the handyman was here working I ran Cassie through her tricks and she hesitated at a few of them. I tried to remember the last time I worked on them with her but couldn’t. If I want her to be at the top of her game I can’t just assume that she will remember (or be inclined) to perform tricks she learned 2 years ago but hasn’t been asked to do in months. I need to revisit them regularly. Daily, even just for a few minutes, is all it takes.

Isn’t it the same thing with writing? We’ve written before so we assume that we can do it again. And we can. But if we aren’t paying attention to our writing self on a daily basis we are going to have to expect to be a little rusty each time we sit back down at the computer.

I’m putting playtime with Cassie back on my to-do list. Right after I take a look at my work-in-progress.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010|Categories: Of Dogs and Writing|Tags: , |12 Comments

The Importance of Just One Word

What Cassie loves to do more than anything else is leave the house and go somewhere. It doesn’t have to be long or far, a ride in the car to go the post office is only 10 minutes but she loves it as much (maybe more) than an hour drive to Santa Cruz. (Of course when we’re riding around town I can open the sunroof and let her “surf” with her head out.) A walk around the block at my pokey pace is as much of an adventure as a half hour walk with hubby walking as fast as some people run. She just wants to go, somewhere, anywhere.

Which means when we have to leave her home, she’s not a happy dog. She knows when I get out of my sweat pants and into my jeans, I’m going somewhere. When shoes go on, keys rattle, when I pick up the brush to run it one more time through my hair, all of these are triggers with the potential to get her overly excited. She barks and yips and whines and jumps up and nothing seems to stop her. We can send her to her crate, tell her no or quiet or give her a time out behind a closed door. None of it worked.

I’m not quite sure what made me think that we needed a new word for her, a new command of some kind so she would know when she was coming with us and when she had to stay behind but I started telling her that she had to stay and “guard” the house. I don’t think it took more than a couple of times before she figured out if I used the word “guard” she wasn’t going with me. Now when I get ready to go out and she starts bouncing around I simply tell her she has to guard the house and she stops, almost like I pulled the batteries out of her. She might groan or sigh once to voice her displeasure but she settles down in her spot, ready to do her job while we’re gone.

Some days I’m able to write pages and pages of crap knowing that I will be able to go back and revise them but other days I’m simply stopped in my tracks. Most of the time I can make a note in the margin that I need a better or different word so that when I come back through on revision, I can fix it but other times something about a particular sentence compels me to rework it.I’m unable to go forward or think about anything else until I fix that one word, one sentence.

Fighting it doesn’t make it go any easier or any faster. It just frustrates me. I used to beat myself up for slowing the forward progression of the story while I obsessed over a single word in a sentence. Now I realize this is just one more aspect of my process and I accept it, more or less.

Once I have the right word for whatever it is that’s bothering me, I’m able to sigh in relief and move on.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010|Categories: Of Dogs and Writing|Tags: , |7 Comments

Paying Attention

I haven’t done a dogs and writing post in a while and when I tried to think about why, I decided it must be because I’m not training Cassie as much as I used to. As a new to us dog, we went through a lot of training but now that she’s been with us a couple of years we’ve slacked off. I realized that she isn’t playing as much as she used to. Not that she was ever that much into play time but she did have a few favorite toys she’d take out of the toy box and shake around. I tossed the egg baby for her and she watched me with a total lack of interest. I shook Mr. Monkey and gorilla in front of her face and she turned her head. I lined up all the stuffed animals that made noises and set them off one by one, the rooster, the monkey, the dog, the pig, the frog and the laughing koala that sounds like a baby. She walked away and rang the bell to go outside.

I followed her outside as she made her way around the garden. She shadowed a giant Carpenter bee as it danced from one pink Clarkia to the next then when it flew away she continued down the path to Dogwood alley. I sat on the glider and watched her meander down the bluestone path, sniffing the Monkey Flower, the Yerba Buena, nibbling on some grass. She reached the gate at the end of the path and nudged it with her nose to check, I suppose, if we humans had forgotten to latch it so she could go to her favorite spot in the front courtyard. As she came back up the path I watched the finches dart in and out of the Sambucus which is half-covered in flowers and half-covered in unripe berries. A pair of Mourning Doves poked around the base of the St. Catherine’s lace which was swollen with buds not yet ready to open.

She paused at the arbor at the end of the path and pushed her head through the mass of Clematis and Ribes and Pipevine, then, finding nothing, she joined me on the glider (she’s mastered the art of going back and forth on it.) She pushed past me to sniff the Ceanothus hanging over my head (I’m sure there was a bee involved) and when she pulled her head back, it was covered with tiny blue blossoms. We sat there together for a few minutes. She continued to sniff the air and I watched the doves move toward the Manzanita at the edge of the patio.

One of our resident hummingbirds zipped by and Cassie jumped off the glider to chase it then stopped when I uttered those words no dog wants to hear – “Leave it!” I’m sure I only imagined her sigh of frustration. She traced the path the rest of the way across the yard, (paying no attention to the doves), nuzzling the water from the bubbling rock (earning another “leave it”), sniffing the mulch under the Japanese Maple and then she ignored the path and chose to clomp her way through the ferns and Seep Monkey Flower to the other arbor where the Hummingbird Sage stood guard. She nosed all the flowers, almost ate a spider and then thought better of it and walked down the other sideyard. This side has no plants, nothing great to smell unless you count the garbage can but still, she walked to the end and nosed the gate just once, like she didn’t really want to get out, before coming back in my direction.

She never paused when she passed me, she just headed right up the back step and rang the outside bells to be let in, glancing over her shoulder at me when I didn’t move fast enough to suit her.

I got the idea that this is a path she has traveled many times.

That’s the way it is, sometimes, with some writing, some stories. We travel the same paths over and over again, visit the same characters, the same setting, again and again and we wonder if we are making progress or just chasing our own tails as we walk in circles in the story. I don’t know that we can really judge it (though we try to) when we are in the middle of it all. I think the most we can hope for or the best we can try for is to pay attention because each time through, the view changes a little bit.

My garden isn’t always in bloom, there aren’t always bees for Cassie to follow, and at times there are so many birds in the yard that I make her wait for ten minutes before I will even let her outside, no matter how much she is ringing the bell. But every time she goes out, any time of day or night, she walks the same path, from gate to gate, sniffing the air and paying attention to what is in her world.

I think I owe my story the same kind of dedication.

Thursday, June 3, 2010|Categories: Of Dogs and Writing|Tags: , |5 Comments

The Importance of Doing Nothing

In a recent post about Cassie I wrote about how Cassie’s separation anxiety had returned and how her personality had changed as a result. Every time we would come home from leaving her alone she would cling to us, almost trying to climb in our laps (and she is not a lap dog). She wasn’t handling us being away well and I wasn’t handling her reactions when we came home again very well either.

It was a problem that needed handling and yet, well. I did nothing. I could have called the trainer or reread my dog books or posted on the dog forum but instead I made the very conscious choice to do nothing about it.

And by that I meant I did nothing to or for Cassie around the situation. When I left I didn’t say goodbye to her, I just walked out the door. When I came home I didn’t say hello to her, I just came in and went back to work. I didn’t pet her when she was upset. I didn’t talk to her. I just let her work through it on her own. We were a family but sometimes people were going to leave the house and she was going to have to stay home and stand guard. That’s her job. And she was going to  have to get over whatever was bugging her or else choose to be miserable for the rest of her life every time she was left alone.

It really hasn’t been that long, a couple of months maybe, and the problem has disappeared. Oh she’d still much rather go with me than be left behind to guard the house but she seems to know when it’s one of those times she’s likely to be allowed to go with me and when she will be left behind. And on those times she knows she has to stay home she just lays down on her mat by the door and watches me leave.

I’ve been doing a lot of nothing too. Not blogging, not commenting on the many blogs I read, not posting about events that other writers are doing that I think are important, not doing Poetry Stretch or Poetry Friday, not interacting on Facebook and Twitter, but I think it’s because I’ve had to work some stuff out on my own. I don’t think I have it all worked out, not by a long shot, but I’m feeling more in control than I have for a while. Well at least about those things I can have any control over. And knowing what things I can’t control is important too.

Tomorrow is the beginning of National Poetry Month. I’ve been pondering what I plan to do to celebrate and how to get involved and I came up with what I think is a pretty good idea in the spill your guts and write with emotional honesty way that is true to me. It’s all part of my process. I’ll reveal more about that project and what is happening all over the kidlitosphere for Poetry Month a little later today.

I think sometimes we try to find the answers to problems too soon or we try to solve someone else’s problems for them when what we really need to do is let them figure things out on their own. It’s hard though, watching those we love suffer through something.

I don’t know what Cassie thinks when we leave now but I do know that coming home is no longer a time of stress for her.

I can’t pinpoint exactly what I’ve done this month that flipped some switches for me and helped me let go of what needed letting go. Maybe it was watching Cassie grow in confidence. Maybe it was the idea that spring is here.

Or maybe it all started with just doing nothing until the urge to do something new came along.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010|Categories: Of Dogs and Writing|Tags: , |6 Comments

To Thine Ownself Be True

I think I’ve said a time or two that Cassie is not a big fan of the rain. When she has to go outside she gives me a look as though all that wet stuff falling from the sky is my fault and that I plan the whole deluge around the times she is going to be outside. Her ears go back flat on her neck and she tucks her tail so far between her legs that it disappears and generations of German Shepherd breeding seem to disappear as she slowly creeps outside.

Today on my way out to teach a poetry session it was pouring. Big buckets of water coming down. I turned down the street toward the school and there was a person walking briskly down the sidewalk of one block. They had their rain slicker on and bright red boots and they carried a matching red umbrella. On the next block was another person walking in the rain, the hood of their rain coat pulled tightly around their head. Both people were out walking their dogs in the pouring rain. Both dogs were labs. And they were reacting to the rain in a completely different fashion than Cassie. While their humans walked down the sidewalk those labs looked as happy as could be. Their tails were wagging and their ears were up and they were prancing a happy dance.

On the way home from class it was still raining. Up ahead of me on the road was a car with the passenger window rolled down. A big Golden Retriever had its head stuck out the window. I watched his mouth open and shut, open and shut, and I thought he was barking but when I got closer and rolled the window down a bit he wasn’t making a sound. He was opening his mouth because he was trying to catch the rain as it was coming down. And as I passed him, I swear that dog was smiling.

Sometimes I’ve tried to force myself to write a certain type of story because I think that’s what the market is looking for or what a particular editor is looking for or even, horrors, because I think it would be easy and a quick sale. It’s like I wanted I wanted to be a Lab or Golden Retriever when I knew all along I was a German Shepherd. I believe the best stories are the ones that come from some place deep inside of us. For me it’s usually about trying to make sense out of something in my life. Trying to tell a story that doesn’t come from my own heart doesn’t work for me. (That’s not to say I haven’t tried. I have. They just haven’t been the best of stories.)

I can’t make Cassie love the rain the way those labs and that Golden Retriever do. And that’s okay.

There are things that Cassie can do that I bet none of those dogs can do. And that’s even better.

Don’t try to force your story into what someone else is writing or selling. Your stories are YOUR stories. You’re the only who can tell them.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010|Categories: Of Dogs and Writing|Tags: , |8 Comments

Finding Your Pack

Although Cassie has overcome a lot of her separation anxiety that she had when she first came to live with us, bits of it linger. When the pack is together, Cassie, my husband, and myself, all is right in her world. She plays, she naps, she keeps guard at the front and back windows. She’s a happy dog.

When one of us is gone she becomes somewhat unbalanced. She might play, but not with the same enthusiasm. She might check out the front window but she won’t settle. She paces, she nudges whomever is home for attention and then when she gets the attention she still isn’t happy. Yet as soon as the missing pack member comes back home it’s as though she takes a huge, deep breath and relaxes. She is surrounded by family and all is right in her world.

This past weekend I went to our local SCBWI conference at Asilomar in Pacific Grove. It was, as it often is, a lovely conference filled with wonderful nuggets of information from the talented speakers. It was a time to huddle together in the small rooms and talk after hours about craft and publishers and life in general. It was a time to be surrounded with creative energy hoping that some of it would seep into our souls.

And it did.

I work so much in solitude or, as I have for the past few months, with incarcerated youth which is a tough job. All that aloneness, away from my pack, puts me off balance. I do what I’m supposed to do but I often stutter-step around. But a few days immersed with other writers and illustrators, sharing my words and, for the first time, sharing my art, and I was able to take a deep breath, one of those huge, giant, soul-filling breaths and I felt my heart swell and expand and then I smiled, from the inside out.

I was surrounded by family, my writing family, and all was right in my world.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010|Categories: Of Dogs and Writing|Tags: , |3 Comments

Hope vs Hard Work

We’ve had some nice weather around here the past few days and the birds have been visiting our yard in a steady stream. The sparrows splash about in the bird bath, the doves laze around by the ground level pool, and the finches and the robins take turns at the bubbling rock.

The bubbling rock is in perfect view from the patio door, right about Cassie’s eye level. So lately when the bells ring I’m not sure if she wants to go outside because she has to take care of business or because she wants to chase the birds. She doesn’t have a super high prey drive but the birds are mouth-sized and fluttering around and I see her instincts kick in. So before I open the door I give her the command to “go slow” and she walks out there at a normal walking pace, giving the birds plenty of time to fly away before she reaches them.

We must do this a dozen times a day. She sees the birds, she asks to go out. I open the door and tell her to go slow. The birds fly away before she gets there.

But still she hopes.

Sometimes it’s hard for writers to find hope. If you don’t have a submission out to an editor or an agent or even a critique group hope seems a little hard to hold onto. But if you’re not putting words down on paper you won’t ever reach the point of having something to submit to an editor or an agent or your critique group.

Hope is good. But you still have to do the work.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010|Categories: Of Dogs and Writing|Tags: , |6 Comments

Of Dogs and Writing – Being Kind

Today in my incarcerated poetry class the topic of my dog Cassie came up. I told them a little bit about her, how she was a rescue dog, and some of the troubles she had had before she came to live with us. When I told them them that one family had thrown her away for talking too much, some of the students got very animated. They all had solutions on how to fix the problem.

Kick her when she does that. Hit her, that’ll make her stop. You gotta start hitting her right away, when’s she a puppy. And keep hitting her every time she does bad.

I was, of course, horrified. I asked if I kicked them every time they didn’t do what I wanted them to do, if it would make them want to write for me? The room quieted down as they shook their heads. One boy spoke up and said he guessed it didn’t really work because he got beat on all the time and he still did bad things.

How much abuse do we heap on ourselves and our writing? I don’t know about you but for me, a lot. I write a line and then beat myself up for not writing a paragraph or an entire page. I finally write a page, reread it and then tell myself how much it stinks. I pull apart my plot and compare it to other plots and then yell at myself for not being unique enough or clever enough or smart enough or, well, you get the idea.

Of course I’m going about it all wrong. Being mean to my writer self doesn’t make me want to sit down and write any more than kicking Cassie would have have made her stop barking all the time. Cassie’s change in behavior was a result of time and kindness. I put in a lot of time with her, a lot of time that we thought we would never see any progress at at. And instead of abuse she receive nothing but love. She still makes some noise but the nervous barking that seemed to have been her biggest problem is virtually gone.

I wonder how much my writing would improve if I tried the same thing?

Forgetting What We Know is True

When we first got Cassie she had such severe separation anxiety that whenever one of us left the room she would stress out and if one of us left the house she worked herself up into a huge panic. She would beg to go outside a dozen times and then run up and down the stairs and mostly whimper and let the other person know that in her mind, the pack should always stay together. I wondered if we would ever reach the point where we could leave her home alone.

At first she would whine would we put her in the crate but over time she just accepted it and calmed down. We got to the point where we could leave the room and didn’t always have her following at our heels (unless we head to the kitchen but that’s another whole issue.)  So it was a big deal a few months ago when we decided we could finally leave her alone in the house without locking her in her crate. We took the door off the crate so she still had a den to go to but when we left the house we gave her free rein. We never leave her for very long, a couple of hours is about it. She’s always been great about it. She doesn’t destroy anything. Doesn’t get into the garbage. She pretty much just hangs out and waits for us to come home. And when we do come home she makes us feel like the most important people in the universe with her five minutes of welcome home love. For the last few months we’ve been leaving her on her own a few times a week for a couple of hours each time with no problems at all.

But something changed recently. My husband left for work one day and Cassie was fine hanging out with me. Not long after that I had to leave too. It seemed like a norm exit. I left and she was happily sitting on her rug by the door, watching me go. She wasn’t excited or frantic (we’ve long since learned to put on our shoes a while before we’re going to leave.) I thought everything was fine. Then I came home a few hours later and the welcome home love attack that normally lasts just five minutes turned into I’m going to glue myself to your leg and never let you out of my sight. She tried to climb in my lap. I invited her onto the couch with me and she jumped up and then tried to climb down it the other side. I moved to work at the table and she straddled the feet of the table, which couldn’t have been very comfy, in order to get as close to me as possible. Every so often she would whimper and nuzzle me. It was a worse anxiety attack than she had had when she was brand new to us. Even a bully stick couldn’t get her attention. She totally ignored it. I took her for a walk. I didn’t help. She continued to follow me everywhere, never settling down, never closing her eyes. I thought when my husband came home and she saw the pack was all together that she would calm down but she just switched back and forth between the two of us.

Bedtime is usually a pretty basic routine and once we’re all upstairs together Cassie crashes on her bed. Not that night. While we sat in bed and read, she paced back and forth from each side, whining, occasionally putting a paw up on the bed. We’ve never allowed her on the bed, not once, so I was shocked to see her try to jump on the bed to get in-between the two of us. Finally, when the lights went out, she settled into her bed and slept. In the morning it was like nothing had ever happened.

This has happened a couple of times now and the last episode was so bad that I know we have a problem to deal with. It’s like she’s forgotten that she has stayed home alone just fine many times without an incident and is thrust back into the feelings and fears she had when she first came to live with us.

I’m in a bit of a writing funk write now. I have a few ideas about how and why but that’s for another post. The thing is right now I’ve forgotten what it is like to be in the middle of a book and have no idea where I am going with it. I’ve forgotten that it really is darkest before the dawn. I’ve forgotten that I’ve written books, finished books, sold books. I’ve forgotten it all and am just all alone, right there in the middle of story that scares the hell out of me for one reason or another. And once that fear grabs you, that irrational fear that doesn’t listen to all your friends and peers telling you how you did it before and you can do it again, well, once that fear grabs you, it’s hard to shake it loose. I can know in my head that the important thing is to just get a crappy draft down but then my heart says a bunch of other stuff and, well, most of us have been on that merry-go-round before.

Most dog training advice centers around repetition so I’m going to try that for myself. Baby steps. Ten minutes. Ten sentences. Ten words. Even if they are the same ten words every day for a while until I break the funk I hope to remind myself of what I know is true, I’ve done this before.

I can do it again.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010|Categories: Of Dogs and Writing|Tags: , |6 Comments

You Can't Please Everyone

Cassie likes to watch TV. Her favorite shows are the ones with animals running around, especially monkeys, horses, sheep, and dogs. After that would be watching little kids, toddler age. She takes naps when reality shows are on. When she catches a glimpse of a horse racing across the screen she’ll sometimes stand up on her hind legs to get a better view and make noises that she only makes when watching TV. Her favorite viewing position is in her chair that’s closest to the TV, her head resting on the arm and her nose pointed toward the screen. She’s a TV watching kind of a dog.

Which makes what happened the other night really interesting.

We were watching the movie The Hurt Locker, which didn’t have any of Cassie’s favorite animals in it but also wasn’t a reality show so I figured she’d do like she did most nights, watch with one eye open so she could be ready in case an elephant lumbered into sight. This wasn’t the first war movie we’ve watched since we got her. It wasn’t the first dark or violent or noisy one. (Hubby loves the really scary horror movies.) But this was the first movie that made Cassie visibly uncomfortable. About fifteen minutes into the film she got out of her bed, came over to my side and whimpered. It was a funny sound that I don’t hear from her very often. Of course I had no idea what was going on or what to do so when she stopped making noises I gave her a few strokes and then started talking to her. I even offered her a place next to me on the couch but she refused.

The movie continued.

Cassie walked over to my husband and made the same sort of noises to him. We paused the film and just watched her for a while trying to figure out what was going on. Eventually we gave up and went back to watching the movie. The entire time Cassie couldn’t settle down. She paced. She hopped into her chair and then down again. She sat in her bed and then got out again. She finally hunkered down in the space between my husband’s chair and the bookcase and waited. I think if she could have figured out the remote control, she would have turned the TV off in a heartbeat.

When the movie was over we didn’t say a word. Didn’t do anything except flip to a mindless sitcom. Within minutes Cassie was happily sprawled in her bed, snoring away.

I’ll never know what was going on in her doggie mind, what it was about the movie that made her feel so uncomfortable.

I didn’t connect with the movie in any way. I watched it and could only tell you vaguely what it was about being it didn’t reach me, it didn’t disturb my universe, it didn’t make me care. But it touched Cassie.

Sometimes I pass my newly written words into the hands of an early reader feeling pretty sure that they will offer back mountains of praise and instead I receive a shrug of the shoulders or an “I don’t get” comment. Yet I can ask another first reader for their opinion on the same pages and they will be moved, they’ll connect and they’ll get exactly what I’m trying to do. That doesn’t mean one reader was right and one reader was wrong or that my story was broken. All of that could be the case but that’s not what I mean here.

What it means is that not everyone is going to love your book. Not every early reader. Not every agent. Not every editor. Not every reviewer or teacher or blogger or, well you get the idea. When we’re in the middle of writing the story we have this fairy tale movie playing in our head about how everyone is going to rave about our book. But the reality is that you are going to connect with some people and not with others and that’s just the way it is.

I forget that sometimes.

When I think about it, it sorta takes the pressure off. You don’t have to please everyone so why not write YOUR story YOUR way and please yourself?

What a concept. I think Cassie would approve.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010|Categories: Of Dogs and Writing|Tags: , |3 Comments

Bedtime Routine

Like most dogs, Cassie is a creature of great habit. One of my favorites is the nighttime routine just before bed. I’m usually working on the couch in the library and Cassie is passed out in her chair by the fireplace. Hubby has gone off to his office. I shut down my computer and that gets her attention but she doesn’t move from her chair. I go to the kitchen and pop open the box of her pills. I know she hears this but she still doesn’t move. Finally I go to the refrigerator and get out the last of the day’s cheese slice. I call out “cheese” and eventually Cassie wanders into the kitchen, still half asleep, for her snack. Two pills down the hatch and then she proceeds to drain the water bowl.

She pauses and waits for me to say it, even though she knows what’s coming next.

“Time to go outside.” I flip on the light and she meanders out back to take care of business. I always expect her to come rushing back in so she can go back to sleep but she has a routine to follow and that includes walking the fence line, up and down both side yards. She comes back inside and stands in my office while I lock up and shut off the lights. She’s waiting for the next command.

“Go tell daddy good night.” Off she trots to hubby’s office, nuzzling his hand away from the computer so she can get some love pets from him. She waits in the doorway, offering a few groans and mumbles while I tell hubby goodnight myself.

“Upstairs.” Usually she heads right upstairs but sometimes a toy or a bone grab her attention on her way. She’ll pick them up and look at me, waiting to find out if they are okay to take upstairs. Squeaky toys make me say “put it away” which means there’s no way that noisy thing is coming into the bedroom with us, but quiet toys or bones get an “okay, take it with you” and off she’ll race up the stairs. By the time I get upstairs myself, she’s happily ensconced in her bed, waiting for me.

I envy her the ease with which she’s developed these routines. I’m not as good at them as she is. I’d like a daily routine that includes time for writing and art and exercise and friends and gardening and the occasionally burst of cleaning. But what I have is more of a feast or famine sort of thing…one area will get most of my attention and everything else is ignored until the squeaky wheel squeaks a little louder and I switch gears. I know they say it takes 21 days to create a new habit but even that feels overwhelming when there are so many new ones to be created.

I also envy that Cassie has someone like me, guiding her with commands, urging her through her paces, encouraging her with words and rewarding her with cookies for jobs well done. It’s tough to be my own coach, my own guiding light.

I’m not sure what the answer is, for me. Oh, I can hear some of my friends saying to just pick one and start there and that’s all well and good with the logical side of one’s mind but for someone like me who tends to live on the emotional side of things, well it’s a bit tougher. But I’m going to try. Again and still. Because that’s what I do. I try. I fail. I try harder.

Or in the words of Samuel Beckett, “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Wednesday, January 13, 2010|Categories: Of Dogs and Writing|Tags: , , |13 Comments

What soothes your soul?

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?

Monday, January 11, 2010|Categories: Writing Life|Tags: , |11 Comments

Do What You Wanna Do

When one of us in in the shower, Cassie considers it her job to keep guard, usually at the top of the stairs. Sometimes she demands to be in the bathroom so she can poke her head around the shower curtain. Yesterday she decided to stand guard just outside the door. When I got out of the shower she was nowhere around. I figured she was in our room, asleep in her bed there. I checked but no Cassie. I went downstairs and checked everywhere, her crate, her bed in the library, her bed in my office, by the front patio door. No Cassie anywhere. I checked outside to see if my husband had let her out and then forgotten to let her back in again.

No sign of Cassie anywhere. I turned to go back upstairs and suddenly, there she was, at the top of the stairs looking down at me. I didn’t think much about it. I figured I had just missed her.

We have a spare room upstairs that has some exercise equipment, TV, and a little antique French settee. The settee is there to keep it safe (instead of in the garage) while I try to sell it. To keep Cassie off of it I put a dozen small pillows, stacked all over it, so you couldn’t even see an edge to sit on. No one really goes in that room and it’s mostly just the place you throw things to get them out of your way. I feel bad that it’s a mostly underused room. Most nights, while I’m brushing my teeth, I stand in the doorway, staring into the room trying to figure out how we can better utilize the space. Last night I poked my head in the room and what did I see?

A dozen little pillows on the floor and a nice Cassie indentation on the settee.

I had to laugh. Sure, if I had been there to see it I would have told her no. But I couldn’t help but admire her capabilities. She saw the little Cassie sized couch and wanted up. She removed the pillows. And then I imagine she had a nice nap while I took my shower. I would have given anything to have been able to watch her getting those pillows out of her way.

Most of the time we make Cassie wait for permission to do just about anything. She’s so dang smart that if we don’t, she’d soon be running the house. But sometimes we can’t anticipate what it is she is going to want to do so she takes matters into her own hands. Sometimes we have to stop her but sometimes she gets a nice nap on silk cushions out of the deal.

I’ve spent a lot of my life waiting for permission to do the things I want to do. I don’t know who I expected to give me that permission – family, friends, people in some sort of authority or another – but I’m tired of waiting. Going forward I’m going to try and do more of what I want to do, write books, make art, work in the garden and fill my life with the things and the people I love, without waiting for someone to tell me it’s okay to do so.

Anyone care to join me?

Wednesday, January 6, 2010|Categories: Of Dogs and Writing|Tags: , |11 Comments

Taking Care of Business

Cassie is not a fan of the rain. When she rings the bell to go outside normally all I have to do is slide open the door and watch her trot out back to take care of business. Except when it’s raining. The door opens and she sniffs the air then glares at me as though the stuff falling from the sky is all my fault.

She steps out, hesitantly. She really has to pee but she doesn’t want to get wet. So she stands in the middle of the patio (getting wet because there’s no overhang or tree for shelter) and instead of just racing on and doing what she needs to do she folds her ears back, tucks her tail between her legs, and waits. For a creature descended from wolves it’s really laughable to watch her cower in the pouring rain.

I want to tell her to hurry up. That the sooner she takes care of things, the sooner she can come back in and get dry. But I don’t know if it would make a difference, even if I could make her understand me. It’s like she wants to have something to complain about.

In some ways I’m a lot like Cassie. When I think about some writing projects, some assignments I might have that aren’t at the top of my fun list or some kind of business part of the job that I keep postponing, I know I should just jump in and take care of them so I can cross them off my list. But I don’t. I wander around the house, moaning and complaining about how much I don’t want to do something and probably spending more time whining about it all than it would have taken me to do whatever needed doing.

I watch Cassie getting more and more wet as she makes no attempt to move off the patio and do what she is supposed to be doing. I sigh, and utter the magic words, “Go potty and you can have a cookie.”

She looks back at me and gives a few short wags of her tail before finally walking off behind the back of the house. A few minutes later she bounds back inside, glued to my side until she gets the promised treat. She’s been rewarded. All is right in her world.

I think sometimes I forget to give myself a cookie, or even the promise of one.

I’m working on changing that. How about you?

Wednesday, December 30, 2009|Categories: Of Dogs and Writing|Tags: , |6 Comments


Due to health issues, Cassie gets 8 pills a day. They’re spread out, four times a day, some with food, some without food. I finally had to buy one of those big plastic pill containers that had four compartments per day just so I could make sure I didn’t forget to give her one. They’re mostly big pills and not the kind you can just mix in with her food. I figured out that a slice of American cheese works pretty well for pill pockets. I take a small piece of cheese and mold it around the pills and she scarfs them right down.

As I was filling the compartments with all the pills today (and trying not to think about the cost of all this medicine) I started thinking about the commitment we made to Cassie when we rescued her. At the time we adopted her we had no idea that she would have medical issues. We went to an adoption day, fell in love with Cassie, and brought her home to start a new life with us as soon as possible. We’ve lavished her with love and treats and toys, and most importantly, training. When the health stuff popped up we just started dealing with it because that’s what you do when you love someone, even when that someone is a dog.

And then I started thinking about how some people might give up on a dog with health problems and expensive medicines. They might say enough is enough and walk away from the dog, unwilling to deal with the expense or the hassle of a dog with health issues.

Not us. We’re in this for the long haul. Sorta like that “in sickness and health” promise my husband and I made when we got married.

Sometimes writing is easy. You start to write a story and you fall in love with it and the words seem to fall from your fingertips to the page with hardly any effort at all. And you smile to yourself and think, man, it’s so dang easy to be a writer. This is the life. But sometimes writing is tough. Plots fall apart. Characters misbehave. Theme evaporates right before your eyes and you start to wonder why you should even bother, especially with the state the publishing industry is in right now.

If you feel like you’ve had enough and you want to walk away, go for it. Because if you can really quit the writing, maybe you didn’t love it quite as much as you thought you did. Now quitting isn’t the same as taking a break. We all need those breaks to shift our thinking to another part of the brain for a while. But when you are in a story, you need to make a commitment to finishing that story, even when it seems like everything is stacked against you. Sometimes all you need to do is promise yourself to keep on keeping on, one word at a time. The battle will fight itself under the surface and as long as you don’t quit, you don’t lose.

When we first started giving Cassie all this medicine I felt bad. Several times a day I had give her something yucky. Something other dogs didn’t need to deal with.

But you know what? Cassie doesn’t look at it that way. When I pop open one of those compartments she comes running into the kitchen from wherever she is in the house. She knows she’s getting a pill. And she knows that pill is going to be coated in cheese. She’s not thinking about it being medicine. The way she sees it, she gets four yummy cheese treats a day.

It’s all in how you look at it.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009|Categories: Of Dogs and Writing|Tags: , |6 Comments

Without a Worry in the World

Last week Cassie had some more biopsies done. We think the problems that have popped up are related to her disease but just in case, we need to make sure. We had hoped to cut back her medication to every other day but suddenly the bumps came back. And then there’s the issue of her coat that never came in. At two years of age she still looks trapped in puppyhood with a stripe of adult fur down her back and her sides covered in not quite puppy fur but not the long guard hair that you would expect on a dog this age. So it was back to the vet who shaved her in about five spots and sent her home to wait out the results. She has stitches in various spots on her body, all easily accessible for licking and scratching and chewing.

I kept expecting her to chew at the stitches and dreaded the idea of having to put one of those collars on her but the only one who seemed to be worried about them was me. Cassie ignored the stitches as though they didn’t even exist. She’s been just fine all week, doing what she does best, without a wasting a single moment of fun time by worrying at those stitches.

How many times in our writing lives do we make mountains out of the proverbial molehill?

I don’t know about you but for me, I do it way to often. I think too much. I think too much before I write and after I write and while I write. I worry those words back and forth until I’m no longer sure what is fresh and original and what is just old and tired from me worrying on it so much.

One of the hard things that happens for some people (or at least for me) is that after we sell a piece of writing our minds are focused on the selling and not on being a writer, living the writer’s life, and well, just writing. Wouldn’t it be nice to not think so much?

Old habits are hard to break so I can’t say that I am going to let go of all that worrying all at once. But I am going to call myself on it more often.

Less time worrying will give me more time to write, and more time to play with Cassie.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009|Categories: Of Dogs and Writing|Tags: , |14 Comments

Taking it Seriously

There are two things that Cassie takes very seriously, food and sleep. She loves to eat but she REALLY loves to sleep. The whole process of settling in for a nap requires much pacing and groaning and moaning and sighing when, at last, she lowers her body to the floor and closes her eyes. She’s pretty predictable too. After dinner she plays for a while and then it’s coma dog, crashed out in the library or whatever room we are in at the moment. This is good and bad. The good is that she’s quiet and not bothering anyone. I can write or we can watch TV without popping up to rescue the ball out from under the couch 100 times. the bad is that she’s a coma dog. By that I mean she won’t wake up. Which wouldn’t be a REALLY bad thing except that before we go upstairs so we can all go to bed she really needs to go outside and take care of business one last time.

But she won’t wake up. It’s sleep time and she intends to keep right on sleeping until I can give her a good reason why she ought to get out of her comfy bed. That good reason is usually the sound of me tapping the lid of her cookie jar against the side of the jar. Like a doorbell, it gets her attention. With the promise of a cookie, she’ll get out of bed and go outside.

One of my favorite times of night is our bedtime routine. After her last trip outside she trots off to my husband’s office to tell him goodnight and then waits at the bottom of the stairs, for me to follow. We head up to the bedroom and she goes through the whole settling down process and then she rests her head on the edge of her bed and stares at me. I usually sit up with the light on and read for a while. When I finally turn off the light she moans as though she has been suffering 100 years waiting for the dark to fill the room. I love the sound of that groan.

Recently we decided to let her have a chair in the library. (Sorry, Cecila) It’s been really funny to watch because she’s a big dog who should be able to bound up into the chair easily but instead she climbs up, one foot at a time, like an old woman. And now she has a new routine. After dinner and playtime she naps in her bed in front of the fireplace and then after a few hours, climbs into the chair and goes back to sleep.

But she is still coma dog, intent on sleeping through any possible command I give her. Like I said, she takes her sleep seriously. She gives it 110%. And then some. She commits.

Some books are harder to write than others. Some come out as gifts and we stare at them, wondering where they came from. Others tease us with a few sentences or a paragraph or two and then it gets tough and we find it easy to walk away from the story. And sometimes walking away is the right thing to do. Sometimes a story needs a longer incubation time.

But not always. At least not for me. Most of the time for me it is a matter of taking it seriously. Making a commitment to tell that particular story with the same single-minded determination that Cassie applies to taking a nap. I might do a lot of pacing and circling and moaning and groaning before I get comfortable with it but the important thing for me is to put in the time, the butt in the chair and the fingers on the keys.

Lots of people want to “have written” more than they want to make the commitment to be a writer. You have to be willing to do the work.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009|Categories: Of Dogs and Writing|Tags: , |17 Comments

What did you bring me?

Whenever I come back from being away from home, (whether it’s hours or days doesn’t matter) Cassie has to give me the one over with her nose, gathering up all the scents from where I’ve been. Usually it’s a quick sniff because I haven’t been gone too long. And of course anything that comes in the house with me needs to be sniffed out as well. Sometimes I’ll take an old toy with me and put it in my purse so she can sniff it out and be reunited with an old friend.

She’ll be doing her sniffing routine and suddenly smell something that she knows, without a doubt, belongs to her. There’s such joy for her those moments. She races to her rug with little yips of excitement and then waits, tail wagging like crazy, for me to give her the toy. Once she has it, whatever it is, she runs off to the library to toss it in the air a few times then pounce on it, pinning it to the ground with her paws.

I have something that belongs to her and she wants it back. She doesn’t wonder if it is hers. She KNOWS. And once she has that toy back she gives it all of her attention, lavishes it with loving enthusiasm and then, once that reconnection is confirmed, she gives a loud sigh of contentment, dropping her head to the floor to rest upon the toy.

I just got home from a few days away at an informal writing retreat with a group of woman that have had a tremendous impact on my life. Some of that impact was apparent right away. Other pieces will make themselves known over time. And that’s as it should be. Not all gold is mined from veins close to the surface. Sometimes you have to put in the effort to dig it out.

When I came home I had a plush toy waiting to be “reunited” with Cassie. I tucked in the pocket of my sweatshirt before I got out of the car. My husband let Cassie out front to meet me and she did her normal Cassie inspection, sniffing me up and down and all around. Then suddenly, she found the toy in my pocket. When I told her she could have it she gently tugged it free and then carried it back toward the house, her tail held high with pride, as if she had just scored a great kill in the forest.

And I guess she had.

By the time I got into the house she was contentedly resting in the library, one paw over the stuffed toy, the other tucked under her chin. She raised her head as I came in the room and then, in that way that big dogs do, she smiled her thanks to me.

Over the years, pieces of me have gone missing. Confidence has faded around the edges of my dreams. Chunks of self-esteem have been lost on the road to survival. My sense of self has been buried under a mountain of “would-ofs,” “could-ofs,” and “should-ofs.”

I want these pieces of myself back.

But I can’t expect to pull them out of my pocket unless I promise that I will accept these pieces of me, (however battered they might be,) with joy, that I will lavish them with love and kindness, that I will believe again, in my right to claim what’s mine.

I want to smooth the jagged edges and polish them until they shine. That’s where the real joy comes from – taking something not so pretty and believing in it enough that suddenly, it transforms right before your eyes, into a thing of beauty.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009|Categories: Of Dogs and Writing|Tags: , |17 Comments

Waiting for Lightbulbs

In addition to her basic commands Cassie knows a few tricks like shake, crawl, take a nap, tell me a secret, wave goodbye and peek-a-boo. The fact that she can do these things doesn’t make me a brilliant trainer. It just makes me a good waiter.

Teaching a dog a trick requires a lot of patience. One you figure out what you want to teach the dog to do you have to break it down into steps and then link it together. And then you use up a lot of treats and a lot of time waiting for the light bulb to click on. Even with smart dogs like Cassie it takes time to get consistent results.

When teaching her something new I start off filled with proud mama enthusiasm about how wonderful it is going to be to show off the trick to my friends and how smart Cassie is so of course she’ll pick it up really quickly. And then the training starts. Suddenly I’m thinking, “She’s never going to get this. She’s never going to make the connection between the words take a nap and the fact that I want her to sit, then lay down, then lay on her side, then put her down and close her eyes until I tell her she can wake up. Not going to happen.”

But because many of my decisions in life are fueled by enthusiasm, I go ahead and try. I lure her with treats. I give command words. More treats. More waiting. A lot of near misses. And then…then I start to see the light bulbs going on. The first time I give the command “take a nap” and she goes through all the motions correctly I get all excited and scream YES! so loudly that she pops up and starts jumping on me. So I slow down again. And eventually she gets it. When she does it correctly she gets a treat. We race into my husband’s office and she performs again. And again. And now it’s a regular part of her routine.

I recently finished an eight week workshop that I used to jumpstart some stalled places in Flyboy. Once a week I turned in ten pages of my WIP to be workshopped by the editor, Jill Sanatpolo, who was leading the class, as well as fourteen other classmates. Once a week I read fourteen other stories. Once a week I got tons of feedback on my book. Now that the class is over I’m faced with trying to assimilate all that feedback. These were smart writers and smart critiquers and a smart editor so I have of questions they’ve asked me about the story, suggestions for improvements and brainstorms that I had asked for around certain plot issues.

I spent yesterday looking at all the feedback and feeling overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of it all. First I merged everything into one giant file. Bad idea. All those comments in the margins made me feel even worse. Finally I decided to just break it down, week by week again. I created a new master file and took just one person’s feedback, merged it and then went step by step through every comment. Then I took a second person’s feedback and did the same thing. I know there are people who could read all the feedback, make a few notes, and then boom, move forward, but I don’t work that way. I have to see it all, touch it all. I have to comb through the sentences again and again and again until finally the light bulbs start to click on and I can feel myself begin to “get” it. By the time I got to the third person’s feedback I was starting to feel that little tingle that tells me something is connecting. The comment from one person and the question from another person triggered a different idea for me. I jotted down a few sentences. Then another. Then another. When I looked up again I’d written a few new paragraphs.

This is my process. A lot of trying. A lot of waiting. Waiting for light bulbs to turn on and shine a light on the path I need to take.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009|Categories: Of Dogs and Writing|Tags: , , |10 Comments

Get a Little Closer

Cassie goes almost everywhere with us but depending on which car we take it’s like traveling with two different dogs. In my car, a Honda coupe, she sits directly behind me on the back seat. She’s happy as can be, looking out the back window or just laying down to wait for us to get wherever it is we need to go. But when the three of us go out, like on our 45 minute drives to Santa Cruz, we usually take my husband’s car, a Toyota Four-Runner. We have a doggy gate in the back and Cassie races to the car and jumps in, always anxious to go along, until the car starts and we move down the road.

Then she turns into a barking machine, non-stop from San Jose to Los Gatos to Santa Cruz. Constant barking. Loud barking. Frantic barking.

It’s been over a year that she’s lived with us and nothing seemed to make a difference. Recently, after a long trip filled with barking in the Toyota I took her on a short trip in the Honda and noticed again how I didn’t have any problems with her. I suggested to my husband that we take out the doggy gate and put down the seats so she could come up closer to where we were.

Filled with hope, we invited Cassie to go for a ride. She jumped in the backseat and then walked all the way up to the front and sat down. We started the car and headed down the road.

Silence. Total silence.

This past week we’ve done several more short trips, around the block a few miles downtown, and each one is just the same. A quiet dog happily going along for a ride. It’s not a permanent solution but I think now that we know what the problem was, we’ll be able to work on acclimating her to riding in the back. Heck, the view’s better back there anyway with more windows. But for now, it’s all about getting up close and personal on our family outings.

Some stories are like that, staying in the background, barking at you, begging for attention. They’re never satisfied until you bring them up front with you, as close as they can get. But sometimes we’re afraid to bring the stories too close. Afraid of what the story might show the world about us or perhaps afraid of the story might show us something we don’t want to see.

I never expect that kind of writing to come easily to me. I scream at the computer and throw a few barking fits of my own. I’ve finally learned that I can’t do that kind of deep, emotionally honest writing in one sitting. But I can do it in short bursts, like a trip around the block.

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.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009|Categories: Of Dogs and Writing|Tags: , |8 Comments

Are you ready?

Sunday night we went to dinner with friends. We don’t go out much and most of the places we go, we take Cassie with us. But this time that wasn’t possible. We knew we’d be gone about three hours so the big question that came up was, is she ready to be left alone in the house?

She’s never been a destructive dog. Never counter surfs. Never gets into the garbage. Except for a fondness for my favorite pens and plastic water bottles, we’ve been pretty lucky. But she’s a needy, nervous dog who came to us with severe separation anxiety. I used to spray myself with DAP every time my husband left the house just so she would whine at a lower decibel.

She’s almost two years old and there’s no reason she shouldn’t be able to stay alone in the house. Dogs all over the world do it every day while their owners are off to work. But still, I worried. We practiced leaving her for short bursts of time, an hour here, a half hour there. Sunday night we got ready to go and Cassie went through her typical frenzied routine. As soon as she saw me with the brush for my hair she started barking and prancing around the house. She worked up so so much excitement at the thought of going out that I expected her to make herself sick.

I moved the bully sticks into the laundry room and shoved the leftover Halloween candy inside the microwave. Garbage was emptied. Pens put out of reach. I unwrapped a brand new bone and put it on the floor in the library. Normally that’s enough to take all of her attention but that night, she just didn’t care. She ran over and sniffed it once and then raced back to the front door. We kept postponing the leaving, giving her a treat if she went to her rug and stayed quiet. Petting her and then finally, rushing out the door before we could change our mind and stay home.

I waited on the porch, expecting to hear some frantic barking. Nothing. I glanced at the front window, waiting for her to fling herself against the glass. Nothing.

We went off to have an enjoyable evening of adult conversation without the tangle of a leash underfoot (or patio seating) and I didn’t start to worry again until we were on the way home. I told myself as long as she hadn’t trashed one of our antique pieces of furniture it would be okay.

Normally when she hears one of our cars in the driveway she gets excited and dances around on her rug near the door. But not this night. We stood on the porch and peered in the sidelight window. I saw her, on the floor in the library, next to her bone. She slowly stretched and walked over to her rug and sat down. When we came inside she wagged her tail a few times and then went back to her bone. She hadn’t chewed it at all while we were gone but now that we were home I guess she decided it was okay to let herself enjoy it.

There was no barking. No frantic jumping. No racing around the house because we came back.

Many times I’ll have a writing project that I want to do but I put off doing because I’m afraid I won’t do it well. I procrastinate, ask my husband a million questions, email friends, and play a zillion games of Lexulous on Facebook. Eventually the time comes when I can’t put it off any longer and I dive in. And when I finally knuckle down and do the work it isn’t suddenly easy but I do eventually remember that hey, I’ve been at this writing thing a while and I’ve worked up some skills. And I remember how much I love this crazy business I’m in. I always forget all that when I’m about to start something new or difficult or different.

What are you not doing because you don’t think you’re ready?

I bet you’re more ready than you think.

I know I am.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009|Categories: Of Dogs and Writing|Tags: , |5 Comments


Lately I’ve noticed a change in Cassie.

She doesn’t coming running up the stairs as soon as she hears the bedroom door open. She’s too busy keeping guard at the bottom of the stair while chomping on a bone or making a chorus of animal noises with all the squeaky toys. She stays awake longer in the evenings, playing with her egg babies, chasing them all over the house. She doesn’t sleep in her crate as much as she used to, preferring instead to sprawl in front of one of the patio windows and keep an eye on the outside activities. She asks for attention when she wants it, nuzzling a nose under my hand at the computer and of course following anyone into the kitchen in the hopes that food will fall from the sky. She doesn’t just run outside to take care of business and race back into the house. She takes her time and meanders around the yard, checking out the fence line, resting on the patio while she surveys her kingdom.

What’s changed?

She’s a much more confident dog now than she was a year ago. It’s like she’s shaken off a lot of the old ghosts that were hanging around in her head and realized  that where she was, here and now, was where she was supposed to be. And that thought made her happy. A dog that is happy doing what she is meant to do, being a part of the family.

What did we do to bring about this change?

We loved her. We loved her even when she was making us crazy. We loved her through and in spite of all the expensive medical proceedures and the expensive medicine she’ll be on for life. We loved her when she chewed on a few things she wasn’t supposed to and when she barked nonstop in the car, no matter where we went. We. Loved. Her. Free from whatever her life had been before we rescued her she has blossomed into what she was supposed to be.

At the end of this month it will be one year since I was laid off from my day job. My non-writing job. My job that was so left-brained that for days, weeks, months even, I forgot I had ever been a writer.

I’ve spent the past year saying yes to just about any writing job that came my way and I’ve been lucky that there have been a lot of them. On top of all the freelancing I’ve taken some writing classes and kept up with my part time work doing web editing for the Children’s Literature Network.

In other words, I’ve been immersed in the world I love. The world of words.

My neighbor came over the other night to visit Cassie. Before she left she looked at me and smiled and said, “You look different. Whatever you’re doing, you look really good.”

She had told me that a couple of times lately and each time I thanked her but I excused it away saying I had done my hair, put on make-up, some excuse. But this time I went back inside and told my husband what she had said. Then I asked him, this man who has lived with me for almost a dozen years, if I looked different to him.

He smiled at me in that way that someone who knows something you don’t know does. And then he said, “You look happy. You’re not used to it, but you look happy. And happy looks good on you.”

My initial thought was to push his words away too, like I did with my neighbor. To deny the truth of them. But then I heard the squeak squeak squeak of the egg baby as Cassie chased it around the house. She brought it over and dropped it at my feet, this dog who just a year ago had no idea how to play, and looked up me with her half-open, tongue hanging out happy mouth. And of course when I bent down to pick it up she pounced on it and took off playing on her own, playing like the confident and happy puppy she is now, now that she is able to live the life she is meant to live.

I smiled back at my wonderful husband, the man who has given me this gift of being able to write full time, and said you’re right. I AM happy. I intend to get used to it.”

Lucky Cassie. Lucky me.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009|Categories: Of Dogs and Writing|Tags: , |16 Comments