Love might be the first ingredient needed for training a dog or started to write a new book but all too soon the love of starting something new fades and reality hits you, this is not going to be easy.
When I first fall in love with a story idea, deeply enough that I have a rough idea of the plot and how it is all going to end, I can almost see the finished book on the shelf. In my vivid imagination it is simply a matter of showing up at the keyboard or notebook every day, putting in a good day’s work, and voila, in no time at all, I have a book I can be proud of, a book my agent can sell, a book my friends and fans can buy. A brand-new book.
But of course there are no places to stumble when I am just writing in my head. The trouble starts when I sit down and start to type.
Zoey has two personalities. When she first wakes up in the morning she is a lovebug who gently nuzzles my head and neck, pushing her body close into mine as if she’s trying to merge with me. I eat it up. I’ve waited so long for a dog who wanted to be mine as much as I wanted it to be mine that if that was all she did all day, I’d probably be happy. But of course that’s not the way it works out.
When we go outside and Zoey wants to play, her other personality comes out. The one that was never taught that you can’t play with humans the way you can with other dogs. She nips at my calves and my hands. She jumps high enough that she could nip at my face. My arms and legs are covered in bruises. Some fading to the yellow green. Some fresh and blue from earlier today.
We are working with a trainer to curb this habit by teaching her the “stop” command. We play tug with a toy, tell her to “stop” and “sit” and then she gets a treat. The fact that she is food motivated helps a lot. I do this many times with her throughout the day but sometimes she doesn’t want to stop. It’s like a switch gets flipped in her brain and she is in manic puppy mode (albeit a puppy who weighs 65 pounds with steel-clamping jaws) and she doesn’t hear the word stop. All she sees is my hands and she is jumping, nipping, pouncing, ignoring the word “stop” or “no”, ignoring the toy I am holding out for her to take instead, ignoring my internal pleas for a magic fix to make this all stop once and for all. But it doesn’t stop. Still she tugs on me, on my clothes, on my legs and arms and hands and skin. And it hurts, it really hurts, and part of me wants to just turn my back on her and crawl into a ball and cry because doggone it, IT HURTS, and I don’t like getting hurt and just half an hour ago, this dog loved me so much she was melting into me.
All this happens in a period of a minute or two. Maybe three. Never long. And I do eventually break the mania, get her to stop, get her to sit. Reward her. Exhale. And it is done.
Later, in the house, with Zoey snoring at my feet, I can count up my battle scars. I can recognize that I got her to break the cycle sooner than the last time. I can give myself credit for staying calm (at least outwardly) and for making progress with this wonderful, slightly wild dog we brought into our lives just three short weeks ago.
But when it is going on, in the midst of trying to not get hurt and trying to train her to stop and trying to stay calm, it seems utterly impossible. In those 2 or 3 minutes of Zoey’s most important training, I think I can’t do it. I’m not a good enough dog trainer to curb this habit, I don’t have the skill set to bring Zoey to her full potential, I don’t know what to do next.
Yet somehow I do. I get through it. I am building my own muscle memory with teaching “stop” and getting her to do the puppy zooms with a toy in her mouth, another safe way for her to release all that energy she has wound so tight. The time for thinking and planning what I am going to do needs to happen before we go outside and engage. In the middle of a tornado there’s no time to think. I need to build the habits that will allow me to act.
It’s the same thing with writing. I face the blank page and I think I have no idea what happens next. I’m not good enough to pull off this intricate plot. I don’t have the skill set to make this the book I envision so clearly in my head.
And yet I do. I’ve been building my writing muscle memory for years. You sit down. You show up to the blank page and you move forward. Sometimes in little baby steps that don’t seem obvious until you are out of the writing session and looking back at how far you have come.
Training a dog or writing a book both come down to the same thing, a willingness to do the hard work. The kind of work that makes some people give up writing or other people throw away a wonderful dog.
Let yourself get lost in the moment. Trust that you know what to do next.
Great post, Susan – and an apt analogy. Zoey is turning you into a terrific trainer, and I guess all those literary dead-ends and re-writes make us better writers! It’s the repetition and the discipline (I need to keep developing those…) which sharpen the instincts.
Thanks, Robyn. So much of training dogs and training a writer’s mind are similar. The discipline, always my weak point.
“When I first fall in love with a story idea … I can almost see the finished book on the shelf. … The trouble starts when I sit down and start to type.”
Thanks for stopping by, Jenn!
I admire your courage with Zoey, Susan. I just read this in an email and thought of you:
“It came to me that every time I lose a dog,
they take a piece of my heart with them.
And every new dog who comes into my life
gifts me with a piece of their heart.
If I live long enough, all the components of
my heart will be dog,and maybe
I will become as generous and loving
as they are.”
Thanks so much, Ellie. I’m sorry I’m late with seeing this. I love this and am adding it to my Commonplace Book!
Just FYI, you inspired my 15wol poem over at Laura’s today. The title was Glasses. I wrote about a dog.
Loved your 15wol poem and was tickled that I inspired you. Thanks for letting me know so I didn’t miss it. Love the image of a dog licking you and flames licking the logs!