After my beloved dog Leo died, I entered a thick fog of grief. I felt his absence keenly because he was such an integral part of my life, keeping me company on walks and while I was writing, on the couch and in the car.
Logically, I knew I shouldn’t get another dog. I’m never bored. I have a great marriage, two lovely old cats, lots of friends, and work I love. I tried hard to allow myself to grieve, while at the same time embracing the idea that I was freer than I had ever been since parenthood. Without a dog to tie me down, I could work a solid nine-hour day, sleep late, and take off for New York City on a whim.
But, after several months, I’d had enough. I’m a dog person and nothing can change that.
Leo was a Pekingese, a sort of accidental purchase. It’s an uncommon breed but I adore it—Pekes are small but sturdy, great on hikes and calm enough to lie around while you work–so I sought out a local breeder and found a puppy I loved. Even before bringing him home, I named him Merlin because of his tufted eyebrows and white beard.
“A puppy?” a friend gasped. “Honest to God, think of the work. You need to have your head examined.”
I knew what she meant—the housebreaking and constant chewing, the endless hours of play a puppy requires are huge responsibilities. (Even as I write this, I’m playing fetch.) But, in the week since Merlin joined our family, this tiny man has shown me just how much puppies can teach writers:
1. “Who’s a Good Dog? You’re a Good Dog!”
Ever notice how that’s the first thing most people say when greeting a puppy? That’s why most puppies run up to strangers, wagging their tails and launching themselves into the air for pats and treats: they expect to be praised.
Making time to write means giving ourselves permission every day to be writers, even if we’re not making money at it or our agents and editors keep saying our drafts need work. Watching Merlin made me start imagining how great I’d feel if everyone I met said, “Who’s a good writer? You’re a good writer!” Try this, and you might start believing in yourself.
2. Chew on It
Chewing on something is one of the best ways to find out whether you like it. From rug fringe to new treats, from shoelaces to squeaking toys, Merlin chews whatever he can reach: aggressively at times, meditatively at others. Writing is exactly the same. You need to give yourself time to taste every new idea and ruminate on it for a while before you know whether it’s going to be good.
3. Go Fetch
If there’s something moving, run after it and bring it back! That idea floating through your dreamy state as you go to bed might be just the one that helps you work out your latest plot kink. Capture it in a notebook or even on a scrap of paper and bring it back. Test it out, change it, then bring it back again.
4. Friends Make Life Better
We writers spend an unholy number of hours alone every day, playing with ideas and imaginary friends. But real-life friends can make you see the world—and the worlds you’re creating—from different perspectives. Seek out other authors not only as critique partners or when you need blurbs for your new book, but as friends who understand the highs and lows of the writing life.
5. Exercise Your Body as Well as Your Mind
Sometimes the ideas don’t come, no matter how much time you spend at your desk or on your bed. It’s fine to take a break from writing. Run around, play fetch, and hike the trails. Taking a break is often a good way to get some fresh writing done, because you’re unlocking your creativity through movement.
6. Embrace Surprises
One of the funniest things in our house is watching how hard Merlin tries to play with our two old cats. One of them wants nothing to do with him and told him so on the first day with a good swipe of her claws. The other cat surprised Merlin—and us—by playing along. He takes walks beside Merlin as if he’s on a leash, too, and lets Merlin bat him around and lick his ears like he’s a giant stuffed toy. When you’re writing, your characters will often surprise you by misbehaving, or they’ll go in directions you didn’t expect and say things that you didn’t plan to put in their mouths. Embrace the surprises. That’s part of the fun of writing.
Okay, your turn: What have your pets taught you about the creative life?
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