My wife and I got our first dog together in November of 2019. I should first clarify by saying that of course we grew up with dogs, both us with labradors whom we loved and adored, but the dog we took in during the waning months of 2019 was our dog. Like never before in our lives we were solely responsible for the health and well-being of a living, breathing creature that wasn’t ourselves. This was, to say the least, a huge shift in lifestyle which we’re still adjusting to today. There are the good things—the snuggles in the morning, the happy tippy-taps when we return home from being out, the playful grunts and guffaws while throwing a ball or tugging a rope—and there are the hard things too—waking up in the middle of the night to take her out, the expense which comes from ensuring she has a good life, the lack of spontaneous freedom we were accustomed to. Now, with five months of dog ownership under our belts, and many lessons learned from Harper the Shar-Pei, I thought that I would share five things that my wonderful, frustrating, beautiful, and anxiety-prone dog has taught me about writing.
Tenacity Despite Improbability
Harper has shown me so much about tenacity. No matter the conditions, no matter the distance, and no matter the impossibility of her ever being successful, Harper will always, without question and with total abandon, lock on to and attempt to catch every squirrel that she sees. A few pieces of information are crucial here. Harper has never chased down a squirrel successfully. In fact, she’s never come remotely close to even starting to chase one. Our yard is not fenced in so she’s never out without a leash and we, trying to be good dog owners, attempt to divert her attention elsewhere. We are often, however, unsuccessful, and Harper always brings the same drive and determination to each squirrel she sees. In the same way Harper channels her inner wolf each time she sees a tree-dwelling rodent, I too have learned to tap into a tenacity while approaching a project. I figure that if I chase down each poem, article, or chapter with the vigor and drive Harper has, eventually I’ll capture something good in my jaws. Without tenacity, our writing will always scamper away, flicking its tail in triumph and mockery the whole way up the tree.
Consistency is Key
Somewhat related tangentially to tenacity, Harper has informed me a lot about the value of consistency. This was an unexpected realization as I am, if nothing else, an intense creature of habit. Be this as it was, I was still inspired by Harper’s commitment to her routines. She wakes up roughly at the same time each day, she goes to bed in the same way. She eats her meals at the same time, she walks at the same time, she naps at the same times and places (couch in the morning, floor in the afternoon, her bed in the evening). After finishing graduate school I found myself aimless and unorganized for months due to the lack of consistency and schedule. It was after observing and copying Harper’s love of schedule that I found myself able to read, set goals, write, and generally feel like more of a human person again.
Harper has, much to her own joy and benefit, revealed to me the power of a couple daily walks. The benefits of physical activity to break up creative work are affirmed across successful artists and creatives throughout history. A little bit of exercise and time in the outdoors getting the blood flowing is almost immeasurably beneficial to my creative process. Writer’s block is, as I’ve heard Aaron Sorkin, screenwriter extraordinaire, say, my natural state. One surefire way to combat restlessness, anxiety, and frustration for me is to get outside and walk around—the same is true for Harper. She knows when it’s time to head outside for one of her two daily walks, and rain or shine she reminds us of that loudly. I really embrace the opportunity to heed my inner writing dog pacing around inside me proclaiming, “okay, it’s time for a walk!” More than once when I’ve returned, my fingers certainly moved more deftly on my keyboard and my mind was noticeably clearer. Take a stroll, get some fresh air, and you’ll be happy you did.
Tool of the Day
Harper has taught me the value of a defined and focused toolbox. My wife and I were adamant when we first decided to get a dog that we would only allow them to have one or two toys. We, of course, now have a floor littered with six to eight dog toys at any given time. However, the interesting thing about these doggy trinkets is Harper’s daily toy routine. She will, in the morning after her first walk, head into the room with her crate, where we stash her toys at the end of the day so she’s not tempted to play when it should be bedtime, and then bring each of her toys out one by one. After doing this, she will sniff each toy, poring over in her doggy brain which will be the focus of her chomping and affection that day. Then, with only one or two exceptions, she plays with that one toy all day. It is a double-edged sword to be a writer, or any creative, with a broad focus. It’s of course a good practice to work on different skill sets and to have a varied tool box from which to pull from. One does not become a worse poet from becoming a better essayist, for example. One does, however, do a disservice to one’s self if one does not allow different days to have different focuses. I once, in college (perhaps a little out of necessity), wrote all things every day. I never took a look at the toys in view and selected which one I would devote my love and attention to that day. Fast forward to now, and I’m much more selective with my writing discipline, as Harper is with her daily toy selection, and my writing is all the better for it as I actually take the time necessary to hone each craft in its time.
Stick Your Nose in It and Sniff
Finally, Harper has instructed me that sometimes you just have to stick your nose in it. Harper occasionally gets into this mode when we’re out on a walk, or when we take her out to go to the bathroom at three in the morning, that we like to call “detective Harper.” To be fair this is not unique to Harper by any means, but she will nail her snout to one spot in the grass and sniff and sniff and sniff and… you get the picture. When she deems a scent worthwhile, there is no molecule that will go un-inhaled. I’ve heard, especially from the Instagram account Remdawg.the.tripawd, that sniffing is how a dog experiences their world, and so I let Harper sniff to her heart’s content as often as she can. This allowance has made me realize that if the scent of a certain writing project calls me to it, it’s okay to stick my nose into for a long period of time. This period of time may be different for everyone, but sniffing the scents that intrigue us is to be encouraged, not disregarded. It is only when we plunge our noses deepest in the foliage that we can smell the hidden flowers kept secret from afar.
Perhaps I project too much onto my sweet pup, who at the time of writing this snoozes behind me in our home office with rhythmic snoring. Or, perhaps the best teachers come from the most unexpected places, and I’m sure that everyone reading this article is able to pinpoint an unusual mentor at some point in their lives. Either way, it behooves all of us to take the time to listen to whatever calls to us in life, especially our furry (or non-furry) companions. Hopefully listening to the lessons Harper has taught me can help you in some way, and I’ll be sure to let you know if she drops any more nuggets of wisdom in the years to come.