The simplest and most-repeated piece of writing advice is to just write. This seems stupid, unless you’ve done some writing and have learned for yourself how easy it is to find alternatives to writing: research, building a social media platform (=trolling Facebook), “research,” rejiggering your website, editing, editing again, refreshing your inbox for submission confirmations/those edits your friend said they’d send today/the ever-anticipated not-rejection email that will never come. As often as I already hear the adage, I could probably stand to hear it again. And again. Daily. Writers write. Maybe they also obsess over Feed.ly but probably they don’t do it during their writing time. Or if they do, they feel bad about it.
I’ve heard this saying expanded by intelligent and successful writers: write, and keep writing, because the people who give up obviously never make it. It’s a good motivator, if a somewhat depressing one, because a lot of people who don’t give up must also never make it, right? Wait, is it better if I just give up now?
Still, what’s the alternative? So I keep writing.
This is a hard-enough proposition. Like many people with my interests (read: nerds), I’m prone to melancholy, so staying positive is not my first reaction when the friendly rejections with editor notes and the you-made-it-through-the-slush-pile-but-still-nope emails start to lose their novelty. But it’s okay. Karen Joy Fowler told me it took her something like eight years to get a story published. Connie Willis said it took her that long too. I’ve only been writing for half that time, and I doubt I’m starting with raw materials of the same quality, so: shut up and keep writing.
This post is actually about my dog. Thought I’d warn you now.
Making your first sale is a slow and painful and, often, long process, and to keep me afloat through this I’ve been focusing on short-term wins in a place where it’s a lot easier to judge them, because the wins come with ribbons.
My dog is an agility dog. She is my first dog, and she is not an easy dog. This isn’t unexpected, though, and I love the work with her more than anything I’ve ever done, so I’m mostly happy to do it. We started trialing in agility this spring and saw success right away: our first run came with a blue ribbon and a Q (which is another ribbon, green, and a point toward a Novice Agility title, for which you need three Qs—then it’s three more Qs to the Open title, and so on). I was thrilled, Vesper had fun, we both got lots of compliments, and I signed us up for all of the trials. All of them.
Things started to go downhill pretty fast.
I don’t just want to play this game with my dog. I want to play this game well. Vesper has a lot of natural ability and I have high ambitions. I don’t think we’ll ever be World Team material, but we could qualify for national-level competitions someday. This means that, even though I am a novice trainer, I can’t fuck around in training. The last thing I want to do is ignore problems because her performance is good enough, because it will rapidly stop being good enough as the courses get more challenging. Small problems now become big problems later. And our problems aren’t small.
My dog, who is genius in practice, becomes an asshole in the agility ring. It’s not her fault: it is stressful, and she is still one-quarter puppy, and she was not initially all that interested in doing what I want. Her focus on me is hard-won and not always complete, to say the least. After our first few trials she started running out of the ring halfway through the course; a few trials later she started running around–and eventually out of–the ring before even starting the course. And then she pooped between the weave poles and the double-bar jump on a course where she’d already run away from me three times, and I carried her out of the ring and put her in the car and cried, because relationship problems don’t really get much more obvious than your dog running away from you a bunch and then taking a dump in front of the judge.
I thought this was our setback. Vesper and I have relationship problems, and the problem is that our relationship isn’t rewarding enough for her to listen to me when things get intense. I stepped back and talked with a lot of people smarter and more experience than me and made a plan. Maybe we would be trialing again in a month, or six weeks, after we’d done the work we needed to do to succeed. That seemed like forever.
Then a couple of weeks ago my dog woke me up in the middle of the night. At first I thought she was just itchy and bored, but when I got up to take her out she wouldn’t put any weight on her left foreleg. She was lame. My heart stopped; the way she held it palsied to her chest and the way her neck was spasming, and the whites around the edges of her eyes—could it be neurological? Christ, was she about to go into seizure? I could feel her heart racing behind her ribs, always too fast even when she’s sleeping, but now it seemed ready to burst.
The emergency vet was not nearly as concerned as I was. I got home at a quarter to five with a doped-up dog and some pain medications. I held her in bed with me and listened to her whine quietly until my alarm went off an hour and a half later.
Several vet appointments later and there’s still no formal diagnosis, partially because I don’t have money for advanced testing and partially because it doesn’t really matter. It’s some kind of soft-tissue damage in her shoulder, and no matter what kind of damage it is all the recovery starts at the same place: a month of crate rest. She’s not even allowed to hop off the couch without help. Then rehab, and slowly building her shoulder strength back up. Jumping, which I have read puts something like six times the dog’s weight in impact on the shoulder joint, is not something we will be doing for at least six weeks. If not more. And even then, we will jump eight inches. Vesper’s competition jump height is twenty-four. We have to build back to that height. It will take an indeterminate amount of time.
My one-month break from trialing has become a one-month break from everything, including walking. Agility training, even foundations puppy stuff, even basic relationship games like tug—these things are all dangerous as hell if I want my dog to play this agility game for a long and healthy lifetime.
I gave myself a patience pep-talk when I pulled V from competition last month. It was going to be fine; it’s not really that long, and the benefit long-term will be worth it. Now I just want to play with my dog, who is so heavily sedated she has trouble picking her feet up enough to clear the front doorsill.
The writing rejections keep coming. It’s alright, it’s okay. I’m not the first writer to stumble down this path, and if it wasn’t long and exhausting would I want the company at the end anyway? Yes, the path itself is often rewarding, but would I keep going if I didn’t think there was something else ahead?
When I’m frustrated with writing I work with my dog, and when I want to choke my dog to death with my own bare hands I lock myself in my writing room. When neither of these things can give back at the moment what do I do?
No real conclusion to this one. I’ve found a little consolation not in full stories and submissions, but in five-minute plot outlines for things I will never write. Instead of teaching my dog a blind cross, we are back to doing nose-targeting. I’m writing characters and leaving them on slips of paper in forgetful places. I’m clipping my dog’s nails and wiping the gunk from her eyes, because the drugs she’s on muddle her sight.
At some point, I started doing these things for the love of them. While it’s small satisfaction now, it’s what I have, and I’m just going to have to take it.