Dogs and Writing
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Monday, March 27, 2017
By Carol Svec

My life is intricately bound up with dogs. Well, currently it’s just one dog—we lost our beautiful 3-year-old Belle to lymphoma in February 2017. (I know! So young! She was diagnosed when she was 2, and our vet told us it was the youngest case he had ever seen. Sadly, the younger they are at the time of diagnosis, the more quickly the disease takes over. We did chemotherapy, but there was no lasting remission.)

We adopted Roxie a few weeks after Belle was diagnosed. Our hope was that Roxie would learn how to be a great dog from Belle’s wonderful example, and that Belle might benefit from having puppy energy around. As it turned out, both those things happened just as we had hoped.

Belle’s diagnosis and Roxie’s adoption both took place while I was working on deadline for my upcoming book, Balance. Between dogs and book, I had to learn a new way to cope with some overwhelming emotions and to focus my energy where it was needed most. Now that I have had a few months to reflect, here are some thoughts I had about how dogs affect my work as a writer:

  • Puppies as inspiration. Just as puppy Roxie gave an emotional boost to Belle, I found that having puppy energy around also amped me up. I should have been exhausted. We adopted Roxie when she was just 8 weeks old, and in the beginning we had to take her out every 2 or 3 hours, including throughout the night. I was sleep-deprived, but somehow the joy and excitement of this new little life was a spiritual jolt. And it carried over into my writing—I was the most productive during the four months after Roxie arrived.
  • Dogs as emotion magnifiers. Learning of Belle’s diagnosis was depressing and overwhelming. The world felt heavy and gray. I’m not proud to admit that I was initially too involved in my own grief process to focus properly on Belle’s needs. My writing at that time was also dragging. The words were boring to write, and boring to read. After a couple weeks I pulled myself out of my self-indulgent funk and began to concentrate on making every day Belle’s Best Day Ever. Roast chicken for dinner…play dates with her doggie friends…lots of time outdoors to sniff every blade of grass—anything I thought would make her life better, we did. And my writing became easier and breezier, too. I chucked all the stuff I wrote during my heavy crying phase, began again, and enjoyed writing again. My dog was still dying, but simply by focusing intently on her as a living being (versus a dying creature), I was able to turn my writing into a living thing, as well.
  • Dogs as spin control. Writing means spending long periods of time in your own head. Strange as it may sound, that can be exhausting. And it’s easy to take a single idea and spin it into something strange and totally unrelated to the initial thought. Have you ever thought about an important conversation you needed to have, maybe telling bad news to a friend or quitting your job? You want to think about the gentlest way to phrase the beginning of the conversation, and to be mentally prepared for how the other person might respond, right? When I do that, that mental-rehearsal conversation can sometimes spin out of control, so I end up having a fight (in my head) because of something the other person said (in my head, which I made up), and I get angry (in my head) and say something horrible (in my head), which makes me feel upset and guilty…all without actually having a real conversation. (Please tell me I’m not the only one who does that!) Well, writing can get like that, too. Spend too much time in your own head, and you can wind up either with 10 pages of totally unusable text or with writer’s block. My dogs force me out of my head. Yes, sometimes they bring over a tug-toy when I’m trying to put a shine on a closing paragraph. But even then, taking a dog-break to play or walk lets my subconscious mind work so that by the time I get back to the computer, I know exactly how the wording should be. Problem solved.
  • Dogs as self checks. I have a tendency toward obsessive-compulsiveness. It’s not at a clinical level that requires treatment, but it can still be a problem. I know writers who have had years-long writer’s block because they feel nothing they write is “perfect” enough. So they stop writing entirely. When I procrastinate in the face of a writing deadline, it’s almost always because I can’t commit to putting words down on the page. This hunt for perfection really is an impediment to good writing. But with dogs…you can’t be too prissy or flawless with dogs. They are anti-perfection. They are energy and slobber and squeaky toys and muddy paws. They are napkin-shredders and sandwich-stealers and sloppy kiss-givers. They are attention-seeking balls of cuteness. There is no place for obsessive-compulsiveness when you have a dog. For me, living with dogs has loosened up my writing—in a good way. Writing that is too controlled can be tedious to read, and I believe dogs can be a cure for that. Every writer’s goal should be to infuse his or her work with the joy of a dog’s life. The ultimate compliment really is “You write like a dog.”

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