What is a dog but the wagging of his lovely tail?
I am a writer: I live in my head most days, and if I do not set timers and automatic devices, I would forget to eat on time or consume adequate amounts of life-giving coffee. When I am writing or thinking about writing (which is almost all of the time), I live not outside of time but between time—I wake to a thin straw of light poking through the barkcloth blackout curtains The Husband built. At night, I go to sleep when it is dark and quiet and the arterial whoosh of cars gives way to the surreal winter bark-amidst-silence of a dog in a backyard two miles away.
Or rather, I should say this is how I think I live—suspended in a neural web of spacelessness and placelessness. Instead I live amidst life in all its screaming glory for I live with dogs, who are the natural champions of joie de vivre. Dogs don’t merely enjoy your presence, they require things of you throughout a given day. The needs of each of the three dogs who live with me (with whom I live) vary, but they more or less follow some pattern—a daily shape that helps me to pay attention, to step out of my own mind and the story unspooling (hopefully) through my fingers onto a page, either digital or physical, but no less real in actuality.
What is a dog but the lovely wagging of his tail?
My dogs keep me anchored here, sunk into my own real-life narrative of meals and tamed caffeinated vices and phone calls and clean laundry, and not that other here where the story has formed a ripe and tempting surface that begs to be sliced open like a pomegranate to allow the seeds to spill forth. That here lives in a luminous fugue of fog over my head—but that here can wait for me to bathe or to return that phone call. It will pause and swirl in place so that I may get down on the floor and roll around with Abelard, a dog who’s been known to grab you by the neck with his single polydactyl front paw to draw your face into a broad lick that swipes your schnoz.
If you’re wondering, that here and this here are not the same here. They don’t really shift and mix into a single soap bubble the way most people imagine writer’s reality and real reality to commingle. Most modern mistakes about writers begin with montages from b-grade movies and end in bad soft jazz. In these movies, you never see the writer writing, you see the writer moving about. They’re speed-walking with a neighbor. They’re browsing through the cozy bookstore. They’re talking over dinner, and it’s all okay because they’re writing in their heads again, all while wearing this year’s trouser and next year’s watch with an unstudied elegance that makes me ball my inky hands into inky fists.
There are reasons that writers have rooms with doors that lock. There are reasons why writers wake up at 4:23 in the morning to write while the rest of the household sidestrokes through a five-fathom sleep in tousled warm beds. There are reasons for the battered sweaters and the old shoes. (Who wants to get ink and newsprint on your good clothes, if you can avoid it?) And there are other reasonable things a writer does not mention because to mention them is to discuss the mechanics of the close magic that maps out the place where writers write. (It has little to do with speed-walking, I assure you.)
…the story has formed a ripe and tempting surface that begs to be sliced open like a pomegranate to allow the seeds to spill forth.
Regarding that close magic, here’s the hardest trick: To even get to that other here takes work. In order to write something new, a writer must put herself into a space akin to a trance state, which can be achieved by the following means: a daily routine that is never broken, a ritual space and/or time to write in which one is not disturbed for the duration of the writing experience; noise or silence—there’s no between on this aspect of writing—you either write with music or white noise or the only music you want to hear is your own words in your own head. And time. Lots and lots of time.
It is irregularity that will destroy the writer’s hyperfocused state— intermittent events of no particular pattern, e.g., the sounds that people make doing all sorts of ordinary everyday things as well as the normal goings-on of dogs. At our house, Abelard lives in the nowest of nows. He’s the most physical of our three canines. When we go to bed at night, it’s Abelard who will fall back into my or The Husband’s arms and asks to be spooned and skritched. It’s Abelard who flea-checks my hair every other day; Abelard who wobbles his girth into most of my desk chair while I sit and write on its precipitous edge. It’s the drowsing Abelard’s damp adenoidal breath deposited directly into my ear that levitates me into the deepest sleep I’ve ever entertained, night after night. As a result, Abelard walks through my dreams and into my stories in a variety of guises.
Abelard lives in the nowest of nows.
But it’s not just him—it’s Ilsa’s cold nose and her warning bark at the door (“Visitors! Visitors! Visitors!”); it’s Monkey’s soft, questing nudge on the leg—(“May we go out now?”; “Will you feed me?”; “Can I sit in your chair?”; “Do you know it’s time for bed?”; “Is this something I can chew up?”). It’s the day and it’s The Husband and it’s the words I will set forth, which live in that supraliminal space between my head and my heart, my inner eye and my outer sight. It’s word meshed to action and action braided to word. It’s the part of my person that knows to get up once an hour from the wrecked Hollywood Regency desk to reach and shout and move around the house. It’s the dogs barking at glossy black Sapo the fence-jumper who never barks back. It’s reading a poem from a book out loud in my office and Abelard sauntering into the doorway to hear it because he thinks the poem is for his ears, and in a way, it is.
It’s the metronomic beat between idea and expression, betwixt thirst and glass and water, behind every gesture I make, even the ones I make at my desk, especially the ones I make at my desk: I studied dance for 20-odd years of my life and to live with dogs and words is to live in the constant space of the dance studio and its sweaty, silent rituals punctuated by the shouts of the teacher in the room: “HIGHER!” “FASTER!” “DO IT AGAIN!”. And so we do.
PHOTO CREDIT: Allen Ginsberg’s black and white mug was provided by Wikimedia’s own Michel Hendryckx. (Dank u wel, Meneer Hendryckx. Votre photo est trés belle!)