Sunday, February 04, 2007

Surviving Riptides

Anyone who has spent time writing has had to confront the inevitable emotional riptides that stem from rejection, failure, and loneliness.

Unless a writer can find a way to survive these strong currents in order to keep swimming, he may find himself swept out to sea... never to swim again.

When my arms are so tired that I can't swim another stroke and I feel the current dragging me under, I know it's time to pull myself out of the water.

That's when I swim off the page... walk away from the beach... and head to the local animal shelter.

No matter how hard a day I've had writing, the dogs offer balm to the failure of finding just the right word, or the rejection that comes after months of work on a story, or the loneliness that often accompanies this business of putting words on paper day after day.

Each dog serves as a life-preserver, of sorts, a muse encouraging me to get back into the water and keep writing.

Tess, a matronly five year-old English Springer Spaniel/Chow Chow-mix, doesn't judge how many pages I produced or how far I swam that morning; she just wants me to take her out of her cage so she can find a place to pee.

Ellie, a sleek and leggy 11-month-old American Foxhound-mix, isn't interested in whether my characters sound shallow or undeveloped, or if my plot unravels in the fifth chapter. Nor does she reprimand me if I haven't written more than three words that day. She's more interested in chasing tennis balls.

And Beth, a gentle 2-year-0ld German Shepherd, doesn't care how many rejection letters may have crossed my desk in a week or a month. Rather than warn me of the risk inherent in writing, she prefers to trot along the shelter's fenced-in perimeter checking for squirrels.

When I look into each dog's eyes, I see a tenderness--and a kind of sympathetic understanding--for what each of us goes through in this life.

The number of dogs housed in the shelter varies from week to week. Ten dogs occupy the kennel cages on some weeks. This week there are twenty-eight dogs, including six puppies, most of them mixed breeds.

After a day of writing, I'll drive to the shelter and spend an hour there, enough time to walk four or five dogs before the shelter closes for the day.

Their tails wag enthusiastically as soon as I appear. Standing on hind legs to get a better view, each one pushes the door open as soon as I unlock it. Sometimes I can barely throw a leash over their heads before they dash out.

Once we're in the fenced-in play area, I remove the leash so the dogs can stretch their legs and explore with the kind of freedom they don't have in their cages.

While the dogs sniff the ground, do their business, or come over to lick my hand, I sit in a folding chair in the shade of a cottonwood tree and gaze at them, amazed by their ability to immerse themselves in the moment-to-moment joy of life.

Ten or fifteen minutes later, after they've had a chance to smell the grass, sniff the air, and bask in the sun, I put the leash back on, and we trot inside again. The dogs know the routine--where to go, when to pee or poop, how to exit the pen, the route back to their cages--better than me.

If only writing was so predictable.

Maybe that's what the dogs offer each time I visit: a predictability that I don't find on the page where so much seems out of my control.

But, no, it's more than that. When I'm with the dogs, I don't have to judge my worth based on what I write or don't write.

Somehow, without words, each dog teaches me how to accept the moment-to-moment flow of life...without judging myself.

After spending time with the dogs, I always feel lighter, as if I'm no longer sinking but buoyant, re-charged, ready to return to the water and begin swimming again.

How do you re-charge yourself after a long day's swim? How do you survive riptides and push through difficult currents to keep swimming day after day?

When you get a moment, why not let other Wordswimmers know about your experiences? We'd love to hear from you.


Jack said...

A really beautiful post, Bruce. I got so immersed in the setting of the pound, the emotions you express (right down to the rejection slips), the emotions the dogs show, and the simple routine that can enrich your day and theirs. My routine is, most often, as lonely as the writing part. I walk in the late afternoon, three or four miles, along some empty paved roads inside a state beach park near my home. With the ocean in the distance, the meager acceptance record in short stories, and the non-existent acceptance of any novel, all recede into a mental calmness and a love of my writing life.

Susan said...

Hey, Bruce. That's a wonderful post. I've thought of walking dogs at the local shelter, too.

My big re-charge is volunteering at a school in a nearby city, where I work with 1st graders who need extra help with reading. They are so motivated to learn to read, and progress slowly and steadily in their skills. I love reading with them.

Vivian said...

Hi, I just found your blog. That was a beautiful post.

Barbara W. Klaser said...

What a good practice. I can imagine that the importance of my failed submissions would fade compared to the importance of those sweet animals finding homes.

I also like the analogy to riptides. I used riptides as an analogy for lies in my current work, and I think they work in both instances very well.