Lessons from My Dogs: How to Be a Good Writer

Lessons from My Dogs: How to Be a Good Writer

Do you know how to be a good writer?

To be a good writer, you need focus. You need a unique perspective and a unique voice. You need to believe in and be yourself, and have your pages reflect that no matter what anyone else says. You need to be brave, but you also need to know when to retrench and let others help you. And yes, you need tenacity.

Can an English Cocker Spaniel teach you how to do all that?

He can if his name is Dashiell, short for Dashiell Hammett, the author, screenwriter and activist who according Richard Laymen, author of Shadow Man: The Life of Dashiell Hammett, “is now widely regarded as one of the finest mystery writers of all time.”

When I initially brought Dashiell home as a puppy, he was the extra surprise. My then boyfriend, Eric, and I had gone looking for one pup, not two. So when my dad came to meet the puppy, we hid Dashiell until Dad was down on his knees with puppy #1 and then let Dashy loose. We played the same trick on a couple of friends as well. Little did we know that those double takes would set the tone for the next 14 years as our lovely pup made his own very particular way in the world.

Dashiell quickly found the spots he liked in our San Francisco apartment and then later in the Bend house, and made them his. Under the desks in my office and the kitchen. Under the leather chair in the living room. Under or on top of the piano bench. On the easy chair by the window, his lookout spot for any errant squirrels in the backyard’s two-story-high mound of lava rock. Occasionally on his own dog bed, as long as it was piled high with toys he could claim as his own. More often on my bed, where he would sleep (and snore) just above my head or on the other side of the bed, one arm draped over the extra pillow.

From the first, he was the baby alpha, strong and confident until his ball rolled behind the large green glass vase my parents had acquired in Rio when we lived there in the early sixties. Afraid to negotiate that unknown territory, he would make his half-brother Hoover, just three weeks his senior, go get the ball every time. Later on, with the arrival of his other two fur siblings, he developed a strong sense of right and wrong and became the doggy cop. Unless he was the one horsing around, he’d break up any romping after just ten seconds or less.

That didn’t mean that he wasn’t enthusiastic. He particularly loved to nibble on people’s noses and ears, and could have given lessons in technique when it came to the latter. He lay claim early on to his favorite person (aside from his mom, of course). Pam played “the game” with him every time she saw him, which consisted of Dashiell trying to see if he could get in a nose nibble before she pulled her face away.

An annoyingly loud barker when running down the stairs before breakfast, heading in or out of the car, and either returning home or reaching a destination, he made no secret of how he felt about anything. He snorted and sighed when he was happy. He sounded the alarm when he got himself stuck in the garage. He shivered with excitement when arriving at a superior dog destination. You could gauge how much he liked a place by how much he trembled. With the beach, the quivering started a mile away and intensified the closer we got. By the time we arrived, his shaking rivaled Elvis’s.

Cocker Spaniels, the smallest of the sporting dogs, were bred to flush birds. Dashiell just liked to chase them. On the beach, he would race after seagulls, his brother Hoover in tow, until the two were just specks in the distance. It didn’t matter how loudly I yelled. In a contest between me and a bird, I ceased to exist. Still, he knew enough to come to find me when the incoming tide left his brother stranded on the far side of a cove. Refusing to stay on shore when I waded out in waist-high waves to save Hoover, Dashiell swam by my side, determined to remain part of the rescue team. Had seagulls been involved in their decision to race as far as they could go despite the rising water? Most assuredly.

When I moved to Bend, Oregon, Dashiell turned his attention to ducks. On a hike along the Deschutes River this fall, he plunged into half-dried-up Lava Lake in pursuit of the duck couple that lives there. The level of the small lake may have been low, but there was still plenty of water for a cocker in hot pursuit. The ducks couldn’t have cared less. When they reached the end of the lake, they simply circled to the right and paddled back to the other end. And so it went, lap after lap, with my small, black pup literally turning a deaf ear to increasingly panicked entreaties for him to return to shore, even as he noticeably tired, and even when the tall grasses at the end of the lake closest to the river threatened to entangle him and pull him down. My friend Gina and I each thought we were going to have to jump in after him, but she finally managed to step calf-deep in mud and grab him.

Okay, so he didn’t have the best judgment when birds were involved. But man, was he determined. And man, was he happy. Even after surgery, back-to-back hemorrhages, an assortment of staples and/or stitches in his butt and the turquoise Speedo diaper he had to wear off and on to keep him from licking an incision that refused to heal, he still wagged his tail and snorted in pleasure whenever he got attention. His favorite game became heading down the ramp that leads from the dog door to the side of the house while still wearing his diaper, causing me to jump up, run out the back door and try to catch him before he made his way into the snowy yard for what I feared would be a poop. “Dashy Dog,” I’d call. He’d move toward me, wagging hard as usual and I’d remove his diaper, whereupon he’d charge up the steps and right back into the kitchen. I swear he laughed every time. Then he let me dress him again, with another series of sighs, snorts and kisses.

He was a stubborn little puppy for the full 14 years of his life. When I would call him, he would look at me and at least half the time either go in the other direction or just stand there. He did this even after he got sick. By then, however, I had him figured out. Instead of getting frustrated, I would crouch down and fling open my arms. With a huge smile, I’d cry, “Come ‘ere, Baby Boy,” and he would run to me, his tail wagging as fast as it would go. That wasn’t the only change. He became more affectionate overall this summer after Hoover died, more willing to snuggle up to me instead of his standard hit-and-run. It was as if he knew our time, too, was limited, and that he needed to stockpile all those happy snorts and kisses that would have to last me once he was gone. And then, just as quickly, he’d race off to do his own thing.

He didn’t let a tumor or anything else slow him down. Just three days after the second hemorrhage, I found that he had climbed high on the lava rocks in the backyard, something he barely did when he was healthy. The next day, he jumped on his big sister to get her to play, which was also a rarity in his older years. Seriously?

The one thing he never faltered on was showing off. Whenever anyone came to visit, or whenever we headed to the park, the woods or just down the street, he got his prance on, showing the world just how damn cute and sassy he really was. And that’s exactly how he went out, on a beautifully sunny, snowy Bend day.

May we all end our lives as happily, and live (and write) as fully in the meantime. And may Dashiell’s example help you understand how to be a good writer now and always. RIP my little Dashy.





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One Response to Lessons from My Dogs: How to Be a Good Writer

  1. From one of my writing coach clients:
    I’m so sorry for your loss, and so soon after Hoover died. Dashiell’s
    love for playing tricks on his humans was so entertaining to read about,
    especially the nose game and the diaper fake-out. I hope that my writing
    will be more adventurous in honor of Dashy.
    Erika C.

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