What my dog teaches me about writing

Maggie is the best trail dog because when you’re in the woods with her she wanders with a specific sense of aimlessness that is instructive for writers. For a dog, a walk in the woods is high art. She follows the twin muses of her nose and curiosity. She engages in prolonged tangents during headlong romps into the temperate rainforest near our home in Oregon, chasing after the cackle of a far-off raven, taking an extended wallow in greasy mud smeared with wild turkey scat and splashing in cold, clear pools welling before the entrance to culverts. 

The ballet of a suburban dog let loose in the woods is something magical to behold. It’s a like a scripted sort of chaos. And her ramblings always lead us somewhere, even if it’s just back to the car. It’s the perfect antidote to a sticky literary situation. Walking with Maggie reinforces the old saw that the journey is the destination.

It was a dry Sunday afternoon, a rare gift in February in the rainy side of Oregon, when I took Maggie into the woods to check out the mud and the water and fret about my latest creative concerns. Some people favor wildflowers, spring breezes or wafts of pine sap, but I don’t mind a cool, drippy, muddy day where damp strands of the lichens known as old man’s beard glow in pale green luminescence beneath the overcast sky, the forest cemetery-quiet, the only sound the trickle of the growing rivulets alongside the road gathering strength to carry a week’s worth of rain off to the Pacific. 

My concern was this: I’d recently begun chasing the fragment of an image that wanted to be a story that now aspired to be a novel. “Uh oh,” I thought. “Here we go.” This is always a dangerous point for a writer. It’s a good way to loose a big chunk of your life. 

I’d made a few halfhearted feints at this novel over the years, though I’d always managed to escape after only a few pages. But now it was picking up momentum, the current growing like those roadside rivulets, gathering a power of its own. It was frightening. I was afraid of being swept along by it, losing my next three to seven years of my life obsessing over something that had begun almost by accident. Would it be worth all those lost hours, days, weeks, years in the end? I considered all of the reading, cooking or fishing I could with that time instead.

So to avoid facing these big questions, I decided it was time to flee to the woods with Maggie. She’s our eight-year-old Vizsla-Labrador mix, a mutt with plenty of experience in literary procrastination. She can smell the woods long before we approach the parking lot and she quivers with excitement as we near the trailhead. You can almost hear the song of her vibrating tendons. It’s like Itzhak Perlman tuning a Stratovarious. 

Jim Harrison wrote often, in both his verse and prose, of his hobby of taking to the woods to follow rivers to their sources. This was a perfect day for such an activity as the foothills were oozing the stuff that makes streams. Harrison begins his poem “March Walk” with this line: “I was walking because I wasn’t upstairs sitting.” We can’t ask him, because he’s now gone, but I’m fairly sure he was chasing rivers uphill to avoid sitting in his own upstairs office and staring at the blank page. “What a way to make a living!” Harrison later laments (or rejoices) in that same poem. Ah, the vocation of writing. Is it even a living at all? How many of us actually pay our mortgages with poems, stories and novels? Most of us teach, sell insurance, make macchiatos or leach off of our partners to secure our health insurance.

Harrison wrote often of the therapy and technique of walking, a tactic many writers have employed over the centuries to solve or avoid problems with their work. I’ve looked to walking so many times to address issues with writing that sometimes I think that this is my true vocation. I’m a walker who sometimes writes, rather than a writer who mostly walks around. Both activities pay about the same. 

Thoreau also viewed walking as a sort of job in itself. “No wealth can buy the requisite leisure, freedom, and independence which are the capital in this profession,” he wrote in his famous essay, Walking. He considered aimless wandering “a noble art.” 

I sometimes walk obsessively when writing. I once flew down to El Paso for a weekend and then walked across the border to Ciudad Juarez, ostensibly to research a novel about a string of murders occurring there. I spent two days walking through parks, alleys, markets, neighborhoods and the downtown streets until my feet were blistered. I saw so many things that I found striking and I finally had to stop and sit on a bench in a plaza to write notes. Then I headed back to the border just after sunset. 

I never finished the book, but I sometimes go back to read the notes. I guess the good thing about walking to on behalf of a novel is that, if you don’t finish the novel, you still have the memory of the images gathered along the way.

“I’m a fan of the big walk,” screenwriter Mike Rich once told me in an interview. A walk has become part of his daily writing routine. Rich, who penned such sports-themed screenplays as Secretariat and The Rookie after writing his breakout film Finding Forester is one of those writers who’s managed to cobble together the sort of dream life that ruins it for the rest of us. He lives on the top of a hill outside Portland, Oregon where he has easy access to woods, country lanes and vineyards. He works from home, on his own terms. His passion and his day gig are intertwined. He loves sports. He loves movies. He writes movies about sports. He also loves writing. He writes all day. 

Rich described his routine to me. He starts his day with “one of sixteen cup of coffee,” and then he wrangles with cursor, screen and legal pad before resorting to shoe leather tactics: “I love to get out and I will walk for three to four miles. And that’s writing…that’s part of the writing process.”

Back to my Sunday afternoon. Maybe that’s what I was doing. Perhaps it wasn’t procrastination after all. Maybe walking in the woods is part of the creative process: I wasn’t walking away from this incipient novel in fear, but actually digging in for the long slog it is going to take over the next several years of my life. I did a quick calculation of all the hours I will be spending on this project. If paid out at the minimum wage, I’d be able to buy a new car. Or maybe three. 

I’d written the first image for this novel on a trip through Germany seven years ago. It was just a fragment then, ignorant of its future as the seed of a wannabe novel. We were driving from Paris to Berlin to visit relatives, and we stopped in the town of Eisenach in the former GDR. Even though the Berlin Wall was gone nearly as long as it had stood by the time we stopped in Eisenach, I still felt the lingering presence of the former East Germany in that old, gritty steel town in the Thuringen Forest. I took a morning walk before the others awoke and made notes about a scene as I strolled along a ridgeline above town. The scene I wrote featured a portrait of an old man sitting on a park bench feeding birds with crumbs from yesterday’s breakfast rolls. He held his hand palm up so steadily that birds would land on it. He was patient. And then suddenly, as one large, grizzled sparrow pecked at the crumbs, chasing the other birds away from the fleshy perch, the old man snapped his fingers closed, catlike, crushing the sparrow. He could feel it’s airy bones crackle in his grasp. Suddenly this old man had a dangerous past. Who was he? How had he arrived on that park bench in the reunified Germany? I was curious to know. I made some notes in my journal and promptly forgot about it for six or seven years.

But now here we are all these years later and that scene has exploded in my head. It’s joined together with other scenes and suddenly the rivulets are forming streams and then streams are merging to form rivers, and I feel like I now I might be swept out into the bay and the pulled by the current out to sea past the bar with no navigational aids and little idea where I am heading. It’s a worrisome feeling.

But that’s when I noticed my dog Maggie sniffing at a small rivulet alongside the logging road. All morning as we hiked up into the Coast Range I studied the rain and snowmelt forming pools, puddles and little nascent streams. And all those small riffles and trickles and seeps seemed so random, so aimless. 

As we hiked down the backside of the mountain, though, I was starting to sense a sort of plan to the way the water was working. Grade and gravity doing their thing. Maggie chased the riffles and sniffed at the spillways and plunged into pools as we moved inexorably downhill. And the riffles, and seeps and leaks began to merge. They formed little waterfalls and deep runs in gouged channels. They pooled up alongside the road and then a brook was born. The lower we got, the more little rivulets joined the brook until it became a full-fledged stream. Walking downhill was like watching the birth of a river. Maybe this little forest stream would become the surging Alsea or swollen Yaquina, and ultimately the Pacific Ocean herself. 

Maggie’s little stump tail wagged with joy like a tuning fork vibrating at the notes played by the rushing water. I think she was trying to show me the logic in the pull of all these little currents, teaching me to trust gravity, and to find solace and pleasure in the journey, to take side trips and excursions into the ferns to chase a ground squirrel or a flock of young turkey, but then circle back to the flow and trust that it would carry us where we needed to go.

I slowly decided, during the course of that walk, that I have to just see where this image jotted down at random in a notebook all those years ago will take me. Maybe this is the right novel, or maybe it’s not. Maybe it’ll be worthy of publication or maybe not. Maybe the economics of it will pencil out. Probably they wont. But then we writers tend to be a coy lot when it comes to money, so it’s likely nobody would know or care anyway.

And then maybe, too, there are larger forces at work beneath that image written down in my journal, and instead of fighting gravity I should just let the tug and pull of them be my guide.

For a dog like Maggie, a walk is a form of creative expression. Dogs, not burdened by opposable thumbs and all the trouble they get us into, are usually satisfied with the basics. They sniff a pile of dung. They race off after a crow, their necks craned skyward. They plunge with abandon into a thicket of ferns. They nose into the musky mystery in the rotted-out hollow of a log. All of it is a sort of game, not a vocation. Life isn’t about rows and columns in a spreadsheet no matter how desperately our culture wants us to think so. What’s a poem worth? What’s an image of an old man sitting on a park bench in the former East Germany worth? What’s a novel worth? What’s the price of a walk in the woods? 

Somewhere near the end of the walk, Maggie reigns in her headlong feints and flurries into the forest and falls into line next to me on the logging road at a trot. My philosopher dog looks up at me, panting, asking me these very questions as she catches her breath. We’re silent awhile; the only sounds are the crunch of my boots and the click of her nails on the gravel. After some time she looks up at me. Our eyes meet. 

“So, you going to write that book?” she asks.

“I suppose,” I say.

“Good.” She nods.

Then she freezes. A young jake-turkey has gobbled somewhere in the distance, practicing for the upcoming mating season. Her ears twitch. Both of us can picture him prancing and fanning out his tail like a teenage boy flexing in the mirror. Maggie’s tired, but this image is too much for her. She darts off after the sound. I hear the crash and grunt as she tears through the brush and the ferns. I can no longer see her, but I know her tongue is lolling, her black lips pulled back into a dog smile, her head, heart and imagination filled with the chaos and wonder of it all.

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Published by David

Writer (Vintage), filmmaker (Three Days of Glory and Saving Atlantis), bookreader.

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