Why Every Writer Should Have a Dog
Whether or not you actually keep one as a pet, writers can learn something about plot by contemplating man’s best friend
The writerly affinity for cats is well-documented. Hemingway was a famous collector of cats, as was Mark Twain. Raymond Chandler, Yeats, Dickens, Burroughs — the list of cat lovers goes on and on. I suppose this is because we writers see something of ourselves in cats. The cat is introverted, solitary, intelligent, carefully withholding, as any good writer should be. Dogs, on the other hand, are unwriterly. They are neither clever nor sly. They are rough and dirty. They withhold nothing. As Karl Ove Knausgaard wondered recently in The New Yorker, “Has a single good writer ever owned a dog?” He goes on to describe his own failed attempt at dog ownership, saying that his own mutt was “infinitely kind but infinitely stupid,” needy, solipsistic, and that he didn’t write a single line of literary prose in the time the dog was in his possession.
In other words, it seems to Knausgaard that dogs are simply too intrusive for writers who need solitude and quiet. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine, say, Virginia Woolf allowing a big whiny drooler to bark and scratch at the door of that room of her own. Knausgaard’s distaste for dogs is part and parcel of a literary assumption that has prevailed ever since Cicero posited in the first century BC that all one needed to write was a library and a garden: writers must avoid the distractions of public life to write good literature. And what are dogs, if not distraction?
Writers must avoid the distractions of public life to write good literature. And what are dogs, if not distraction?
But perhaps dogs are just the thing we writers need, at least those of us who complain that we struggle with plot. I live with an English bulldog and a pit bull, both of whom are walking, drooling plot machines. They shit on the floor, they bark at the mailman, they fight each other for food and toys, they run into the street — it’s a miracle they even survive, given their proclivity to put themselves in danger at the slightest provocation. But they don’t just survive, for they are intensely desirous. They are hungry for touch, for freedom, for squeaky balls, for meat. They want so much. And with all that wanting, it’s no surprise that these barking, slobbering, desperate creatures produce conflict at least as well as they produce shit.
So how can dogs help us produce conflict? How can we writers think like dogs? At the heart of this inquiry is the question I’ve been trying to answer for as long as I’ve been trying to be a writer, and it has to do with plot. How does one stop writing descriptions or journal entries and start writing narrative, a bonafide story, with real people doing real things? Put simply: How can I make shit happen on the page?
Right now, in the coffee shop where I am writing, there is a flyer for a lost dog:
I’M LOST !!! HAVE YOU SEEN ME? I’M TUCKER.
I didn’t want a bath, so I ran away without my collar near 26th and Grant. I’m all white, fluffy, and about 20 lbs. My daddy is very worried about me. Please call him. Steve at 541–216–0917
This flyer, which I chanced upon while walking to the bathroom, contains one of the most evocative sentences I’ve read all year. “I didn’t want a bath, so I ran away without my collar near 26th and Grant.” I’m transported to a backyard, because where else could this intended bath take place that would allow the rascal Tucker to escape? In my head, it’s one of those strangely charged moments, a Friday afternoon perhaps, getting ready for a dinner party, squeezing in a last minute chore while the wife hollers her impatience out the window. You’re due at 6:30 and it’s already nearly six. We’re going to be late, she says, and you still have to shave. These are new friends you’re seeing tonight, evidently, because she is worried enough about impressing them that you must present a clean face. You sense the ridiculousness in this, this need to make people like her. It’s one of the things you’ve always resented about your wife, but you’ve somehow never told her this. Through four and a half years of marriage, you’ve kept quiet, let her go about this business of acting out her insecurities in public, never once broaching the subject of this enormous flaw in her personality. You suppose you want to support her gregariousness, but the truth is that sometimes she belittles you in front of these new friends. You’re mulling all this over when you see Tucker going over the fence. You weren’t aware that Tucker could leap like this, over an eight-foot fence. In fact, his leaping seems supernatural. There’s no possible way that Tucker can make that jump. However, the first thought that goes through your head is not whether you are hallucinating, or that you should go after Tucker, but rather how you will explain this supernatural phenomenon to your wife, who will surely not believe you. She has, of course, intuited that you have no desire to go to this dinner party at 6:30, and she will only see Tucker’s disappearance as a product of your unwillingness to help her present her best self to her new friends. This prompts you to wonder: What exactly is her “best self”? And why do these other people get it instead of you?
Or perhaps that’s not what happens at all. Maybe you’re giving Tucker the bath inside, in the tub. Maybe you’re not Steve, the beleaguered husband with the superhero dog, but Stevie, a newly single woman, new to this town. Tucker jumps out of the bathwater and runs out of the house through the front door. You’ve left the front door open for some reason. But what reason could that be? Why the hell would anyone leave the front door open? You close and lock the door and make to call the one neighbor you’ve met since you’ve been living here, an old woman named Grace who lives next door, whose begonias were the subject of your only conversation earlier that week. You found her polite, if a little uninviting. No, that’s just how people talk, isn’t it? You were probably just being sensitive. You’re going for the phone, going to ask Grace to help you look for Tucker. And that’s when you hear a strange noise in the kitchen, followed by a familiar voice behind you, and the chilling effect this voice produces in you precedes your cognition that he has followed you here, has found you all the way out here in this little town. You regret locking that door.
Here I’ve tried to reproduce the way I think when my writing is working best. There’s an inciting moment (seeing a flyer for a lost dog), a question (how did Tucker escape?) and finally an image created to fill the hole in my knowledge. But that new image produces another question. This time the question has nothing to do with the missing dog; rather, it’s about something I myself have created (in this case, the marriage between the imagined Steve and his supposed wife). So then I answer that question. This answer poses another question, and the process repeats itself.
At each step, there’s a question with infinite possible answers, but I have to commit to only one of the myriad possibilities and follow it with the dogged certainty that the outcome will be a good one. As I answer each new question, I commit to a new reality. This commitment is essential. Without this commitment, nothing happens. Without a commitment, I will weigh potential courses of action, dabbling with each, never making a real choice. I mean a real choice. There is no going back from a real choice, there is only forward, and the way forward is instinctual.
But don’t forget how this all started: I was in a coffee shop, trying to live seriously — with goals and plans and a sense of importance, trying to live my life in the image of what I consider good and cool and honest and aesthetically appealing — when a flyer caught my eye and my mind wandered far away from all that. The loose dog was a distraction that got the better of me.
If you’re like me, then you think you should resist loose dogs. You are a busy person. You have too much on your plate already. The truth is that I am afraid of loose dogs. I don’t trust myself to follow them because I’m afraid of straying from the path I’ve already decided to take. I’m already bad at accomplishing goals, so why should I follow any thought that takes me further away from what I think I should be doing?
The truth is that I am afraid of loose dogs. I don’t trust myself to follow them because I’m afraid of straying from the path I’ve already decided to take.
There’s a pattern to this fear. This pattern manifests in my thinking, in my daily life, in my dreams, the ones in which I am trying desperately to get somewhere and obstacles keep appearing — the driver of the car keeps making stops, the party is not at the address I was given, the sex keeps getting interrupted by someone knocking at the door. The pattern is one of being infinitely waylaid. And it is this pattern — the total derailment of a set course — that characterizes real life as I know it.
Even in this essay, it has happened. I started out talking about cats, and now here I am confessing my fears and discussing my dreams. On the way from there to here, I have made hundreds of choices, choosing one route from an infinite set of possibilities. I regret this as much as I celebrate it. It seems unfair that we only get to live one path, to write one narrative, out of all the millions that could have been. Even worse, it seems irresponsible to make so many choices in such a short amount of time without considering carefully the weight of each one.
This is the wonderful irony of the loose dog. When you follow the dog, when you don’t resist it, when you embrace it, the loose dog becomes the thing that makes you lose grip on everything else. It forces you to throw away everything you’ve set your mind on and welcome the ambiguous, the absurd, the inane, the unknown. This is exactly what a writer needs. We need to explore the unknown if we are to justify this act of scribbling. We need to have journeys on the page. We need to put ourselves in danger. We need to run into the street, risking death in pursuit of the loose dog, becoming a loose dog ourselves in the process. The loose dog is the thing that shakes you out of your somnolence and forces you to reckon with your true self. It makes you question everything that you take to be real in this world by sending you to another world entirely.
We need to put ourselves in danger. We need to run into the street, risking death in pursuit of the loose dog, becoming a loose dog ourselves in the process.
The loose dog doesn’t have to be an actual dog, of course. (In fact, it probably shouldn’t be. The annals of storytelling are already littered with great dogs.) Instead, Tucker who runs away from the bath can in fact be a llama, a painting, an island of sirens, a stolen car, an iPhone, a rake, an old friend — no, a brother — who shows up at your front door asking for money. The dog is only a metaphor, though you could also call it a white rabbit or a wild goose: annoyances that appear unwanted in your life without your choosing, forcing you to make decisions.
Loose dogs come in all shapes and feelings, but one thing that all loose dogs have in common is that you must follow them. You can’t banish them from the room like Knausgaard or my imagined Virginia Woolf—who, as it turns out, did have a dog, a cocker spaniel named Pinka. In fact, Woolf was an adamant defender of dogs and even wrote an entire biography of the life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s beloved dog, Flush. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. What matters is following the dog. That’s what I have to remind myself. When I find myself thinking that life is boring, that there is nothing worth producing on the page, that I cannot tell a story, I have to remember that there’s a loose dog somewhere nearby and an adventure awaiting me, if only I let myself follow it.