Ten days before Christmas, my husband fell in love with a lab-hound in a pink rhinestone collar. I can’t blame him; she’s fetching. Her eyes are so intelligent, they remind me of Virginia Woolf’s.
I suppose I’m partly responsible; beyond our travel-work schedules, Dominic and I are terrible at syncing our calendars. Roughly two times a year, we double book; it’s annoying but not annoying enough for either of us to have remedied the situation yet.
We weren’t surprised to discover, in classic us fashion, we’d each accepted an invitation to a different party on December 15th. When we figured out what we’d done, we did what so many parents do…we divided and conquered. I took the kids to my friend’s party, where their friends would be too, and encouraged my husband to go to his friend’s party.
Asleep when Dominic came home and the next morning when he woke early, I didn’t see him until I made my way down to breakfast. He had our coffee ready, the whole house smelling like Sunday morning pancakes, and me wondering how I was going to come up with the resolve not to eat one of those fluffy little numbers. When I looked at my husband for support, I noticed he had a decidedly smitten look on his face.
“What’s gotten into you?” I asked
“Her name’s Coutney,” he said.
“She’s a black lab, a rescue; the sweetest dog I’ve ever seen.”
“I’ll bet,” I said and took a sip of coffee, my hands warming around my cup. I wasn’t surprised to hear Dominic had fallen for a black lab. We’d all loved his blind brother’s first guide dog, a black lab named Guthrie who’d become a family hero when my brother-in-law—a college kid at the time—had first lost his sight. It was what Dominic said next that almost did me in.
“She needs a home. You’ve been saying you and Janni are outnumbered around here.”
Oh, dear, I thought. He’s been listening again.
“Another girl would level the playing field,” he continued to make a case.
Janni is our female cat.
“You want a dog?” I wanted a pancake so bad.
As if on cue, the children ran into the kitchen. Mind you, we’d called them in for breakfast several times with no response.
“I want a dog!”
They said it together, jumping up and down in their matching Christmas pajamas: white moose tracks on navy pants. A moose, his tangled antlers in a string of oversized, colored Christmas lights stared out from the front of their shirts with the words: “Ooops, I Moosed Up!”
If only—like the perfect families depicted in Hanna Andersson catalogs—Dominic and I had been wearing the same ones. It certainly felt like we’d “moosed up.” What were we thinking having this conversation where the kids could hear us?
“I want a dog!” my little one said again.
“Mom, are we getting a dog?” my oldest asked.
The question hung in the balance for weeks. I took it to my therapist, along with my ambivalence.
“My husband fell in love with a dog,” I said as I fell onto her couch.
“Oh?” she asked with a raised eyebrow.
I talked about my upcoming travel and the responsibilities that come with having a dog, the constraints, the fitting her in to our day-to-day but I’d already asked my in-laws—who miss Guthrie something awful—if picking up the slack with Courtney when I travel would be a chore or a joy.
They didn’t hesitate to choose joy.
Why couldn’t I?
Fast forward a few weeks and the ushering in of the New Year; the young woman who rescued Courtney—and brought her back to health from abuse and neglect, mange, and near starvation—decided she loved Courtney too much to let her go. A few days later, she asked if we were still interested: She said she loved Courtney enough to recognize a good fit for her when she saw it.
We agreed to take Courtney for a week while her rescuer was traveling. By day two, we all knew what to do. We agreed to take her on as part of our family. In just a little over a week, we’ve already had plenty of adventures, especially when we walk. And when we walk, I get to thinking Courtney must have been a writer in a past life. It’s not just the Woolfian eyes, though those certainly don’t hurt. It’s that, well, she reminds me of you. I’ll give you a few examples.
She’s scared of unproven threats: Take City Island Avenue, for instance. Nothing terrible has ever happened to her there. In fact, she’s already made a few friends. She and the other dogs on the main strip sniff one another out and offer signs of acceptance and understanding, (I know what you are), love (oooh, you smell good, can I get another sniff?) and requests for play dates (facilitated by their human family members). I can’t help but compare it to Facebook where it’s noisy, and sometimes frightening if we really think about what we’re doing there, our friends doling out hits of approval that make the dopamine receptors in our brains feel so good, we go back for more.
I realize our relationship with social media is complicated; it comes with it’s own perils if we don’t follow through with real face-to-face contact and conversations or if we become so addicted that we let it keep us from the real face-to-face contact, the potential for conversations all around us. But if you’re a writer, or decide to take the leap and become one, sharing your work on a public forum is a great way to develop the muscles you’ll need to better communicate with your audiences. Knowing there are real people just beyond their presence on-line may be a great way to overcome the stilted writing I sometimes see when people are writing by and for themselves.
Not too long ago, I was scared to put myself “out there” but now every time I have a conversation with someone that starts with them telling me they’ve been reading my writing, I respond by asking them what specifically they’ve read and what they thought or felt in response. From there, it’s so much easier to get right into a conversation that has far more authenticity and heart than we likely would have had starting from scratch.
On the avenue, Courtney’s already won a few people’s hearts. She happily puts on her harness and leash and walks out the door with a burst of enthusiasm. But whenever we approach the avenue, she starts to tremble and pull, putting her tail between her legs, reminding me of my would-be writing clients who say stuff like, “I’d be blogging, writing articles or more regularly nurturing the people who’ve opted in to hear from me but I just don’t know if my stuff is good-enough.”
They don’t usually come out and tell me they’re scared but it’s true.
She startles at hammers too: One day, I had to take Courtney home and go get the kids without her. She and I had been walking past my friend Mary’s art studio, when she heard a construction crew hammering. “Hammers are a good thing, Courtney,” I told her but she doesn’t yet have the experience to take my word for it. She simply could not recover. She was certifiably spooked. Sometimes, I encourage a client to take a metaphorical hammer to their writing—or I take one to my own—and the result is always better. In the last three days, three people told me about pieces they wrote but never shared, and I remembered how defeated I felt that day, taking Courtney home. We had to abandon our mission because let’s face it, fear.
Courtney needs consistency: I take her out for a walk twice a day at roughly the same times because I need her to create new habits. I need her to know nothing terrible is going to befall her on our walks, and I need to train her to do her business in action. I need her to cooperate and when she knows what to expect, it’ll be easier for her. I also need to get the kids to and from school. See how an extremely practical need of mine makes the whole engine run?
If you’re not already regularly sharing your writing, I promise you’re going to get more confident and comfortable the more you do. Like me, you may still get anxious with every new risk you take, but more and more, it becomes part of the thrill. To that end, consistency is your friend. Otherwise, you’ll come up with every excuse in the world not to write: Some of them will be good. The same three people who told me they’d been writing but never shared also feared that even if they succeeded in getting some writing out into the world, they wouldn’t be consistent enough to keep going. They also felt peer pressure to communicate at a pre-set, regularly scheduled, time; pre-emptively balking at the idea of a constraining schedule was creating writer’s block.
I know there are a lot of successful business people who got that way, in part, by communicating with their “list” every Tuesday at 2:00. That’s wonderful; good for them. But if that feels like the business equivalent of scheduling sex for you, don’t do it. Come up with something that feels good instead and you’ll be far more likely to develop a habit you feel good about. Rigid scheduling works for a lot of people. For others it won’t work, especially not at the beginning and maybe not ever. The way it has always been done is not the only way to do it.
Self-awareness is so important; there is no one-size-fits-all for running your writing. If you’re a rebel, and lots of CEO’s, entrepreneurs, and owners are, you’re going to have to figure out how to make it feel….shall we say, clandestine? You’re going to have to figure out how to make writing to your people something you’re attracted to, something you can’t get enough of, something you can’t wait to do, something you’re getting away with despite all of those other things you have to do.
Think about it. Would you want to hear from a person who felt they had to write you but didn’t really want to?
I didn’t think so.
Know what else my rescue validated for me this week?
Spontaneity and play are just as important as consistency: Courtney loves to play. She loves to make us laugh. She brings us toys. In play, she’s got a safe place to try on her ferocious side. And we encourage it. Nothing like a young dog on one side of a tug-of-war toy, pulling and shaking her head from side to side with all she’s got, while we tell her she’s ferocious. Maybe your writing is a place where, like Courtney, you can practice being ferocious. You don’t have to, you can continue to choose to be a scaredy cat. These days, we’ve got one of those too. We still love her but she isn’t having much fun. So if you’re stuck before you’ve even started because of anticipated fears and schedules that may or may not be real but are confining you nonetheless, why not opt for spontaneity and play?
Oh and, while we’re at it, one more thing about the rigid scheduling: We live in a world where we’re inundated with content. There was a lot less content ten or twenty years ago, when many of the business “gurus” who get paid handsomely to share their systems got started. Part of their success undoubtedly rated consistency as king. Makes sense to me: the on-line world was more mysterious back then. Audiences were thinking; Are these people really real? I imagine the kind of consistency a lot of my clients find damning helped with the trust factor, big time.
These days, most people communicating have been through one or another training that’s taught them to be consistent, to write every Tuesday at 2:00 or perish in the sea of online competitors. Maybe it’s the rebel in me, maybe its because I like to cross-train the projects I’m working on in my business, maybe it’s because I still LOVE working with clients in a high-touch way, but I can’t help but wonder, is less more?
Will I write directly to my audience more often someday? Maybe. Maybe when I’m finished with my memoir and I’ve got a catalog of my own keynotes and Ted-style talks to choose from that are well-rehearsed, well-practiced, and ready to go. Maybe when my kids are grown. Maybe, when my business has evolved a little more. Maybe then, I’ll write more often.
Maybe I won’t, because here’s what I’ve discovered: When I invite people to opt-in and I tell them that, for now, they can expect to hear from me once a month, they tell me they like that; they tell me they’re annoyed at this or that company or person that e-mails too often. They say sometimes the communications from said brands feel like the person wrote just to check off their own productivity markers.
Is that how you want the people on the other side of your communications to feel?
Corrections make her better: Like the writers and not-yet-writers I work with, I make a lot of corrections with Courtney. I follow up with suggestions and encouragement. They help us stay safe, manage expectations, and increase enjoyment as we go. They make the walk, and the writing, better too. Sometimes, I’ve got to make the same corrections, the same suggestions, again and again. I expect that. It’s hard to break old habits and make new ones. I don’t judge Courtney, I’m patient with her. I look for markers of progress not perfection. And in one week, she’s made tremendous progress.
Well-deserved praise makes her better too: We’re moving into our second walking week and the amount of praise I give Courtney increases every day. I see she wants to please me but I’m more interested in helping her to become a well-adjusted, happy dog whose happiness comes not from the approval of others but from the sense that she’s safe and that she can handle whatever comes her way. I want to help her develop her confidence in herself. It’s working. Just the other day, she met a little white doggie in a Scottish looking rain slicker and a white barrette holding her bangs back out of her eyes. Bitch took one look at my girl’s face and bit her nose. Courtney turned her head and kept walking without pulling me. Her head held high; she looked regal. “That a girl,” I told her. “We can’t be friends with everybody and we certainly don’t bark at dogs.