Two and a half years ago I brought home a dog from the Austin Animal Center, where I was volunteering, with whom I’d fallen rather quickly in love. From the moment we met he was calm and kept all four feet on the ground when I went into his kennel, staying gently focused on me—traits I always look for in a new dog. He was responsive and sweetly affectionate.
I brought him home as a foster—the shelter was overcrowded and they were desperate to place animals—but I think we both knew from the get-go that that was a fiction.
As was his calm, modulated demeanor, I quickly discovered.
I knew, of course, that animals could act differently in the high-stress, unfamiliar environment of a shelter, but I expected it to be the other way around—that their behavior might be more excitable and unpredictable in that environment. Gavin, though, was apparently holding it all in till he felt more secure and settled…when he decided it was safe to let it all out.
He’d evinced housetrained behaviors at the shelter—but at our house he started peeing inside, always in one certain spot. He’d been marked as a “green-dot” dog at AAC, meaning he’d been assessed as fairly docile and without problem behaviors, so any visitors to the shelter could go right into his kennel without needing assistance from staff or volunteers—but once he settled into our home he became wary and defensive with anyone who wasn’t us.
While he’d trotted alongside me when I took him out of his kennel at the shelter, on walks in the neighborhood he nearly yanked my arm off lunging after anything that moved: cars, scooters, bikes, squirrels, leaves. He was a scavenger, nose constantly to the ground like a truffle pig, and I had to watch him constantly because he would eat literally anything he found. A partial list: mulch, dirt, beetles, rocks, trash, roadkill residue, deer poop…a bunny (we shall not speak of that dark day).
He was…not quite the dog I assessed him to be in the shelter. And he was not like our other rescue dogs, who’d come to us pretty WYSIWYG and low-maintenance.
But he was our dog now.
So we took him to trainers—several of them. We finally found the right one (shout-out to the gifted Tara Sturmer of K9 Workingmind!) and I started working with Gavin every single day, not just on the specific program she laid out for us, but in nearly every activity we did: walks, backyard playtime, games, feeding, and even relaxation time all became opportunities to shape his behavior.
We saw improvement from our very first session with Tara—and ongoingly—but periodically we got frustrated. Why wasn’t he consistently calm and nonreactive like our other dog? Why did he always push every little boundary if we weren’t vigilant? Why did he sometimes have sudden setbacks and revert to his old ways?
Gavin, we decided, was Gavin, and he could be a handful.
Except…slowly I started seeing how much progress he was making. His marking behavior inside the house is a thing of the past. He’s much more comfortable with strangers. Once a relentless beggar who’d nearly topple us while we cooked, lunging for any tiny crumb that fell on the floor, now he plants his butt on his rug in the kitchen and just looks at me if something drops off the cutting board, until I give him permission to take it.
On walks, if a kid buzzes by on a skateboard or a passing dog barks and pulls toward him, rather than lunging Gavin looks up at me for praise or a treat. If he goes barking after someone on the sidewalk passing by our backyard, he turns immediately around and comes trotting back to me the moment I say, “Stop—come back.” He knows a panoply of commands and loves nothing better than eagerly executing them and always learning more.
Don’t get me wrong—he can still be a real pain in the ass, and he hears it so often the poor dog probably thinks “Dammit, Gavin!” is his name. Gavin gonna Gavin, and his training is a work in progress.
But little by little, without my entirely realizing it, he’s actually turned into a damn good dog.
Dogs Are Like Writing
Some stories come on like Gavin, presenting themselves so perfectly you imagine you’ll just need to transcribe the idea flowering in your head and poof! Bestseller.
And then come unexpected problem behaviors: Dead ends and roadblocks. Meaningless detours. Stalled momentum. Wrong turns. No matter how much you revise and rework, it just won’t come together.
You get discouraged. Maybe you think about giving up. Your last story wasn’t this hard, right?
But as with dog training, the steady, consistent work of honing, developing, polishing, working toward shaping a manuscript into the story an author hopes it will become can take time—and results aren’t always obvious at first. It’s an incremental, cumulative process.
There’s a reason I refer to this process as Revision Mountain: When you’re looking up from the foothills, the summit can seem impossibly distant. Even as you take step after step after step toward the top, it can still seem so far away.
But if you turn around and glance back to where you started, you may be surprised to see how far you’ve come. And if you just keep your head on the step in front of you…and the next…and the next…you’ll get ever closer to your goal.
My husband and I joke that our dog is “All Gavin! All the time!” And it’s true—moderating his more…shall we say overenthusiastic traits and eliciting the behavior we want requires consistency and vigilance from us. Some dogs are like that.
So are some stories. I wrote my third book, Heart Conditions (under my pen name, Phoebe Fox) in about three months. I started my upcoming release, The Way We Weren’t, nearly fifteen years ago. The former book came out in draft very close to the final published version; the latter has been through countless revisions and overhauls. Every story is different, and takes what it takes.
I say this so often it’s practically my tagline: The most important trait an author can have, both in her writing and in her career as a writer, is persistence.
This is a demanding craft and a tough business. There are rarely shortcuts. Success—whether that’s turning out the most effective and compelling version of the story you set out to tell, or getting an agent or a publishing contract, or becoming a bestseller, or whatever metric you measure by—requires concerted, consistent, steady work. And like Gavin, it may never turn out quite the way you planned.
But I couldn’t that love dog more. As challenging as he can be, every single day he makes me laugh, he looks at me like I invented everything good in the world, and I adore watching him go at life full-frontal, with his big goofy grin. He’s worth every bit of work and attention and care we put into him—in fact all of that is what our relationship and life with our pets (and loved ones) is.
It’s the same with your creativity, friends. The process isn’t a means to an end—it’s the point of it, the journey itself, the experiences you have and what they build, how they let you grow. The truth is there’s never really a finish line (except for the ultimate one).
Write the story. Enjoy the process. Write another one, if it calls to you.
Don’t forget to notice how far you’ve come.