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  • Barry

The Writer Must Have a Dog

Updated: Dec 20, 2022

When I think of the dog at the center of my short novel JUST BILL, I see him as youthful, vital, the life force personified. He is up for anything his master wants to do, always alert for a sign that it’s time to jump in the lake, or go for a walk. He eats the same way, gobbling from the bowl before it touches the floor. He remembers things: another dog herds lady golfers away from a dangerous patch of jungle; Bill later prevents a small boy from entering the same overgrown area.

That’s art, or so I prefer to think of JUST BILL. Fiction improves on life by organizing it into patterns and plots. It compresses, stylizes, creates trajectories in which actions build one on the other to create anticipation and meaning for the reader. If the writer gets it right, the whole equals more than the sum of its parts.

Life? Not so much. It doesn’t really “mean,” or have trajectory. Or if it does, the path is imposed later. When you win, you explain your success in a way that makes you look good. You were responsible for the whole thing, made great choices, knew just what to do. Lose, and the same thing happens in reverse: forces beyond your control screwed up everything.

In other words, life is in many ways inferior to art. In life, plot, structure, trajectory, and the rest of it are replaced by routine.

This sense of something lost as a result of predictability doesn’t seem to be a problem for writers. At least not for this one. For me, routine and predictability are good things. That's how I gain the hours and focused attention I need to develop stories. If I lived a life of novelty and change, I wouldn’t write.

But one thing is certain: A life like mine absolutely needs a dog.

It needs that combination of order and routine that my dog Chelsea loves as much as I do, along with a dog’s ability to take people out of themselves. To be a chum-on-demand. After almost eight years with her, I can no longer imagine life or writing without Chelsea. By the way, the dog in the photo is not my dog: At the first sign or sound of a camera, Chelsea hides. But I very much like this dog's face. It's full of character.

Although she’s good at it, my wife Barbara doesn’t write. But about Chelsea’s importance we are in total agreement. It makes us both grateful and apprehensive, living with our rescued border collie whose age we can't know, watching her growing gray just like ourselves, but whose days are racing past so much faster than our own.

As I think of what’s to come, the phrase “pay it forward” occurs to me, but I don't know why. Sooner, not later, the balloon payment for all the gratitude we feel for our dog will come due. And there is no way to prepare for it, or to meet the balance due.

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