Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Claire Foster : My Dog Has A Human Name

About a year ago, in the pit of what was becoming suicidal depression, my therapist prescribed me a dog. I’d never had a dog before: I took care of other people’s, for money, but that isn’t the same thing. I didn’t know where to look for an “emotional support animal.” It was a big task, when I could barely get out of bed and was subsisting on coffee and popcorn.

A friend connected me with a rescue group in Olympia, Washington, and within a couple of weeks, I was driving home to Portland with an overweight, cranky, profoundly neglected purebred Pembroke Welsh Corgi. Her name was “Emma of Gig Harbor.” She was shaggy and surly and I loved her on sight.

Emma’s presence in my life was healing and necessary. With her around, I had to differentiate between night and day. I considered mealtimes. Instead of lying in bed and writing until I ran out of gas and fell asleep, I worked in two-hour sprints. Then, I’d take Emma for a walk. My days had structure again. Although my appetite was slow to return, everything else started to coalesce. People smile at you when you have a dog. They want to talk. Emma bridged the gap for me, when I was newly out as trans and so lonely that I felt the urge to leave my body, for good.

My writing days still revolve around Emma, a year later. She wakes me up at 7 a.m. by putting her paws on the bed. (She’s too short to jump up on the mattress.) We go out for a perfunctory walk, see what the day is like, and then come back inside for breakfast. Mine is coffee; hers is kibble, mixed with two tablespoons of organic pumpkin puree and a couple flakes of wild, line-caught tuna. She needs to be told that it’s OK to eat: her last humans teased her with food, and would take her dinner away if she ate without permission.

When her bowl is clean, I put it in the sink, open my laptop, and sit on the sofa. For me, writing is a job. My writing keeps my lights on, covers the rent, and pays for Emma’s trips to the vet and the groomer. I have a checklist next to me, written in pencil on lined paper. Each task has an empty box next to it; if the list is very long, I number my to-dos so I don’t get off track.

Working solely on personal or creative work (meaning: unpaid) can be very tempting. I stick to the list and make sure to close any tabs that are too interesting. My work list, on any given day, might look like this:

write review of Peril in the Old Country for Foreword Reviews
take out recycling
revise essay for Narratively
read-through story for The Rumpus AWP reading
Partners of the Month blog post for Facing Addiction

And so on. I’ve been a freelance writer since 2016. I made the leap to doing it full-time after my first book, I’ve Never Done This Before, sold surprisingly well. I’d written part-time for years, usually supplementing my income with entry-level desk jobs or temping. The needed discipline was already there, but the financial support wasn’t. My short story collection connected me to a freelance gig that paid enough monthly to walk away from offices, ringing phones, and daily commutes. I was incredibly lucky to get this gig, and even luckier that I was prepared to handle working alone, from home, without anyone to motivate me.

I didn’t expect to get lonely, but it turns out that I am human. I like company. Writing full-time can be isolating: funny that I didn’t think of it this way before. Emma fills my need for companionship. While I write, she either lies at my feet or rolls over in her dog bed. She sleeps on her back, snoring, while I complete one assignment after another. Sometimes, I talk to her. If I get up to use the bathroom, she follows me and sits by the bathtub. She watches me without blinking. Who knows what she’s thinking? I tell her every day that she’s a good girl, so special, my beautiful princess. In the last year, she’s warmed up to me. I think it’s because of the constant validation, but who knows? Maybe it’s the tuna fish.

Truman Capote sneered that Jack Kerouac’s work wasn’t writing, it was typing. The work I do feels an awful lot like typing some days. Not every article is going to have a grain of ingenuity in it. Not every blog post is going to transcend the form. However, I keep plugging along, checking off my list. Emma moves from bed to rug to bathroom to sofa. We both have our separate work. I write and she naps.

Every two hours, we go for a walk.

Claire Rudy Foster [photo credit: Elizabeth Ehrenpreis] is the author of two short story collections: Shine of the Ever and I've Never Done This Before. Their fiction, essays, and miscellaneous writings appear in The New York Times, McSweeney's, The Washington Post, and many other places. A native of Portland, Foster lives, reads, and works in NW.

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