On my evening walks around the park, people sometimes stop to tell me what a good dog I have. I smile and say thank you. But the truth is, I don’t have a good dog. I have a bad dog who is well trained.
We adopted our dog from a shelter in Eastern Washington. A pregnant stray Kelpie had been picked up, perhaps wandered away from her herding job somewhere. The 45-pound mama gave birth to ten pups, and we got one. Unlike her classically tan-pointed mother, our pup was midnight black, just like her soul. On her good days, we called her Monster Girl; on her bad days, I wept.
My sister (who has non-furred children and cable television) told me about the Dog Whisperer, Cesar Millan. He works with “bad” dogs (and, ahem, worse owners), saving them from themselves. I ran to the library, rented the first season, and watched it in two sittings.
Somewhere deep in night two of my viewing, I realized — just like my dog — my muse is a bitch.
This insight — that my muse is a bitch and should be treated like one — finds its solutions in four key concepts from the Dog Whisperer’s retraining repertoire (and comes with the same warning — don’t try this at home):
1. You must be the calm, dominant leader.
Like one of Millan’s out-of-balance dogs, my Bitch Muse is best characterized as a neurotic, over-fed, under-worked, wayward tramp. She comes in two basic moods: First, the passive-aggressive fear biter who makes your life miserable and snoozes as you loses, leaving you to creep around your own work in a desperate attempt not to awaken her into snapping frenzy; and second, the excitable, easily distracted doofus, who bores your friends and family to tears as you whine about her running off for days at a time, presumably chasing squirrels and peeing in flower beds, who won’t come when you call, doesn’t listen even if she does come, and makes a mess of things even if she listens.
Keeping the Bitch Muse on a short chain locked in the backyard while I glowered, scratched my belly under a stained white sleeveless t-shirt, and threw empty beer cans at her wasn’t the answer. Instead, I had to take charge — of her and myself. Toward that end…
2. Exercise. Discipline. Affection.
My Monster Girl needs a couple miles and hours of exercise each day. Then we work on a few intense bursts of makeshift obedience and agility. Afterward, a game of fetch, dinner and a snuggle on her bed finish the day. For the muse, this equates to:
- Exercise: The long-haul work of a rough draft — getting words on the page — that leaves me and the muse panting by The End
- Discipline: The efforts of revising a manuscript — refining plot, character and theme — where writer and muse must work together as a team with call and response, command and execution, honed to perfection
- Affection: The loving polish at the end of the day — maybe playing with that metaphor just a little longer — and basking in the pleasure of work well done
To indulge any one element is a disservice to the others. Balance was the key for me and my muse. Sure, wild romps were fun, but without the exercise and discipline there was no true story. So now, no polishing before plotting; no metaphors (blog posts aside) before motivation. We’ll get to the fun part eventually, and by then we’ll really deserve it.
3. Setting yourself up for success
Training the Bitch Muse, like training Monster Girl, worked best when I gave her ways to succeed. The fortunate corollary to this is fewer chances to fail.
- Focus: Teaching my dog or my muse to focus on me — not the scampering squirrels of the world — was step one in regaining control. An edge of hunger and a pocketful of tasty treats can be wonderfully incentivizing. I figured out what tasty treats my muse responds to — Freecell and Twitter — and started doling out tidy snack portions when she performs.
- A job: You know the saying about idle hands. Dogs and muses need clearly defined tasks. For the dog, many of the commands are four letters: Stay, down, come, heel. A lot of the words I threw at my muse were four letters too, but I won’t print them here. So I learned to give my muse simple commands: Instead of “Write my damn book, bitch,” I say “I have a plot problem, fetch an idea.” I can always send her out for another idea in exchange for fifteen minutes on Facebook.
- Downtime: Even the hardest working herding breed needs a moment when the sheep are safely in the pen for the night and work is done. Spending hours with someone else’s book, an unleashed stroll on the beach of the imagination, playing with some other creative outlet like beads, gives my muse and me a break from each other. By then, she’s tired, and content to curl up in the corner and wait for the next adventure.
4. This is for life.
When I took on Monster Girl and the Bitch Muse, I knew it was for life. Sometimes, I wondered whose life would be shorter, hers or mine, but… Every once and awhile, on one of the rare snow days in my town, Monster Girl will run out into the perfect white and look back at me with such joy in her wicked black heart. That’s when I know me and that other bitch will — with work — get along just fine.