As happens often, I found another parallel between training a dog and writing a novel. This time it had to do with arousal states in dogs and writing zones for writers. Essentially, there is an optimum state for a dog to be in to effectively learn what he needs to learn. The dog can’t be over stimulated or he can’t think, nor can he be under stimulated so his brain is not engaged.
Writers are also like this. When we are in our optimal arousal state, we do our best writing. How many of us know that feeling of being in the zone, where reality drops away and the words flow magically over the page? If you are like me, getting to that spot doesn’t happen nearly enough, so the question becomes how to more easily attain that optimal state.
Easy. You just need to find your tug toy. My older whippet, Zoe, spends much of her time under aroused. Very little gets her excited, and she tends to walk away in the middle of a training session. Ask her to sit, and she mostly likely will decide it is a good time to get a drink of water, not too different from some writers. Not being stimulated enough to work on our novels can feel like drudgery and induce boredom. It’s much more interesting to go get that drink or read the latest trending topic on Facebook, which at the time I was writing this post was about a rattlesnake bite death in Elk County. I grew up in Elk County, a small, in-the-middle-of-nowhere place, and now it’s Facebook famous! But I digress.
At the other end of the spectrum is my younger whippet, Zephyr. He spends much of his time over aroused and unable to think. OMG! There’s a dog outside to bark at. OMG! There’s a cat to chase. OMG! It’s a ball. You get the gist. Asking him to sit in these conditions is nearly impossible. There are just too many things in his world that are far more interesting than me. Writers, sadly, are like this too. OMG! I got another email. OMG! It’s another book list from Book Riot. OMG! The Jolie-Pitt twins are growing up. And so on. Zoe needs to be amped up, and Zephyr needs to be calmed down. When I get them both in the proper state or zone, training goes smoothly, and they can each learn whatever I ask them to.
The fix is easier for the whippets than for writers, unless there are some writers out there who appreciate a good game of tug, a game much like tug of war but with lots of stupid noises (from the human, not the dog). If I show Zoe a tug toy, her ears prick up, and she looks at me with curiosity. After I move the toy along the floor and make some foolish high-pitched excitement noises, she’ll show some interest. She’ll grab at that mass of rabbit fur, gain purchase, and give out a little growl. Now she’s interested in what I want her to do because a game of tug might happen at any time. On the other hand, as soon as Zephyr sees the tug toy, he jumps high off the ground in an attempt to snatch it from my hands. But he doesn’t get it until he presents some calm behavior like a sit. He needs to think about maintaining some control or there is no game of tug. Now, I also have his attention and each of the dogs is in a good arousal state, or zone, for learning.
And so it is with writers, though finding each of our individual tug toys is a bit harder. It may take some exploration to find whatever it is that puts us in that comfortable place where the noises of the espresso machine and the piped in music fall away, where our sole focus is the screen in front of us, or where a kid could run screaming through the coffee shop and it wouldn’t matter. Perhaps, it is a good cup of coffee to get those brain cells firing in the right direction. Or maybe it’s a quick run to get your energy up enough to spend a few hours in front of the screen. Maybe it’s reading a couple of pages of a favorite book. Whatever it is for you, remember to do it before you sit down to write, even if it eats up precious minutes or hours of your writing time. The resulting writing session will be much more productive if you are in the proper state or zone.
Then don’t forget to reward yourself, which is also a critical component of dog training (the similarities are endless!). That huge distraction you successfully avoided can now become your reward. Go ahead and read that list of the top 100 books of all time or find those pictures of Vivienne and Knox Jolie-Pitt to determine if they are as good looking as their ridiculously attractive parents. Reach for that rabbit tug toy. And feel good about it because you got your work done first and you got it done effectively.