Two years ago next week, my dog died. I still miss him for many reasons, but what I miss the most is his companionship while I write. It’s a strange thing to sit inside all day, not even on the phone or online, simply communing with the imaginary people in your head. But it’s a choice a dog can readily understand. He never questioned my presence, my lack of motion, my seeming distraction. He accepted that important work can be done that is largely invisible and, perhaps, that this is some of the best work of all.
It’s perhaps a strange, contradictory desire to want companionship in a practice of a craft best pursued in isolation. But writers do seek companionship while writing, in myriad ways—through music, a favorite object, even an imagined or eventual reader. I spent one winter listening to the same Bon Iver album over and over every time I sat down at my desk. Weird, yes, but as the notes of the first song rung out, I relaxed into my chair and felt welcome. I wouldn’t be alone at my desk as I began to pick out a story. For a while, I was a member of the Writers’ Room of Boston, which provides quiet workspace for writers, no talking allowed. (The chalkboard in the bathroom is another story.) But still, being surrounded by others hard at work on their books, articles and other projects, even thought I could not talk to them, was both inspiring and cheering; the best of both worlds: companionship and quiet, community and contemplation.
But my best companion was, and always had been, Gatsby, golden boy that he was. He’d flop down beside me in a lump of fur, with an uninhibited grunt. Or I’d hear him snoring on the bed in the next room, his paws shuffling in mid-air. Either way, he was there with me, a bit of companionship in a pretty lonely pursuit. Dogs are best known as the givers of unconditional love (in exchange for food and occasional exercise) but they’re good at support too. They way he dedicated himself to any pursuit—sleeping, eating, chewing a rawhide—was inspiring. That kind of focus can’t be faked, but it can be emulated. He showed me how to throw myself into my work because I cared about it—which of course is the first step to getting anyone else to care.
Having to stop every now and then and walk around the block didn’t hurt either. The brief time and space away, the purpose in the task, allowed me time to puzzle through the next piece of my story but did not permit me to run away from my desk and save my insight for another day. Our path was circular, and we soon arrived back at the front door. Once inside, Gatsby would lap his water, retire to his bed, the couch or, even better, my bed, leaving me nothing more to do than return to my desk and keep writing. His life was based on rituals that began to shape mine, rituals that had a positive impact on my work ethic even as they allowed him to sleep away hours every day.
I’m sure people find the same connection with their cats, parrots and pot-bellied pigs, but for me it was a dog. He made it possible for me to write two novels without feeling like a complete hermit. Gatsby couldn’t critique or talk back; he couldn’t doubt or praise. He didn’t care if I was at my desk or the kitchen table. But he made it possible for me to be there, to stay sane, to untangle my thoughts and string them together day after day until drafts became polished and were ready to face the rest of the world. I don’t write nearly as happily or as well without him.