Tuesday, April 2, 2013

What Dog Agility Taught Me About Writing

                                          Wiley: Photo by Dave Mills Photography.

Wiley and I achieved an agility milestone this weekend: our first NATCH. The term NATCH stands for NADAC agility trial champion, and it is conferred upon a dog who has earned a certain number of qualifying runs over an assortment of classes. Handlers whose dogs earn this title are awarded with a special jump bar, a ribbon, and a plaque from the North American Dog Agility Council.
The specialness of this title has been somewhat diluted over the years, because there are far more agility trials than there once were (you can compete in one practically every weekend in our area if you wish), and people have just gotten really, really good at selecting and training dogs to excel in the sport. Plus, most of the people competing in agility now have been doing so for many years and are pretty darned good dog handlers.
So what this means is that many of the dogs who have been competing in NADAC for as long as Wiley has have gotten multiple NATCHs by now, not to mention equivalent championship titles in other agility venues. But I'm still happy to achieve this milestone. Agility in the US is a nice sport, because it allows you to participate at the level that works for you and to set personal goals without comparing yourself directly to others.
I wasn't always so sanguine, though. Roxy, my now-retired border collie/chow mix started out like a house 'o fire in the sport, breezing through the novice and intermediate levels of competition with very high "Q" percentages. Things looked promising during our first year in the most advanced level in the two venues we competed regularly in (NADAC and CPE). I was confident we'd be getting our first NATCH and CATCH (CPE's championship title) within a couple of years.
It didn't happen that way. Roxy started to slow down on the course. NADAC is a venue that favors speed, and we were competing at a time when the move  in the sport was towards tighter ways of estimating course yardage, and tighter course times ... and changing the nature of some of its classes. We began to miss qualifying runs in jumpers class because of time faults (sometimes being over course time by fractions of a second). I had her x-rayed and took her to jumping specialists, and they couldn't find anything wrong physically, but there was no denying she just wasn't running as fast as she used to, and she was struggling more with the 20" jumps she had to clear.
I don't know how much of her change in attitude about the sport was due to her structure being less than ideal for jumping, and how much was her becoming inhibited by my anxiety. I suspect the latter played a large role. She always was sensitive dog, and there's no denying that I was getting more and more upset by all our near misses and by the fact that Roxy's age peers were earning NATCH after NATCH.
We finally did get our NATCH (and our CPE CATCH), but it wasn't too long after that Roxy made it pretty clear to me that agility wasn't fun for her anymore. She'd probably been making it clear to me before that, actually, if I'd had the eyes and heart to see. Fortunately, by then, I had adopted Wiley, and he was much more intense and interested in the sport for its own sake (and not just the cookies it brought). Still, I've really, really tried to avoid putting the kind of pressure on him that I did on Roxy.
And I learned something important from all this: it is a terrible mistake to pit too much of your happiness and self esteem on the achievement of goals that are not completely within your control. I got increasingly stressed during the years I ran Roxy, because the agility venues I competed in kept changing their rules and tightening up their performance criteria, and because my agility partner (Roxy) was slowing down. These were two things I couldn't control. Another piece of stupidity is that I got so caught up in the goal that I almost forgot to enjoy the time I spent with Roxy (and with the incredible people who make up our local agility community).
Roxy's been retired from the sport for several years now (she's 13), and is still my special princess. Wiley is 8, and I hope he will continue to enjoy it for several more years. I'm looking forward to  competing soon with Flick (my nearly 3 year old border collie/Belgian shepherd(?) mix. But I'm really trying to be less goal oriented, or at least to have goals that I have some control over (like improving my handling, keeping things fun for my canine partners etc). I don't do as many trials as I used to, partially because my writing is keeping me busy into the wee hours (and agility trials start at the crack of dawn), but also because I want to keep the sport special for me and my canine companions and not burn ourselves out.
And to never, ever forget that our success in the sport has no bearing on the love I feel for them or the regard in which I hold myself.
This lesson I learned from agility is also informing my approach to writing to some extent. Humans are naturally goal oriented and competitive, and I'm no exception. I want very much to be a published writer, and at some level, it's hard to feel knowledgeable and successful as a writer without some external validation (very much like awards and titles are external validation to a dog sports competitor). I have a hell of a time not berating myself when a writer friend announces their latest sale. I've invested a lot of myself in my novel and stories over this past year or so, and I'm so afraid of failure, I'm sitting on several stories that are in need of revision and resubmission, because the form rejections I've received so far hurt my tender ego.
I met a very helpful writer (Ken Scholes) at the Cascade Writer's Workshop last summer who not only said some nice things about my writing (that I hope were not just kindness), but told us that no writer has ever completely "made it." As an unpublished writer, I tend to think getting an agent or a book contract is the brass ring, but there are always new goals that come with every level of success. And they are goals that the writer doesn't have a great deal of control over, because they involve the highly subjective judgments of other people and the vagaries of a market that changes more rapidly than the rules of any agility venue.
And Ken pointed out that one's career as even a successfully published writer can tank at any time, because no author can force people to buy his or her books. That's a darn scary thing for a writer who has achieved what most only dream of--a chance to give up his/her day job and make a living at the craft. And having something that's got so much of you in it out there in the world for people to be snide about has got to be hard on the ego too. No matter how critically acclaimed a writer may be, there are going to be people who don't like him or her.
I can feel some of the old Roxy NATCH/CATCH stress bubbling in my chest whenever I read a forum post where someone opines that agents or editors rarely touch second world fantasy (what I enjoy writing) anymore, or how the publication industry is on the verge of collapse, or how no one will be reading at all in a few years, once [insert new entertainment phenomenon] is invented. It makes my dream of seeing something I've written sitting on a shelf next to my favorite authors seem impossibly naive and far away. It also reminds me of how futile it is to worry about or invest exclusively in things I can't control.
So the path to maintaining one's sanity in writing seems to draw upon the lessons I learned from my dogs: don't compare yourself to others, have at least some meaningful goals you can control, and don't forget to enjoy the process of what you're doing. These are tall orders, and probably impossible to do 100%. But keeping them in mind may help to prevent bitterness and burn out.


Roxy: Photo by Dave Mills Photography.

1 comment:

  1. That's the only way to deal with the self doubt, just do what you do best, as long as you enjoy doing it. If you write good second world fantasy, you'll find a publisher, whatever the market oriented agents are looking for. I've given up on looking for an agent. They are not looking for a great book, they are looking for something they can sell. It can be as crappy as they come, but if that's what the punters want, they'll buy it.
    Lovely dogs by the way. Roxy must be an incredible girl to keep at the agility so long. She must have inherited her athletic ability from the border colley and her tenacity from the Chow!