Monthly Archives: January 2014

Rally Obedience, or Easy Writing (not)

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Photo credit: Eileen Donahoe

Trouble knows that old dogs can learn new tricks. Whether she really wants to is another question, but she is prepared to humour Human, that reliable source of food, walks, and belly rubs. Human thinks that a Rally Obedience title would be a nice addition to Trouble’s name.

Rally-O is to formal obedience as ice-dancing is to the skating of figures. The figures are still there – a sit is a sit is a sit – but how you combine those moves is a different thing altogether. Trouble likes the challenge: the rally course is never the same twice, so she has to pay attention to Human.

And Human has to pay attention to the course.

A rally course is a complex layout of a number of moves –serpentines, figure eights, turns and pivots and jumps. NoviceRallyCourse crop You don’t know until you get there how many, which ones, or in what order. Each exercise station has a sign card indicating what move is to be performed.

In the competition, the dog and handler have to follow the course, perform the exercises accurately, and look as if they are having fun. That last part is easy for Trouble: her exuberant tail has more than once rocked a pylon as she weaves past. Human, meanwhile, is reading and interpreting the signs, making decisions, encouraging the dog, and trying to look unpressured.  Did we mention that it’s timed, too? “Handler error” is a real possibility, and can result in lost points or even a non-qualifying score, something also given when a dog relieves itself in the ring. They’re equally mortifying occurrences.

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The discourse of the discipline

The rally ring brings to mind the old adage that “easy writing makes damn’ hard reading.” A good rally team goes through the exercises from start to finish, flawlessly, making it look easy and fun, no matter how convoluted the path or complex the individual step. A lot of work goes into each competition, however: the judge selects the exercises and designs the route. There has to be adequate room for every exercise – nothing too cramped or too crowded. The handler has to study the signs and know the peculiar language of the sport. The dog has to know the commands and pay attention through every move. And when everyone has done the necessary work, there is pleasure, pride, and satisfaction in the result.

An academic essay is surprisingly like a rally trial. It has to be as carefully laid out as the rally course, with a clear direction, though not necessarily a straight line, from start to finish. The individual parts of the course must be expressed in the right language – the discourse of the discipline – and laid out in such a way that an attentive reader can readily follow and get the point. It’s a collaboration between writer and reader.

It can’t be done right the first time. It’s laborious, even for those with experience. But when it works, it’s a beautiful thing, even if there aren’t many ribbons given.

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Showing up

Trouble’s wants are few; her needs even fewer. She needs to be fed and watered, and given the opportunity to relieve herself and to exercise. She wants stimulation, toys, something (anything) to retrieve, belly rubs, and proximity to the Human. Life is better for all of us when she gets what she wants. Human gets up on a schedule, gets fresh air and exercise, learns new things (rally obedience!), takes regular relaxation sessions (tension and belly rubs are utterly incompatible, even if it’s not your own belly), and enjoys – even basks in – companionship.

Then comes JanuarFrost facey. It’s cold. Often very cold. Cold enough to frost a furry face. And it snows. Deep enough to cover a toller. And Human remembers that she’d rather hibernate than heave herself outdoors, swaddled in a parka and swathed in scarves. Don’t forget the mittens. Two pairs.

But she does. Because Trouble is sitting at the door.

One day, someone told me that I’d be a good writer, eventually – when I was grown up and had something to say. So I got on with other things, and a very long time passed.

One of those other things was teaching students. I had lots of useful advice for them, such as not to wait for clear ideas before starting an essay. “’How do I know what I think till I see what I say?’”  I’d say to them. “Listen to Forster if you won’t listen to me. Get writing.”

Or not to wait around for inspiration or the perfect moment. “’Inspiration is for amateurs ’”  I’d quote Chuck Close: “‘the rest of us just show up and get to work.’”

And if you’d asked me, I’d have said that I practiced what I preached. Despite the pleasures of procrastination, I’d show up at my desk and write until I knew what I was going to say in that memo, or that report, or that scholarly article.

But it was years before I thought to apply the same advice to the question of discovering what else I might have to say.

It isn’t easy. At least with memos, or reports, or scholarly articles, there’s a rhetorical situation that needs to be addressed, a conversation, professional or academic, to be entered, and a mass of material to hand. When I show up to see if I have anything else to say, I feel a bit like Trouble venturing into the snowy wastes. There’s nothing to see when the snow is deeper than you; nothing to convince you that there’s anything at all to be found.

But there is alwayin snows something, even in January. Even when the screen is as blank as the back yard in a blizzard. If you show up.

Think like a stick

A good day involves water. That’s an axiom for Tollers. So retrieving sticks or balls from a river is about as good as life gets on a summer’s day. Human talks about the warmth of the sun, and the chuckling of the current, and the polished beauty of stones, but Trouble knows what’s important. Where’s the stick?

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A really really good day brings children to the riverbank. They are less likely to stand still and blather about chuckling warmth and polished currents. They tend to bounce up and down and shriek, and the smaller ones aren’t very good at throwing sticks, but they’re generous with belly rubs and don’t seem to mind getting wet.

Last summer some of the Human’s young cousins were visiting, and were almost as keen as Trouble to go down to the riverbank. Their dad’s a school teacher, even when he’s on vacation. So he kept pointing out the plants (Indian Paintbrush; invasive purple loosestrife; joe pye weed) and giving them tips on how to throw a stick farther and more accurately. Then he got all excited pointing out how, when you throw a stick into the river, Trouble doesn’t really swim after it, but heads across the current to intercept it. Words like “angle” and “geometry” went flying overhead, but Trouble paid them as much attention as she paid the midges in the air.

Where’s the stick? And where is it going to be?

Wayne Gretzky is famously said to be able to skate to where the puck is going to be. Neither his ability nor Trouble’s is any magic quality, nor is it really the ability to think like a puck or a stick. It’s an ability to assess the situation and figure out what’s required to meet the significant other where it’s at.Trouble stick crop 2

And of course, that’s a challenge for writers, too. It’s what we call thinking rhetorically: assessing the whole rhetorical situation, but specifically, who my readers are. What do they need to know about my subject to understand what I’m trying to say? How much do they already know, and can I safely assume that they will draw on that knowledge, or do I have to prompt them? Where are they coming from? And where would they be going if I didn’t intercept them? Are they keen to hear what I have to say – have they even sought me out to hear my views? – or do I have to fix them with my glittering eye, or nab their attention somehow? How much evidence will they need to believe me?

Because, as Trouble would say, swimming upstream is wasted effort. You want a stick? You go where the stick is going to be.

Not that it’s always easy … especially for students doing academic writing, or for bloggers with multiple self-selected readers… but to start thinking about writing as a matter of connecting with a reader, well, that’s the beginning of writerly maturity.

Welcome to an experiment

Trouble is a nine-year-old Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever, who has retired from hunting, showing, obedience trials, and raising puppies. Her new home has many advantages (not least of which is that there are no puppies anywhere) but it has one real disadvantage. The new Human-In-Charge, though reliable about food and walks and squeaky toys, has to write. And whatever writing is, it is not as easy, apparently, as retrieving ducks or weaving figure eights or keeping a sit-stay.

Why anyone would voluntarily take on more writing than absolutely necessary is more than Trouble can figure out. Nevertheless, Human-In-Charge has decided to try blogging about writing. At this point Trouble sighs deeply and goes to sleep. Perhaps writing is like having a flea: nagging and irritating and irresistible.

Lots of people seem to think that writing is like retrieving – a matter of instinct and inborn gifts. Yes, retrievers have a retrieving instinct, and yes, if you want to hunt with a retriever, you need a dog with a soft mouth that won’t pierce a duck and a dog that is not so temperamentally possessive that she refuses to give it up once she’s brought it to hand. Writers need some instinctive and innate qualities too: an instinct for language (fortunately that comes with being human) and some persistence (again, a trait we all have in the pursuit of pleasure, but which admittedly needs a little work in the face of adversity. Even Trouble sometimes needs encouragement to go after a duck when she’s tired and wet and cold.)

But instinct and innate traits are not the whole story: a well-trained dog with a weaker retrieving drive will outperform an untrained one, no matter how strong its predisposition.

Good dog trainers are good behavioural psychologists: they watch the dog for behaviours to reinforce, behaviours to extinguish, and behaviours to shape into closer and closer approximations of what is required. We start with observing – describing – what the dog’s doing long before we start training – prescribing – what it should be doing.

Trouble’s observations about writing practices show me a lot about what I do, and help me see what practices work and what don’t. The more I know about what I’m doing, the better I can do it. Or at least, I can minimize the difficulties and make the most of the writing capacity I have. This blog is a series of reflections on writing processes and practices, especially academic writing, as prompted by Trouble.