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.