The Dog Whisperer Writes in Scene: Literary Lessons from the Dog Training Trenches

Wayward Writers

My partner and I have been consuming a lot of dog-related self-help recently, books and reality shows and podcasts with titles like LEAD THE PACK, WE ARE THE KNIGHTS WHO SAY ‘SHHHHT!’ and BRAINWASH YOUR MINI-PINI WITH HOTDOG SLICES.

cesar-real-story-copyAfter nearly four years locked into amazingly cheap rent in a no-pets apartment, we will be moving to newer, doggier horizons in San Diego and must gird ourselves for a life as dog owners. Or so we excuse our obsession. Because the interesting thing about these books is that while they are about dogs, they are also about dog-as-metaphor.

The books describe a dog-human power dance, maintained by consistent acts of physical assertion. For instance, I’ve rewritten three dog-human scenarios from my research as human-doggish human scenarios (in which I play human and you play the doggish human):

  • We meet for the first time at a party. I ignore our friend’s…

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How I Spent My AWP 2015…Tidbits on Craft & Publishing

Wayward Writers


Whoa. That was the sound of a giant literary whirlwind depositing me back down to earth. 12,000 writers! One tiny (giant) conference center! 8 zillion parties (which I appreciated from a distance)! really seriously discounted books! and my favorite–most nerdtastic–part: panels panels panels.

Guys, seriously, I could live under a panel table at the AWP conference. (“Talk writing craft to me. Talk publishing nuts and bolts.”–me)

For your own nerdy pleasure, here were some highlights from panelfest 2015:

On Process

  • Watch & wait. “If you’re stuck, don’t be stuck. Sit there with it.” — Jillian Wiese
  • Play. “Don’t get take [your writing] too seriously.” –J.W. (who dresses up as her characters and then walks around in public pretending to be them.
  • The best laid plans… Kate Pringle, who developed her characters and world carefully, said, “And then they misbehaved.”
  • Subvert your biases. Kate Pringle also talked about realizing her…

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dancing while writing: getting past the noise

Wayward Writers

My sweetie and I both write. We’ve been advised against this–either the writing or the relationship–on the basis that writers should be caged separately, like species of wildcat destined to maraud through one another’s territory and destroy mutual piece of mind.

Good news is that after four years, we’ve experienced far more camaraderie than marauding or territorial peeing. These days, Tzinta’s preparing to start his MFA in the fall and I’m pushing my way to the end of a thesis story collection due to turn in five short short weeks. We spend most Sunday evenings boring cavernous butt-dents in our IKEA hunk of sofa-shaped foam, pausing to gaze morosely over our laptop screens at each other, or whooping at the edge of bedtime to announce the completion of a single, really good sentence. tired writerLast week, while lesson planning for Seed & Structure, which my sweetie has been sitting in on…

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Re/vision: Story Shapes

Wayward Writers

This week in Seed & Structure, we’ve been demystifying the sometimes dreaded, sometimes over-romanticized idea of PLOT. We used Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction to break plot down to its essentials: desire – conflict – crisis action (aka climax) – resolution, and then looked at four different metaphors to discover that shape within the finished first drafts of our stories: story as war, story as power struggle, story as a series of connections and disconnections (or emotional highs and lows) and story as Greek theater (Frietag triangle/inverted check mark).


So why bother? Isn’t this all a little formulaic? Well…maybe. But more importantly, it really works. I personally like to use these models as a diagnostic tool. When something doesn’t quite jibe in a story I’m revising, I go through the different models and see what ingredients are missing. Chances are good, that my problem is sitting right in…

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The Myth of the Real Deal

My friend and the teacher who brought me back to writing, Jenn Berney, with a succinct, intelligent response to the inflammatory Mr. Boudinot.

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

Well, if you can't impress me, you're never going to make it!Well, if you can’t impress me, you’ll never make it!

A guest post from Jennifer Berney:

When I entered my MFA program in 2003, I hoped I might be a literary success in the making. Though I had only written a handful of short stories, I imagined that a two-year writing program would provide me with the structure I needed to complete a book-length manuscript, and after that I’d have it made. I’d find an agent and land a publishing contract. I might not make the bestseller list right away, but I’d have a steady, respectable career. At the time, this seemed like a reasonable dream.

Surely I was the kind of student that Ryan Boudinot writes about in his recent essay in The Stranger, “Things I Can Say About MFA Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One,” in which he groups his former students into…

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“Get Closer!”: Revision Lessons

Wayward Writers

Back in the late nineties, I had the bad fortune of belonging to the two most maligned clubs at my high school: the Huron Players drama club and the Gay-Straight Alliance. I was such an unpopular teenager–and, let’s be real, so very gay–that even the other drama kids didn’t like me. As a result I spent a lot of time in that haven of all self-conscious-to-the-point-of-paranoia, artsy teenagers. You guessed it: the dark room.


The dark room had a lot of things going for it: 1) packed full of carcinogenic chemicals (great alternative for non-suicidal levels of gloominess–you’re still killing yourself, just VERY SLOWLY), 2) red light makes you feel like a vampire (bram stoker, not stephanie meyer, thank you very much), 3) the photographic development process is actual magic (science, shmience–I’ve seen it with my own two eyeballs), 4) darkness, obvs, and 5) the photography teacher did not…

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Sinkholes, Blackholes, Fissures…and What You’ve Forgotten About Stories

Wayward Writers

I have been thinking a lot recently about holes. Like this:

holeAnd this: guatemala-sink-hole-2

Which I mean metaphorically. I am really thinking about the creative process, specifically the idea of problems or errors and of fixing.

Let me come out here as an obsessive fixer. EG. If I don’t have enough of my own problems to fix, I’ll volunteer myself to fix yours or tv characters’, or dead people’s—I don’t discriminate!

I love the soothing, wax-on/wax-off rhythm of revision the same way I love over-scratching a mosquito bite. Sometimes this a good thing, but—ask anyone who’s dated me (lucky bastards, i know)—sometimes it’s insanely annoying.

So, now that I’ve established myself as a neurotic perfectionist… How can a creative work—art–something alive ever be considered perfect? Perfection implies a finality, a pre-determined state, a destination. A 5-lane highway with shiny green “___ miles til” signage. But when I begin a story, I…

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Constant stimuli, Sherman Alexie & Feb/March classes

Wayward Writers

Perhaps you, unlike me, can survive without CONSTANT STIMULI AND DISTRACTION. If that’s true though, why are you reading this blog? Why are you even online?? Why are you not curled up like Jonathan Franzen in a dark hobbit hole of novel-producing, internet-hating, award manufactury??? (WHY DO U EXIST????)

Too-much-distractions Internet for dogs. (image from god knows where, sorry)

Ahem. Anyway, I’ll assume that you too require someone smart to tell you things while washing the dishes. Maybe Sherman Alexie even?

Recently Electric Literature posted this rundown on great literary podcasts, many of which I already knew about. Writers Alexie and Jess Walter’s “A Tiny Sense of Accomplishment”, though, is new to me. Since discovering it last week, I’ve listened to about half the episodes (see above re: CONSTANT STIMULI) and they’re awesome. I especially appreciate that these two very accomplished writers devote plenty of airtime to their wrestlings with…

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Me and Tzinta Attempt To Burn Down The House (A Conversation)

So, something I think about a lot and discuss frequently in domicile with my paramour and fellow artiste, Migueltzinta Solis, is WHY DOES THE QUEER WORLD HATE ART??

Ok, not hate. Distrust. Outside of a limited range, queer culture is extremely suspicious of art, which I just feel is fucking sad, considering the influential, powerful queer artists of previous generations (Wojnarowicz, Baldwin, Cahun, Stein, Langston Hughes, etc). Anyway, it sucks to be a politically-minded/aware homo coming up these days because all your friends are like, Cool! Design a propaganda poster for my upcoming fundraiser! And then you’re like, uh, actually, I want to get my MFA and write a literary novel, they give you a vast and endless sea of shade. Kaput, friendships or else, kaput dreams. Thus a generation of queer novelists writing on the smallest range of topics imaginable (mostly romance, transition, drugs and childhood trauma), because these are condoned by the social circus. WHEN INSTEAD WE COULD BE BURNING DOWN THE HOUSE OF ART AND REBUILDING IT IN OUR OWN IMAGE. WTF??


But actually, a much more cogent and entertaining analysis of this topic–along with similar issues faced by writers of color, can be found on the Apogee Journal blog, where Migueltzinta and myself go at it politely. Check it out.

LDB: So, what I think we’re saying is that there’s a silent/subtle expectation about the work we (female-socialized queer creative types) should be doing. e.g.: therapy, social work, elementary school teacher, homeless advocate, activist, fundraiser, nurse, healthy food-providers–any of the traditional female professions would be considered acceptable by that community. Slam poet, yes. Novelist, no. Not unless you publish on an explicitly queer press and direct your work toward an exclusively queer audience.

MCS: Right. I imagine my “appropriate” work would involve activism, slam poetry, Chicano poetry circa Gloria Anzaldúa/Luis Rodriguez. Which had it’s time! Without those minds we would not be where we are now. But, these categories are not at all good representations of what I do. It makes me really mad that people have these bizarre expectations of my work. Old school Chicano poetry is so straight and, honestly, I don’t think I have a single slam poetry bone in my damn body. What’s worse, I have the most inconsistent and, just, the most shady politics ever.

Ok, and then, artists, go apply to this residency at 360 Xochi Quetzal. It’s a month in Guadalajara, free once you pay for your plane ticket and you spend it with four other artists working in all mediums. I’m about to head there myself. If you’re a queer artist, especially a female, trans or POC artist, please don’t second-guess this opportunity based on some kind of received political analysis. Allowing yourself to participate in international dialogues via travel (even–sin of sins–spending your hardearned $$ on such a journey), widens your perspective, forges allyships and makes your work more complex, riskier and ultimately more powerful. And yeah, some of your peers might respond with skepticism–but ask yourself, who does it serve when female-bodied queers make ourselves shrink?