February has arrived, with its daffodils pushing up from the earth here in Northern California, and its heavy drifts of snow where some of my friends live in New England. Regardless of location, all of us remind ourselves that the new season is just around the corner, whether we do so with the despair of waiting longer for it or with the delight that it is almost here.
A new job faces me this winter: to turn my creative attention from my last memoir to a novel. Before memoir, I wrote fiction for fifteen years, publishing four books, and writing two more that wound up in a desk drawer, as happens once in a while to those of us who go out on the limb of trying to create something from nothing. Fiction was my first love when I began writing and hoping for publication, some fifty years ago, just after college graduation.
Imagination is at the heart of my fiction, while reality is at the heart of my memoir.With memoir, my own voice begins to speak to me in my mind–and yet with fiction my characters begin to speak to me in just the same way. For both, I listen and type quickly, trying to catch the waterfall of words.
Many people who write to me in appreciation for my memoirs e-mail me now to ask what I am working on currently. When I reply that I am writing fiction this time around, of course they want to know what the book “is about.” I cannot answer them, because for me a novel is a secret as it begins and until it is finished.
This is due to the fact that I am both superstitious about jinxing the process of writing by describing what I am doing, and also because I am mystified myself as to what it “is about.” I generally discover this somewhere along the path of its creation–as my characters bloom into life.
And of course, my three Dalmatians sprawl at my feet as I work at the desk in my writing cottage, keeping me company except for frequent forays into the backyard to chase the ever-enticing squirrels. However, I am not the only one in the household who faces a new challenge. Breeze, our oldest Dalmatian–who is still energetic despite her seven years–has a fresh job as well.
Breeze was a dedicated show dog for her first four years, earning her GrandChampionship with ease, and then retiring to be a mother. She knows all about working hard, and every time I take Cody out for an obedience lesson, her howls of frustration tell me that she longs to be part of the working world again.
This past Sunday, my husband and I took Breeze to an event called “Barn Hunt,” which consists of all sorts of dogs competing to “find the rat,” just as dogs and cats once kept down the rodent population in a farmer’s barn. Here, dog and handler wait off-stage and then enter a large pen with numerous hay bales stacked up high.
At the signal “go!” the dog tries to find the rats, which are hidden in long opaque tubes amidst the hay. As the levels of difficulty increase, so does the complexity, with multiple rats hidden in more difficult places: each class has some tubes with rats inside, and some tubes which are empty, and some tubes which are decoys filled simply with fragrant rat bedding.
The dog’s challenge comes as she sniffs out the tubes that contain the rats alone, and the handler’s challenge is to read his dog’s signal that such a tube has been discovered. Sometimes the dog makes a mistake and hovers too long over a decoy, and the handler misreads the signal. Some dogs are diggers, some dogs are simpletail waggers, and some dogs just stand at attention. The handler and the dog must work as a team in order to win. All the levels, from Novice to Masters, are timed. If a team stays within the allotted number of minutes and completes all the tasks, then it may win according to speed.
To our distinct pleasure, Breeze did her run in excellent time and thus won her class, as well as earning her title in the beginning level of “Instinct,” and the first of three “legs” toward the next level of “Novice.” Best of all, she adored doing it. Her new job was nothing but pure fun. The frantic wag of her tail and the way she used her paws with excitement to unearth the tube signaled Brad to shoot up his arm and call ”Rat!” He enjoyed being Breeze’s partner and thus joined me in working with our dogs. He and Breeze are now a team, just as Cody and Mac and I work together in the other show rings of conformation and obedience.
To all you animal lovers out there, I should also mention that the rats are well protected in their thick opaque tubes, so that they cannot see or feel the dogs. Each is instantly removed from the ring when discovered. As they say in the movies, “no animal was harmed in the making of this.”
And so, from ratting to writing, we await the upcoming change of season here in Northern California. The next time I write to you, March will have arrived, and in our neck of the woods, spring will truly be upon us. The acacia trees will have begun to bloom a profuse yellow, the magnolias to flower pink, and the temperatures will rise from the fifties into the seventies. May your life be as blessed with new blossoming as is ours.