Writer in Residence

A Writer's Best Friend

By Nancy Jo Cullen

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I think I could be accurately described as an outgoing introvert. I can make small talk, and I even enjoy it, but I find it exhausting. Most of the time I’m happier just hanging out by myself or with my partner. I think I should be better at being a sociable person but I’m not.

Perhaps I should blame my dog, RIP Esme.  Nearly fourteen years ago Esme joined my family after a visit to the pet store for cat food. Yes, she was a pet store rescue, and I paid an ungodly amount of money for her, but my kids’ other mom had just died and I wanted to give them something they really wanted. Esme never stopped being a yappy, reactive dork but she helped us all to feel better. She was a welcome, adorable distraction from our grief.

Technically she was the kids’ dog, in reality she was my dog because, in fact, I did all the work of caring for her. She became my shadow, a jumpy shadow whose nails clicked across the floor behind me when I made any move. It was a little maddening at times. “I’m just getting a glass of water!” I’d say as she trotted at my heels. Sometimes I’d try, “Stop! Stay! I’ll be right back,” my hand held up like a traffic cop’s.

But I’d be a liar if I said the company of a dog didn’t take away the edge of writing alone in my room. Esme loved my writing hours and tucked in close to me while I worked. She mostly respected the silence of the writing room, unless that guy with the two spaniels lumbered past our window. She reminded me to stretch and take pee breaks when she stretched and took pee breaks. More importantly, she made me go for walks which turned out to be a great time to think about, and solve, the problems in writing projects, and in life.

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I’m not the kind of writer who can work in a coffee shop; I’m too easily distracted, and too prone to eavesdrop. Yes, I know I could wear sound cancelling headphones but I often speak what I’m writing; can you imagine, with headphones on, how easily I could be shouting purple prose across a crowded room? Plus I’m just self-conscious enough to feel conspicuous writing in a coffee shop. So writing for me is a solitary act, but with my dog in the room I was never lonely.

At the risk of sounding cold, I expected my dog’s death to be more of a relief; she was failing for the last year of her life and the vet bills were mounting. And, despite her poor health, she remained a pain in the ass. Sure she had a lot of character but she wasn’t a “good” dog; she was a poorly trained hot mess. Plus, I believed I was readying myself for her death the way many of us think we might be able to prepare for the loss of a being we love.

But, of course, there is no way to get ready for the loss of a being you love and Esme’s death was gutting. I spent the first two weeks after her death sleeping through every moment that I was at home, presumably working. Esme was the first pet I’d ever been solely responsible for and I was committed to her care, but so much for feeling liberated when she was gone.

It turns out I wasn’t the ballast in Esme’s life; she was the ballast in mine. She made me accountable and she brought me home. She imposed a structure on my time. She needed to be walked and fed, and she needed companionship. Or vice versa. She was a photogenic nerd who kept me on track during three books, an MFA, and raising two kids on my own. She was a friend who reminded me every morning that the new day was a joyful surprise. She taught me I was what I always suspected I might be; I am a dog person.

I don’t know if I’m a better writer because a dog sat in the room with me but I know I am a writer who finished projects because a dog sat in a room with me. My dog’s needs gave my life a structure that required me to stay put and to walk daily, which created the space to ruminate, to unwind, and to appreciate the world around me. So, I’m grateful my kids fell in love with that ridiculous, overpriced, anxiety ridden pet store rescue who, even with all her foibles, taught me try harder to be in the moment, and to sit down and get to work so the dog could rest soundly beside me. Maybe she wasn’t a good dog but she was a great friend.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.


Nancy Jo Cullen is the fourth recipient of the Writers’ Trust Dayne Ogilvie Prize for LGBT Emerging Writers. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph and her short story collection, Canary, was the winner of the 2012 Metcalf-Rooke Award. Her poetry has been shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Award, the Writers’ Guild of Alberta’s Stephan G. Stephansson Award and the City of Calgary W.O. Mitchell Book Prize. She lived in Calgary for over two decades and still returns regularly to connect with family and friends. She now lives in Kingston, Canada.