Monday, May 5, 2014

Why Do You Write?

Why Do You Write?

   Christie Valentine Powell

When reading about writing, I sometimes come across people asking why you want to write, and more particularly, why you want to be published. At first, I had no idea how I should answer the question. The first words coming to mind were “because I have to”.  I’m sure every writer daydreams about lots of money, being recognized on the street, dangling hints to adoring fans… but I knew those were not my main purposes. It took a lot of thinking (and writing) to understand why I put myself through this—the hours in front of a screen, the dozens of false starts when trying to get a story going, the rejections when you start attempting publication, the criticism after. Why do I write?

Reason 1: Because I Can’t Stop
I wrote my first story in second grade. It was about a pair of dogs who were left behind in a move and struggled to catch up with their former owners. It covered the front and back of one sheet of paper.
When I was in fourth grade, my family got an ancient computer, and I would beg to go on it and type. I would turn in chapters to my encouraging teacher. The main story was “The Elephant”, which included, among other things, a subplot involving the children of the current presidential candidates’ children learning to get along.
In sixth grade Language Arts, my teacher assigned a journal, in which we could write whatever we liked. I started off, and the plot soon led me to Pokémon, which I had just discovered. I was hooked. Through all of middle school, it was a rare thing to see me without a binder full of scribbled pages clutched to my chest. I told a few people that the best way to save trees would be to steal my pen. A few of my best friends also wrote Pokémon stories, and we enjoyed sharing them and making each other into characters. There is a picture in our 8th grade yearbook of me pouring over a notebook, with the caption “Christie Valentine tallies results from a survey”. I most certainly was not tallying results from a survey.
I finally moved on to non-Pokémon subjects in High School as dreams about publication made their way into my personal journal. I still have many of the small scribbled stories I wrote then. The first, “Keep It Wild”, was about talking animals living on an invented African island. Eventually I started a dystopian story set in the desert around my home that kept me busy through most of college.
One night I had a dream which combined a group of magical people who had lived in my imagination since 7th grade with medieval kingdoms and royalty. It became the spark that led to the Spectra, the manuscript I am working on right now and trying to publish.

Reason 2: To Express Emotion
I started my first journal when I was ten, and have never stopped. Sometimes I wrote to record my doings, but more often, especially when I was around thirteen, I used them to sort out my feelings. I was not encouraged to rant and rave when upset, so writing became my native tongue to express my thoughts and feelings, especially my angry ones. As I practiced, I found that writing helps me to understand the problem and find out how to deal with it. It also helps me to calm down before confronting others. I write other things in my journal as well, but writing is still the way I deal with strong emotion. Writing involves asking questions, and searching to find the words helps me to discover how I really feel.

Reason 3: Control
In my fourteen year old journal, I wrote that I wished life was more like writing, because that was where I felt in control. Being a teenager is hard. You don’t know enough to be in control (though you think you do), and the longing to take charge of your life grates against every person who seems to be trying to shape your life without your say-so. It gets only a little better as an adult. There will always be forces outside of your control, and they will intrude on your life whether you fight or not. Writing is a sanctuary. It’s a place where you make the rules, shape the people, control the world. And in doing so, it teaches you how to manage things, lessons that you can take with you back to the real world.

Reason 4: Learning Skills
One afternoon, the woman driving my high school’s carpool told me that my writing was a waste of time. I knew better than to argue with her, but I also knew she was wrong. I once told my mother that all I needed to do was to wait for the right idea, but I quickly learned better. Writing a good story has very little to do with ideas. It has to do with skill, and skill comes from practice. I still treasure the stories I wrote when I was younger, but even the ones lost forever were not a waste of time, no more than a piece of music is wasted if it is played where no one else can hear.
Writing skills need to be practiced, and those skills can be applied to more than just future stories. We live in a world of reading and writing. Those skills are needed to write essays in school. They are needed to write letters to friends, family, and officials. They are needed to write speeches and lessons, petitions and opinions.
Writing abilities are not the only things learned from crafting stories. They help you learn how to organize your thoughts. They help you learn how to fit ideas together in a way that makes sense. They help you understand people. They help you pay attention to details around you. And they help you to communicate.

Reason 5: Communication
Writing is a form of communication. The whole purpose of writing, the whole reason writing was invented, was to convey information. Expression, control, and learning are ways that writing can help an individual communicate with themselves. Sometimes that’s enough, and those pieces don’t need to be published to fulfil their purpose.

One night when I was around 16, I was pondering about writing when five words came to my mind. “Show them how you see”. That’s what writing is. Deep inside each of us is yearning to connect with others. Writers take a look at their own soul, paste it across a page, and send it into the world. We want people to see who we are. We want to show them how we see the world. We want to offer our souls so that others can see themselves in us and know that they are not alone.  That is why we send a piece of our heart into the world, knowing that rejection and criticism will follow. That is why I write.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014


This is an untitled poem I found in my 14-year-old journal that I think still applies today. I  copied the spelling and grammar exactly.

Like a turtle, egg, or snail
I also have a shell
When I first meet people, my shell is closed
That’s why people think I’m quiet, I supose

But if people are kind and full of fun
I emerge a little, into the sun
If I’m included in activities
You’ll see how open I can be

I’m sorry it takes me a while to come out
That’s what I do when their’s strangers about.
Give me a while and I’ll come through
Ready to spend more time with you

My shell isn’t as thick as it seems
A small conversation can break through the seams
I hear and observe things when I do not speak
Though emerging scares me, I may come out with a leap.

One little warning before I stop,
I can easily come out of my shell with a pop
But I also go back inside
To a lonely place where I can hide.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

On Dogs and Dog Breeding

There are a lot of ethical questions about dog breeding. I don’t have many answers, but I wanted to share some of the things that I’ve learned as I’ve tried to understand more about the ethics of keeping and breeding dogs. I’ve gone through my personal history with dogs and some of the research I undertook when I started becoming interested in breeder ethics and genetic implications, so that others who love dogs and are interested in learning might have a few more points to ponder in order to come to their own conclusions about dog ethics and the future of dog breeding.

My Life in Dog Years
Dogs were always part of my life. My earliest memories include Curly, some sort of poodle-like mix who adopted my mother when she most needed a friend. Curly hated children in general and me in particular, and it’s surprising I went on to care for dogs so much.

When I was around seven, our family bought a dachshund to be a family dog and a breeder. Frankie (named because she was shaped like a frankfurter, but on her papers she was known as Francine Von Valentine) soon became part of our family. We made friends with a local dachshund breeder and had a bit of a relationship with her. Soon raising dachshund puppies became a part of my life. At times I loved it, especially when I got to name one of the pups from each litter. At others, usually right after Frankie had eaten one of my hamsters or some other pet that had escaped its cage, I was certain that all dachshunds were spawn of the devil and the most awful, ruthless creatures on earth.

The local breeder (let’s call her Karen) had a large piece of property on the outskirts of town with kennels full of show dogs. When I was older, I would sometimes work a day or two at her place. I would fill water and food bowls, and go into each run with a special pooper-scooper. It wasn’t nearly so bad as it sounds, and I enjoyed playing with each dog when its kennel was clean. I decided which colors and shapes were my favorite, and had secret pet names for my favorites, which I would imagine Karen suddenly becoming generous and giving to me. In middle school, I told my job counselor that I wanted to be a dog breeder when I grew up, sometimes dachshunds, but more often some other breed I was researching at the time.

The year I started high school, I got my first dog, one of Frankie’s pups we had sold that the new owner no longer wanted. She was from Frankie’s last litter, born on Christmas day as all of our visiting relatives looked on. We had given her a Christmas name, perhaps Jingle Bell or Angel, but her new family had called her Gidget. When she came to me, my daydreams had been filled with a puppy, younger than her, but the same color and hair-length, and I gave her the name of that imaginary pup: Dawn. We had babysat a dog with the same name earlier that I had bonded with, and I chose the long name New Day Dawning, assuming that once I got my new special dog it would be like a new beginning to all things bright and beautiful. While not quite as amazing as my daydreams, we did develop a close relationship—one of my high school friends told me that I had told her I preferred my dog to human company. I do not remember saying such a thing, but it doesn’t surprise me. I worked at Karen’s to pay off stud fees so that I could breed Dawn, and earned money for my first digital camera, and extra put away for college.

Leaving for college began my first dogless years.  Dawn remained at home with my family and their other dachshunds. I continued to research different breeds and pined away for a dog of my own. Finally, after I graduated, with husband and new daughter, we moved to a trailer park and were able to get a family dog. I decided that some sort of spaniel would be a good family dog, so we chose a cocker spaniel- basset hound mix named Buster. Things did not go well. I became pregnant not long after, and suddenly I had no more patience for stinking floors, chewed belongings, or leashes yanked out of my hands. We moved, and Dawn, now elderly, came to live with us and was little more than a quiet shadow behind Buster. Then Buster bolted past me one day, and I, a brand-new mom, did not have the strength to chase after him. He came back, but died a few hours later from anti-freeze poisoning. My husband and daughter mourned him, and I felt sad for their sakes. Dawn, who had always been an outside dog with many canine companions, became an only pet, and the transition has been difficult for all of us. We struggle with puddling indoors and yapping whenever we leave her outdoors, but we are working on our relationship and she will remain with us until her natural death or until her aging prevents her from enjoying life as a dog. We hope to try again in the future, which I will explain later on.

Discovering Breeder Ethics
When I went to college I also began spending more time online. I soon found out that other people, especially those who haunt pet forums and who write library books, have very defined ideas on the subject. The only accepted means of getting a dog are from a rescue or from a “reputable breeder”, which is someone who fulfills a huge list of requirements, from winning dog shows to genetic testing to absolutely never making a profit but working tirelessly to “improve the breed”. My family were called “backyard breeders”, the scum of the earth, terrible greedy thugs who made money out of their innocent pets and caused the deaths of hundreds of dogs in animal shelters.

I certainly did not think of my family in that way, but some of their points made sense to me. There is a pet overpopulation, and there are perfectly good pets in the shelters. It seemed to me that the registration should mean something more than an elevated price tag. On the other hand, I still wanted dog breeding to be part of my life, and a part of my children’s lives. I didn’t think it was right either, that the only people influencing the future of dog breeding were supposed to be either the independently wealthy breeders or the hap-hazard ignorant masses whose dogs end up in the shelters, or that the only dogs available were supposed to be the extremely expensive show winners ($800 is considered cheap) or the gamble with a shelter or rescue. In any case, I decided that maybe jumping the hoops and trying to be a reputable AKC breeder was the answer.

AKC Dog Shows
Popular opinion holds that the only purebred dog worth looking at comes from the AKC (other registries such as the CKC and APR, we are told, are simply ways for backyard breeders or worse, puppy mills, to claim that their dogs are worth more money).  The AKC, the American Kennel Club, focuses on conformation shows, where dogs are compared to their breed’s standard of perfection and judged by how close they resemble that perfect dog. Perfection is impossible, and if it ever is reached, the standard will be readjusted so that over time the breed will be “improved”. Conformation shows are not beauty pageants, the AKC folks stress. The dogs are judged on their personalities as well as looks, and the standards were written originally with traits that made them better fit to their purpose. For instance, the shape of a dog’s legs might mean it is a better runner, which makes it better able to hunt or herd sheep. The dog’s color proves that it is a pure dog and has not been outcrossed with some other breed that show different features. Dog shows were originally intended as a way to evaluate breeding stock—only the best dogs, the winners of the shows, are supposed to be bred.

The UKC (United Kennel Club) is something of a gray area. Some consider it another “scumball registry”, while others  find it legitimate. It registers more breeds than the AKC and places more emphasis on working abilities. The AKC sponsors shows besides conformation shows, from herding trials to agility to obedience, but the UKC places much more importance on those competitions. Its conformation events are more low-key (partly because they ban hiring professional handlers to show your dog for you), which make them more enjoyable for newcomers to visit.

I went to several shows, both AKC and UKC, and I checked out books and tried to puzzle out the complicated point systems. I was proud of my new knowledge, and I thought it would be exciting to use it to prove myself and the dog I might get were champions, but there was one big draw back: money. The entry fees are not huge, but they add up. It is not possible to get a championship without winning at least three shows, but that would be ridiculously lucky—ten to twenty wins would be more likely, and even the greatest dogs do not win every show they enter. In the area I lived at the time, there were two shows a year. In order to “finish” a dog, I would need to travel across the country, week after week. Besides travelling costs, you need grooming equipment, crates, leads, travelling equipment for dogs. This path, I found out, is not an option for those who are not independently wealthy, or for those who have priorities besides dogs such as family, friends, work, religion, or other activities.

Farm Collies
While at college I also started researching homesteading and hobby farming. I loved the idea of raising and making most of our own products and becoming truly independent. What could be more satisfying than raising sheep, spinning the wool into yarn, and crocheting it into finished products, I wondered. With my interest in farming, I naturally started to turn toward herding dog breeds. At first this meant the usual AKC breeds, the Belgian shepherds or perhaps an Australian shepherd. Then I stumbled onto a different dog breed, one that was regesterable only with the UKC but not the AKC—the English shepherd. This was the dog that worked on farms in the olden days, the dog that would herd the sheep, guard the fences, kill the vermin, and babysit the children on his days off. This was certainly the dog for my someday farm, I decided.

The English shepherd folks are quite critical of the AKC. You can’t tell a dog’s worth by its appearance, they say. The AKC is just a bunch of judgmental aristocrats. It’s cruel to put a dog through all the stress of a conformation competition in order to judge them on looks alone. My dog would have been disqualified because  the white mark on his neck touches the white mark on his head, and that two inches of white fur might have scared the sheep, a dog owner says sarcastically. I remembered some of the people at the AKC shows I met who snapped at me because I brought a stroller that might distract their dogs, or because I extended my hand toward a dog and might have petted it and mussed his fur. Aristocratic jerks indeed, I agreed.

When I moved to a new state, a search for dog breeders in this area lead me to discover another branch of farm dogs—the Scotch collie. The Scotch collie and English shepherd folks don’t get along very well—the English shepherd people say that the Scotch collies are a recent attempt to recreate a breed that is already extinct, while the collie folks pull out their pedigrees and insist that their founders were truly the original collie dog of Lassie fame. In any case, the Scotch collie people claim to be the true collie, the collie that lived on old farms before people turned away from “regular dogs” and started focusing on show animals. It was while looking at the difference  between these dogs that I began to realize what purebred dogs really are.

The Problem with Purebreds

The AKC, as I’ve stated already, believes in “improvement”. They took the working collie and began to emphasize some of his physical features, such as his long coat and pointed nose. They did this over and over, always improving, until they obtain the modern collie. Some animal experts call this dog a “brainless ice-pick”, a dog with such a long pointed face that it has no room for brains, eyes so small that many are born blind, and a huge coat that takes hours to comb. This is improvement.  Their hunters can’t hunt. Their sheep dogs can’t even see the sheep through the fur on their faces. Many of their smaller dogs, intended to be pets, take more hours to groom than a bride on her wedding day. Some dogs have such strange shapes that they cannot breed unless their handler holds them in place, while others cannot give birth without C-section because of the shape of their heads. This is the “reputable breeding” that our popular culture commends. When diseases started springing up, caused by this improvement, the AKC began genetic testing, filtering out the dogs that carry certain defects and reducing the gene pool even further.

The AKC accelerates these kind of problems by emphasizing extreme physical characteristics, but all purebred registries have inherent problems. If you look at the genetics, over time all populations tend to become more and more uniform. This means that any genetic defects will become more common over time, especially those that can be carried on recessively, so that a healthy individual can have children with these problems. In nature, this is overcome by having such a large population that random changes in genetic information happen as fast or faster than the uniformity, creating a constantly changing, constantly balanced, ultimately healthy population. Purebred registries create difficulties by shrinking the population size, which means that the uniformity (especially when dogs are selected to be more and more alike) will happen faster than changes, and defects become more and more common.

In her fascinating book, Animals in Translation, animal psychology expert Temple Grandin explained,

People probably put much more constructive selection pressures on mutts. A mutt who bites people, or who destroys the house by chewing everything in site, has an excellent chance of being sent to the pound or put to sleep. That means his genes will be removed from the gene pool. Just about the only mixed-breed dogs who get to reproduce are the ones who are well adapted to living with people—and good at getting out of the yard… With purebred dogs the selection pressures are completely different, and a lot of them are negative… This is just a theory, but there’s plenty of evidence on the emotional and behavioral problems of purebred dogs versus mixed breeds to support the hypothesis that the selection pressures on mutts are more constructed. For one thing, mutts are physically healthier…Mutts are also more likely to be emotionally stable…Purebreds were responsible for the large majority of fatal dog bites, not mutts. “Animals in Translation”, Temple Grandin, pp. 82-83

I would like to see more dog breeders who use practical traits more than pedigrees and physical appearances to mold their ideal dogs. Chickens and a few other livestock breeds have an open registry, which means that individuals are registered by their traits alone and not by their pedigrees. As of this writing, Scotch collie breeders have an open registry. Another good group is the American Working Farmcollie Association, which will register dogs based entirely on their herding, hunting, and guarding abilities. Other working associations have other groups.


I don’t have all of the answers. A lot of times, finding new information brings more questions than it does solutions. I think I’ve come up with some resolutions for myself, but I cannot claim to have the answers for the entire species, or for the entire culture. My hope is that I can share what I have learned and let others continue their own research and come to their own conclusions.