...for readers who love animals, and animal lovers who read!

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

How I Became a Canine Co-author

 by John Sheirer

Dogs have a special wisdom that makes them among the most beloved creatures on earth. Libby Speaks (written by Libby, as told to me) gives us a peek into the delightful doggie mind of Libby, our happy and lovable Border Terrier. Libby Speaks features more than 100 photographs of Libby as a backdrop for her to share her wisdom and life lessons.

When I appeared on a local radio show recently to promote the book, the host looked at the cover, smiled, sighed, and said with affected seriousness, "John, you seem to be a mentally healthy person. And Libby seems like a wonderful dog. But Libby … is a dog. You do know that dogs can't write, don't you?"

He winked at me, and we both laughed. I enjoy speaking about Libby as the book's author. Of course, I know that dog's can't write in the sense of grasping a pen or directing their paws along a computer keyboard. But that doesn't mean they can't inspire. And what is writing if not inspiration? 

Libby's collaboration with me began even before she came to our home. When we first visited her and her siblings at the breeder, Libby's curiosity, bravery, and joy began "speaking" to my wife Betsy and me right away. She let us know that she was small, but we shouldn't hold that against her.

Libby quickly grew in size and in the space she took up in our hearts and home. And her communication with us also grew. Each day, she taught me something new about how to approach life with a renewed spirit and enthusiasm--a lesson all humans need on a regular basis.

When I woke up tired, she pulled me along until I was running alongside her in the cool morning air. When I found myself preoccupied with the abstract concerns of my job or current events, she curled against my leg with her tail wagging like a crazed metronome, reminding me not to take life so seriously. When I was recovering from knee surgery, she gently climbed into my lap to let me know that a warm friend was even more therapeutic than an ice pack. When I was happy, as I usually am, she reminded me how right I was to enjoy life and be kind to those around me.

My writing specialty is the personal essay, digging into my experiences with words the same way Libby digs into a snow bank with her strong little paws. I might search for insight while she digs for a buried stick, but our technique is similar. Oddly, Libby's presence in my life hasn't inspired many essays. But she has appealed far more to my visual-learner side. Her body language and facial expressions have communicated far more effectively than my words could capture.

I'd been taking pictures of her since we brought her home. I'm purely an amateur shutterbug, but some days I think that if I tossed the camera in the air, it would come back to earth with a dozen wonderful shots of Libby. That's an over-simplification, of course. The pleasure of digital photography is that there's no film to waste. I'm happy to take one thousand mediocre shots of Libby if that yields one good photo and one life lesson.

So instead of essays, I began searching for the shorthand messages she communicated through our photos. Sometimes her thoughts were crystal clear as the shutter clicked. Other times I wouldn't discover what she had been telling me until months later as I sorted through the cache of photos that filled my camera's memory card.

Throughout Libby Speaks, she rolls on the beach, romps in the snow, hikes through the woods, and shares her happiness with her human and canine family. Libby fully inhabits the pages as she contemplates the meaning of life, chews on a stick, or simply gazes in wonder at the big world around her. A little dog with a large life, soulful eyes, haystack fur, and crooked tail, Libby provides both the photographic and philosophical focal point of the book. She's my coauthor in every sense of the word. We couldn't make these books without each other.

Photographing and transcribing her messages has been my pleasure, and I plan to keep doing so for as long as she keeps giving me material. I'm happy to report that she hasn't shown any signs of clamming up. Of course, I know that dogs can't actually talk, and Libby is no exception. But when I keep my mind open to what she has to tell me, I know this above all else: Libby Speaks.

John Sheirer is the coauthor and photographer of the book, Libby Speaks: The Wit and Wisdom of the World's Wisest Dog, as well as several previous books of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. He lives with his wonderful wife Betsy in Northampton, Massachusetts, and is a full-time faculty member teaching English and Communication at Asnuntuck Community College in Enfield, Connecticut. Libby and John welcome everyone to visit Libby's Facebook page for news about their lives and writing careers. John can also be found at his homepage.

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