By Shahnaz Radjy
After moving to a farm in rural Portugal about a year ago, I have a newfound appreciation for nature. I don’t mean the kind of awe that is common when you go see something epic such as the Falls of Iguazu or the Grand Canyon.
What gets me are the little everyday details: the difference between early morning light and golden hour at dusk. The resilience of flowers or plants that suffer from me forgetting to water them or a goat taking a bite out of them. New leaves and flowers popping up all the time.
Beyond that, I recently realized that surrounding myself with animals – goats and puppies in particular – has taught me some valuable lessons about being a writer.
Writing Lessons from Sneaky Goats and a Mischievous Puppy
Here are five of the lessons I have learned from our goats, primarily Meli the leader of the pack, and Mojito. He is our energy ball of a mutt who has severe “Fear Of Missing Out” (FOMO) and is three parts unconditional love, one part merdog, and one part protector of the farm realm.
1. Be unapologetically you.
Meli – the blue-eyed troublemaker – was one of our four original goats. We had planned to tie the goats to posts that we could move around daily, to make sure they grazed without eating our fruit trees. Meli wasn’t having any of it. She broke three chains before we stopped tying her up. Eventually, our goats taught us to let them free range.
Meli is the goat that will always find a way to eat what she shouldn’t, breaking into the chicken coop for the tasty grain, or squeezing her head through a fence to nibble on a young tree. I cannot resent her for being exactly herself, for she is nothing if not consistent.
When it comes to writing, anytime I try to write an article or a chapter that doesn’t fully resonate with me, I get stuck. Knowing what triggers such a block is useful.
Hopefully, I can become a better writer by embracing narratives that align with my values and beliefs. It’s well accepted that you shouldn’t write what you think your audience wants to read. Instead, write what you have to say, or the book you wish existed, and let things build from there.
2. Don’t take no for an answer.
When I am sitting at the computer, Mojito often runs in and comes straight to me, putting his nose under my arm and nudging it so that there is no doubt about his message: “Pay attention to me, preferably by rubbing my belly or scratching my favorite spots!”
I often indulge him, but I also say no – which he understands all too well. Except he’ll wait for a few seconds before he comes back with his puppy dog eyes and nudges me again, more gently. Three out of four times, I forget that I said no a minute ago, and start scratching him just the way he likes it. Trickery! Subterfuge! But also respect. He gets what he wanted with gentle insistence.
As a writer, goodness knows there will be No’s all over the place. Whether it means your writing isn’t a good fit or that something needs to be revisited to improve the words on the page, it is up to you to keep at it and write, write, write.
Arianna Huffington got rejected 37 times before her second book deal. Similarly, many people we consider famous had to fight tooth and nail to get there, collecting rejections along the way.
3. Try everything once.
Building on what her instinct tells her is safe to eat, Meli will taste almost anything before deciding if she likes it or not. So will Mojito. Neither has any qualms about spitting out something that’s not to their taste.
With my writing, I still feel like a rookie (and in many ways, I am – the learning curve never ends). What do I know about what I like or am good at? Romance, science writing, social media management, fantasy, short stories, poetry – I think I know, but I will give anything and everything a chance. That’s how my writing muscles get a workout, and my writing personality is taking shape.
Who knows? Perhaps I only love reading fantasy and am better suited to write memoir-based pieces (or vice versa). In that same vein, when a friend suggested working through Ursula LeGuin’s “Steering the Craft” book about writing, it felt forced and unnatural.
Two chapters later, I was asking myself where these writing exercises had been all my life! Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.
4. Life is better with a tribe.
Mojito knows how to entertain himself, but his energy is completely different now that we have a second puppy, Castanha. They play together for hours on end, matching each other as they tumble about. Now when he’s with us, Mojito is up for playing but he’s also happy to just relax.
On the goat front, Meli is fiercely independent, but if you take her away from her herd, she hates it. They are her comfort zone, their presence enables her to be mischievous. Without them, she’s just a lonely goat.
As Phil Tucker put it in a recent interview, it’s only when he found a community of writers he could connect to and learn from that the clouds parted with regards to the business of writing. Why reinvent the wheel or go at it alone when everyone knows it takes a village?
Find your people, online or in person. I still have a way to go, but my crew of writing buddies is slowly but surely growing.
5. Find your voice, and use it.
Our puppy has different barks depending on what he’s trying to get across. The pitch changes entirely if he’s trying to get Castanha to share a bone with him versus if he’s chasing a shadow in the night. Meli is also vocal. For example, if we’ve left the herd in the barn for too long and they are itching to get back to their free ranging, she uses one voice. She will also bleat differently if she loses the herd or if she wants us to pay attention to something.
What does your voice sound like, and what will you say with it? I am still figuring out what my different styles are in writing, but for that, to work, I have to use my voice, not just think about what it might sound like.
In an age when concepts such as “Impostor Syndrome” are so commonplace, I count my blessings – including goats and puppies. They allow me to dream up all sorts of stories to share with the world, in my own voice, while (almost) always staying grounded.
Share Feedback: We’ll All Learn
- In what unexpected places have you found lessons that apply to your writing?
- What lessons did you learn?
Someone, please tell me they also learned from a goat (or chicken)!
Post Scriptum: The good news is that we’re renovating our farm and hope to have space for guests as of next summer, so you can come to visit to get your own piece of this puppy and goat wisdom.
Shahnaz is an adventurer, foodie, bookworm, and horse-lover. She is a freelance writer based in Portugal as well as the co-founder of an eco-tourism project. Alumni of the World Economic Forum and the University of Pennsylvania.
Shahnaz has lived in Geneva/Switzerland, Philadelphia/USA, La Paz/Bolivia, and New York/USA.
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