In a recent interview, I was asked why I referred to the dog, a pivotal character in Wilderness, as "it." And, as I have been so very often this last year of seeing my first novel published, I was very, very lucky that this was a telephone interview else the interviewer would've seen the color fall out of my face. They would've seen me open and close my mouth while goggling my eyes like a landed fluke and they would've known, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I had no idea how to answer the question.
I'd never much thought about it. Wilderness tells the story of Abel Truman and his dog and, all through the book, I refer to the dog as "it." Not "he" or "him" but a gender-neutral pronoun that does nothing so much as distance the reader from the character of the dog. And the dog is an important character in the book, second only to Abel himself. So why would I do this?
It made me think a bit about my process—my way of getting a story on paper—and I realized that much of what I do I've done by instinct. I let my gut tell me how a scene should play out and I let my gut tell me why one word might serve me better than another. I let my gut tell me why one character responds to another in the way they do (which so often surprises me that it makes outlining a Thing I Cannot Do). It becomes a matter of trusting my gut to get the words to string out along the page in sentences that make sense and that come together, somehow, to tell a story. If I rarely know the next word before my fingers stab it out over the keyboard, then where does that word come from? I don't have a good answer to that and, frankly, I'm unwilling to dig too deeply into the question for fear of spoiling something that ought not be spoiled; some little cantrip of sympathetic magic that really shouldn't be examined too closely.
Hemingway had a trick to get him going. He'd stop his day of work when he knew what the next thing should be. Sometimes he'd quit in the middle of a sentence and then, when he sat down to it the next day, he'd know what was supposed to come next and would let that impetus carry him onward. For me, this was excellent advice—probably the best I've read and it's what I do. A little trick to fool myself into thinking I know what I'm doing because a perfectly blank page is a monstrous void that scares the hell out of me and I like to stay busy. Beyond all that, I know how lucky I am to have the opportunity to do this—to write and be read—after so long a struggle and know, also, that whatever resonates in Wilderness does so because I was able to trust my gut.
To answer the question about the dog: it comes down to character. In this case, Abel's character. After all the tragedy of his life, the idea of getting close to someone—even a dog—is too much for his heart to bear. So, throughout Wilderness, Abel believes he's keeping the dog at arm's length when, in reality, everything he does, he does out of affection for it. And, by referring to the dog as "it" throughout the narrative, I was trying to depict that relationship in a deeper, more graceful way than simply stating it.
At least that's what my gut tells me I was doing.