As a blind teacher in a public school, I am a rarity. Add to that my role as a guide dog handler and my ability to write well, and I find myself uniquely positioned to make a major difference in this world. What should that look like? How can I make the most of it? What can I do that would change the lives of others while simultaneously buoying my own confidence, knowledge, and satisfaction? The answer is the heart of this project: write and edit the first ever anthology of true stories featuring working dogs and their handlers, and publish that book in the mainstream press.
It came as a shock that a full-length collection of stories featuring service dogs has not yet been published. I myself am currently paired with my third guide dog and could fill volumes with the stories of joy, frustration, surprise, sorrow, humor, and victory that my dogs have led me to encounter. I am one person only. Why should the words of the thousands of disabled handlers and their incredible canines remain unspoken? They should not, so I will be their voice.
Stemming from the profound nature of the human/canine connection, stories about dogs abound in the media, on the internet, and in conversation. Books about dog training, health, nutrition, and thinking patterns are abundant. I believe that a book dealing with the unique and remarkable connection of people with disabilities to their working dogs would be embraced by the public. And, the kind of light such a book could shed on the experiences of disabled people could only foster change and hope for a community that too often has too little of either commodity.
While much of the writing could occur via computer from my home, travel would be required for some aspects of the project. I may need to see agents or publishers in person, usually in the New York area. Service dog schools and puppy raising groups are scattered around the nation; one-on-one visits could be beneficial. Attendance at disability conferences and conventions would help during all phases of the project. Follow-up publicity events might take me places I can’t even imagine right now. All of the travel would be made easier with the help of a nondisabled companion to share the adventure.
The project itself would have many phases with the bulk of my work occurring during the two summers and at least one day a week during the school year. With the help of an assistant, I will set up an interactive web site where trainers, puppy raisers, and disabled service dog handlers can contact us. They will have two options: to submit written stories subject to my editing, or to provide contact info so I can interview them and write their stories from scratch, eventually providing complementary copies of the book as payment for those whose stories end up in the final manuscript. I will publicize the project by tapping media sources, disability organizations, and the various working dog schools that turn out human/canine partnerships on a regular basis. This will enable people from all over the nation and perhaps the world to have the chance of being included in the book.
At the same time, I will research literary agents to find one who believes in the project as much as I do. For nonfiction books, a formal twenty-page book proposal must be crafted and presented to publishers, prior to the actual writing of a book. My assistant and agent will help me prepare this document to make it the best sell possible for the publishers. Once the agent is on board and a formal book proposal is ready, I will work tirelessly until we find a publisher willing to sign on and publish the book. The agent will have the inside track on which publishers would be most receptive to the book proposal, so I hope for a smooth progression of steps during this portion of the process.
As the stories and contacts pour in, my creative writing students can become part of the screening procedure, collecting stories and categorizing them according to projected chapters. As I interview people who are unable or unwilling to write their own stories, I will make opportunities for the creative writers to practice taking a smattering of details and creating flowing, cohesive, beautiful prose. Students also will see me doing the same thing for the anthology and will be able to compare their practice writing to what actually makes it into the book. They can assist in the editing as well. And, when the time comes to promote the book through public events and publicity campaigns, they will see differences being made as my book becomes a tool of enlightenment, hope, and acceptance for disabled people and their canine partners.
So many indicators will help me know the project is succeeding. Finding the ideal assistant and agent, crafting the perfect book proposal, creating the interactive web site, publicizing the project to the disability community, conducting my first interview of a service dog handler, sifting through the stories of disabled people from all corners of the earth, getting the phone call from that all-powerful publisher who can’t go another moment without signing me to a book deal, hearing the thwack of Labrador tails while my guide dog and another service dog from Arizona/Alaska/Africa nuzzle each other during one of my public events to promote the book, knowing my students were with me along the way and have learned and grown in the journey, being able to say to myself without reservation that I am proud of what I’ve done! Too many options for a multiple choice test that would gauge this project’s success, but so many opportunities to savor the possible outcomes! And maybe that fullest proof won’t come until I hold a copy of the book in my hand, sniff the freshly-inked pages, and know that my words and efforts have made a difference. Oh, that moment, and I might just become more of a flawed, fantastic, fulfilled human being along the way.