Julie Barton Q&A

September 23, 2019
Julie Barton's memoir about her dog's therapeutic qualities resonated with a global audience.

“I don’t write from nine to give, that’s for sure. In a perfect world I’d leave my house twice a month, go to a cabin in the woods with no Wi-Fi or cell service and write for 48 hours, sleeping here and there. I often find that my inspiration kicks in around 10 p.m.”

What was your writing process like for Dog Medicine?

I tried to write Dog Medicine as a novel first. I never intended to write a memoir because I didn’t want to sit down and write about my personally traumatic, shameful, and confusing times. But great literature and art tell the truth. So I took a deep breath and started writing about my life. I began by writing one vivid memory at a time, not trying to fit anything together.

And how long ago was this?

I started writing Dog Medicine in 2010 and I posted on Facebook in 2012 that I was almost done. Of course I wasn’t even close to finished. It would take at least two more years of editing and refining before the book took shape. I had to figure out how to share the events and weave the emotional veracity of the moment onto the page. That took a long time and many deleted and rewritten pages.

Do you write in bursts or long stretches?

I don’t write from nine to give, that’s for sure. I don’t write every day. In a perfect world I’d leave my house twice a month, go to a cabin in the woods with no Wi-Fi or cell service and write for 48 hours, sleeping here and there. I’d write late into the night, sometimes all night. I often find that my inspiration kicks in around 10 p.m. if I’ve been writing all day. But with kids, I’ve had to learn how to write in shorter blocks. I started writing Dog Medicine when I had a three-year-old and six-year-old. There wasn’t much time for contemplating. They are 12 and 15 now and there’s still not much time to write and think in long, quiet stretches. I went away a few times and those solo retreats changed everything.

Do you break up the writing?  

I take long breaks in between writing different scenes and sections, not because I really want to, but because I just process the work slowly. My deep realizations come in distant fits and starts. Sometimes I will go weeks, even months, without any actual writing, but my mind will be working out something deeper. I’ve been writing for fifteen years now and lately answers are coming to me in dreams. This is deep, subconscious mining; sometimes it’s dark for a while.

Do you find the process of examining your life enjoyable?

Looking deeply inward is just part of who I am. I’ve always been curious about feelings, about why I feel a certain way, about why someone else acts the way they do. I’m fascinated by the fact that our thoughts truly do control how we feel and behave. I might have this deep curiosity because of childhood trauma, but it might also just be how I’m wired. Some people have trauma and their coping mechanism is to never look inward for fear of what they’ll find. Neither is right or wrong—they’re just different coping strategies.

Was it difficult to write about the painful events you’ve had in your life?

There’s a quote from Brene Brown that I like: when you turn away from your story it owns you. When you turn toward it you own it. The older I got, the more I realized that what I went through at age 22, collapsing with a severe and nearly deadly depression, wasn’t indulgent or embarrassing. It was urgent and scary and, in a way, deeply beautiful. I wanted to reframe the collapse as a brave act of vulnerability. I finally asked for help. I finally gave myself space to feel what was there. It was empowering for me to write about my collapse. I wanted to understand what happened. What did I go through? You can go through something hard like clinical depression and think, well that sucked, I want to forget it. But I found writing about my collapse enormously healing. It made me realize that the real power and the real strength lies in the love. You can’t have happiness without sorrow. To live your life to avoid sorrow is like living your life to avoid happiness.

You have to have one to have the other.

I think so. I’m a strong believer in feeling whatever you’re feeling, and it’s all good. There’s no wrong way to feel. There’s no wrong way to wake up in the morning. There’s no judgment. That’s why dogs are so freaking fantastic, because they don’t judge—they just love.