How Sassafras Lowrey Made Writing About Dogs a Career

The author and journalist on quitting a toxic day job and turning a passion into a new job.

How Sassafras Lowrey Made Writing About Dogs a Career

Narratively readers may remember Sassafras  Lowrey’s article “Confessions of a Misfit on the Dog Show Circuit,” and four-legged friends are a common theme in Lowrey’s writing. Just last year alone, Lowrey had three dog-related books published, including a finalist for the Dog Writers Association awards, and has another book, Chew This Journal, coming out this summer. 

Narratively: Tell us about Chew This Journal, your book that’s coming out this summer.

Sassafras Lowrey: Yes! It’s an activity book for people and their dogs. The book is designed to be interactive, a keepsake that you and your dog complete together. It has 100 activities, games, sports, crafts and adventures for you to do with your dog. I’m a Certified Trick Dog Instructor (CTDI), and one of my biggest passions in life is to help people live more intentionally with their dogs and have more fun together. I have taken some of my favorite games and skills to do with dogs and broken them down into activities that almost any dog and person can do together. The way I see it, sharing our life with dogs is a privilege and an honor, and I hope the activity book will inspire readers to spend more intentional and fun time with their dogs.

Narratively: This is the fourth book – after Tricks in the City, Healing/Heeling and Bedtime Stories for Rescue Dogs – that you will have published in the past two years. What tips do you have for writers trying to juggle creating and promoting multiple books at once?

Lowrey: It’s not a strategy that works for every writer, but I love writing and working on multiple book projects at the same time. I find that the diversity of writing these books, in addition to my freelance writing, helps keep me from getting bored or frustrated with any one project, and jumping between different writing styles helps to keep me creatively sharp and engaged. 

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Narratively: In “Confessions of a Misfit on the Dog Show Circuit,” you wrote about finding your place as a queer person in the dog show circuit. How has this experience influenced the type of writing that you want to do?

Lowrey: I have the word “Paradox” tattooed across my chest and that feels like the truest and most authentic word when it comes to my writing life. My first four books were queer books, one nonfiction and three fiction. To a lot of people, I was only a queer writer. At the same time, I started doing more dog-oriented writing for various magazines. Over the past couple of years I have developed more of a balance between my queer writing and my dog writing. My Patreon is focused on my writing life but also is primarily where I place my queer fiction; a lot of my writing in other places has shifted to centering dogs. 

My book Healing/Heeling felt like the total blending of my queer writing and my dog writing, which was a fun challenge. I’m also working on a forthcoming gay dog lover’s novel, so I do continue to genre-bend and blur with my work in a variety of ways.

Narratively: Healing/Heeling is a hybrid and experimental memoir, which jumps between prose and more poetic structures, where you explore your past traumas and your relationships to dogs. What drew you to write this book in an experimental format?

Lowrey: I feel like every story I write has a journey that is unique in terms of where it goes, how it finds its way into the world, and the structure that I use. A few years ago I did a hybrid/experimental writing workshop which I found quite inspiring and from there developed the initial drafts of the title piece. Utilizing an experimental format was so attractive to me because It created an opportunity to develop imagery on the page. As I constructed a narrative around my journey through dog sports, I was able to include “course maps” on the page not as illustrations but actually as part of the stories. 

In her new memoir, In The Dream House, Carmen Maria Machado writes about her use of a fractured structure for the book being a natural way to write about abuse, survival and trauma. I found the same to be true while writing Healing/Heeling. The experimental format freed me from conventions of writing, which enabled me to capture what a PTSD panic attack feels like, and on the opposite side, explore the profound joy that I experience when working with dogs. 

Narratively: In the introduction of Healing/Healing one line that jumps out is “Dogs are what saved me again and again.” Can you tell us more about that?

Lowrey: Over the last 35 years, dogs have been the consistent joy in my life. I grew up in an extremely abusive and controlling home and spending time with dogs was the one escape. Being with my dog, and later training extensively and competing in dog sports, was what gave me the strength to speak the truth about the abuse of my childhood and to run away when I was 17 years old. 

As I struggled to come to terms with the trauma I had survived, I worked with a medical alert PTSD service dog who was instrumental in my healing journey. 

For the last 16 years, I’ve been able to build a beautiful life with my partner where our dogs (and cats) are our kids and the center of our life together. 

Narratively: You just completed your MFA in creative writing from Goddard College. Do you have any advice for writers who want to tackle a Master’s degree?

Lowrey: Two years ago I quit my job and career in nonprofit management. I was incredibly burned out and exhausted from the stress and violence of the work I had been doing for nearly a decade. I had been writing books on the side, on my subway commute and on lunch breaks at the bubble tea shop. I was using my vacation time to tour with books and to teach community writing workshops, and did some freelance writing on evenings and weekends. The pace wasn’t sustainable but I was very nervous about leaving not just my job but also my career. 

So I decided to take a structured two-year sabbatical in the form of an MFA and try to grow my writing business. My thought at the time was that the worst-case scenario would be that after two years I would have to go back to working in nonprofits. In the end, my writing business took off and I’m able to continue writing full-time now that I have graduated. 

My biggest advice for writers who are thinking about pursuing a creative writing degree is to do your research about what program you pursue, and really know why you are going back to school and what your goals are. 

Narratively: What’s next for you?

Lowrey: My first article in the New York Times actually ran in early February. I’m working on two dog-focused novels, one for adults, and one for middle grade readers. I also have two LGBTQ+ novels that are under manuscript review with a publisher right now, and I am working on a nonfiction book about life lessons from my dog, Charlotte, a very special needs former street dog who passed away from cancer last fall.

This interview has been condensed for clarity