I'm in North Dakota at the moment, preparing to give a reading at the University of North Dakota's "Humanimal" writing conference. I've already heard a wonderful talk by Hal Herzog, author of "Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat" (in which I had to answer the question "would you save your dog or a stranger from being hit by a car?" I won't reveal my shameful answer, but let's just say I had company in my moral ambiguity...).
I also heard a wonderful reading by Pam Houston from her latest book, "Contents May Have Shifted", whose very form echoes the title: she wrote the book in a series of 144 small chapters, then spent two years rearranging those chapters to create a progressive story. I felt immediate writerly kinship: I can spend hours, days, years shuffling around small bits until they coalesce into a form I could never have envisioned with my mind alone.
Today I'll be on a panel about "meeting animals on their own terms" (in which, I expect, the only thing I'll have to say is that animals have not yet expressed to me "their terms," have not proferred a contract for me to sign), and I'll give a reading of two dog essays from my latest book of essays, Listening Against the Stone: "Blessing of the Animals" and "Our Daily Toast."
These two essays definitely do NOT meet animals "on their own terms." No, the animals in these essays are wholly behaving on my terms alone, and I don't apologize for that. What made the writing of these essays so enjoyable, in fact, was the way the animal presence enabled me to go into a deeper understanding of my own story. This is what animals do for us, in writing and in life.
|Abbe smiling after neck surgery|
"Our Daily Toast" started as a letter I wrote to a few friends while on writing retreat at The Whiteley Center on San Juan Island. The Whiteley Center is one of those places where writing happens. It doesn't happen "magically," or even enjoyably, most of the time (see my earlier post about the agony and the ecstasy of writing retreats), but it does happen, whether you think it is or not.
I know I have to have little tricks to keep me accountable when on writing retreat, and this time I'd promised to write a letter a day to my writing buddies.
On this day I'd done no writing at all. Well, I'd done the kind of writing that involves drinking lots of coffee and eating lots of snacks. The kind of writing that eeks out your brain into ugly dribbles on the page. The kind of writing that urges you to go take a walk instead, go into town, shop for clothes online, take a break—but you can't take a break because you haven't done anything yet to take a break from.
So 8:00 rolls around, and I still hadn't written the damn letter. I was grumpy. Mad at myself. I didn't think I'd have anything to say in a letter. But a promise is a promise. So I sat down and pounded out a confession: "Dear Kim: Today for no good reason I ate two slices of cinnamon-raisin toast at 9:30 a.m., a mere two hours since breakfast." This one line led me on a reverie about my love for toast, and my dog's love for toast (we are enablers in the toast realm, she and I), and then it became about something I didn't know was lurking there beneath the crumbs: a history of love and the small things that bind us to one another.
I wrote the letter quickly, and it turned almost verbatim into the essay "Our Daily Toast." Which just goes to show: it pays to keep your promises. It pays to have a form (in this case: the letter) to get you onto the page. It pays to have a little dog waiting in the wings, ready to show you something that has been obvious to her all along.
"Blessing of the Animals" was also written at Whiteley, a few years earlier. This time, my friend Lee had accompanied me, and while she worked industrially on her book of poems, I lazed about on the couch in front of the fire, doodling. (You're getting a pretty clear picture of my writing process by now: it involves an awful lot of avoidance and indolence....) Desperate, I turned to my notebook and typed up a small image that had been hiding there: a description of a moment with my then new little puppy, Abbe: "When I sit next to my dog Abbe just before she falls asleep, and I stroke her fine-boned head, she turns just enough so that her nose somehow nuzzles between my wrist and sleeve."
Being a new dog owner, I behaved much as a parent does with a new child, marveling at every little encounter. And I kept telling myself, "you can't write about your dog, no one wants to hear about your dog." But in the writing of that scene, for some reason, this line came out first: "Here's the first thing you should know."
It's a commanding line, with a commanding voice, and it puzzled me. The first thing you should know? Why? What's the second thing, then? and the third? What is it we really need to know?
With this strange voice as my guide, the long essay gradually unfolded, using an extended scene of bringing my dog to the Unitarian church to be blessed, interspersed with scenes from my childhood with animals. What I didn't expect is that this narrative arc would lead me inexorably to my father and the emergency heart surgery he needed to have at the same time I had acquired my dog. The two strands come together in the end, as Abbe knew they would.
Again, the lesson I keep learning in my writing: let the writing itself tell you what you need to know. Turn to it again and again, even when you feel like a total loser (maybe especially then). You never know what kind of voice may emerge. You never know what animals wait there, ready to guide you in the dark.