This may be a strange compound question from me, as I have been capturing a story of my own for a few years. I think I’ve figured out a little more about why they are written, they seem to be therapeutic for the writer. In my case it just happened. Loss cracked me open and the words came out. I started smearing these memories on paper and while watching them dry I found that preservation made me feel little better. Discovery became compulsion and grew. The spirit of my dog led me down this new path and I just kept going…
Why do people want to read Memoir?
Often I wonder why do strangers read other people’s life stories. Many are tragic and share deeply painful moments. Are readers looking for a similar experience while hoping to gain some insight? Find hope? Learn something? Follow someone back from an edge? Does a common thread need to pull them together?
For me these questions will hang on lines – like yesterday’s laundry in today’s rain, waiting for tomorrow.
This former car dealership showroom turned brewery conference room was great for sitting amongst some kegs of aging beer and learning more about writing.
From the various handouts and prompts a few standout for me:
I chose from a list of Writing Quotes “I hate writing, I love having written.” –Dorothy Parker
From this choice I wrote:
I completely agree – I hated writing and all “English” classes all the way through school. Too many rules! I saved Writing 101 for my last class of my Twenty-Year Two-Year degree.
When life cracked me open after my dog died I started writing about her to preserve my memories. I love that.
Another exercise was to choose a utensil from a pile of spoons, forks and knives. I chose a damaged fork with an ornate handle.
From this I wrote:
My writing about life with Sarrah covers one part perfectionist, one part bent, another damaged and lastly ending realigned differently – All working together for a carved cause.
Some other prompts of interest to me were:
A turning point
Start with a line of dialogue/conversation
A group of talented people magically lift and pull me forward.
Different path’s led us to this place,
Different stories hold our attention,
Different words leave our hands.
The title carved in stone and polished through time “Writer” cannot be self-appointed, it is too heavy.
I belong with a tribe of writers – perhaps someday it will be earned.
I started writing about Life with my dog Sarrah a few months after she was gone.
It just happened, I never set out to write anything nor get this involved with it, but here I am. As if life cracked me open and the words just started coming out. I began writing daily for an hour or two, sometimes all day and even a few marathon weekends with little time for food or sleep, I did this for about a year.
I set my pen down the day that I learned people in the present run out of time for those who live in the past.
I went from keeping my binder with me at all times to leaving it on the coffee table.
Instead of writing daily, I maybe read it a little every other week and tweaked anything that I stumbled on. This went on for almost a year.
One day I decided to pick it back up and work through it. I made some “Draft Copies” and gave them to a few friends and family, noting that it was far from finished. I wanted to give it, to give Sarrah, some kind of life and protect the story from being lost.
Having never read Memoir I began attending writing conferences, seminars and classes a year ago. Learning to take my story apart, reworking it for Show not Tell is easier said than done, seems especially for me.
I understand that in the paper-thin chance this story of a Special Dog and an Old Boy ever becomes more than evolving pages in a weathered binder on my coffee table (and a bit on a blog) it will be run through normalizing software to Scrub out my Bad Habits, over-polish punctuation and trim off the rough edges… somehow making it no longer feel like it’s mine.
Perhaps what I’m writing is simply a record to be read aloud to an older version of me, staring out a window, trying to remember a life.
SOME PEOPLE ARE STILL ALIVE ONLY BECAUSE IT’S AGAINST THE LAW TO KILL’EM, so reads the sticker on a motorcycle helmet. Some sayings stick in your mind.
Like most days, the terrible ones start out and move along in the same old way… Until they tear your heart out and show it to you. January Seventh, Two Thousand Three, was one of those days. I came the closest I have ever been to punching a female in the face. I didn’t, but I still wrestle with my decision. Every time I share my twist on this experience I go into it knowing the risk, but then again anyone who thinks less of me for ‘this’ and cannot get over it, can go Ffff…. Kiss my Ass.
Years ago I discovered that I have “a bit of a temper.” It seems normal people get angry for a few hours: I get stuck there for a few days. I learned that it is nothing to be proud of and keeping it under control, is for the best. I also have a tendency toward being Vindictive, when properly motivated. These traits, combined with a good memory, create lasting residual demons that live in my head. The misfortune of this day lit my blood on fire, woke up these demons and let them out. Rage is not always a bad thing, we discovered that day.
Inadvertently, I walked Sarrah into a life-changing event, a fight she could not win. We were walking our typical after dark evening route, around the block across the street so as to utilize the sidewalks and streetlights. This night was like many others, nothing special. Walking on the time twisted concrete past a tall weathered wooden fence, a few old cars in a dark driveway and a scraggly hedge of overgrown rose bushes, put us directly in front of a winding narrow stone walkway to the open front door of a one story house. In the yard were two large dogs with thick fur, curled tails and huge heads. One was white, the other dark. With wide expressionless eyes, they immediately, quietly, came straight for us. Sarrah started to panic and kept turning quickly to look back and forth at them with bug eyes. I tried to speed up and keep her moving as they began to methodically circle us. A few steps later, the closest sniffed Sarrah for a few seconds and then with swift silence, sunk its teeth into her hindquarter and hung on. Quiet air filled with a wounded shriek and ongoing crying sounds of excruciating pain. With no thought, I attacked the Offending dogs. I quickly Kicked! the second dog as it was moving in, two maybe three times as hard as I could in the ribs and stomach. Thankfully, it just walked away. I then dropped to one knee, punching on my way down, kneeling I Hit, Hit, and Hit the attacking dog in the eye area five to ten times. I was probably yelling, I do not recall. It finally let go of its bite hold on Sarrah and walked away. I assume that these dogs were more confused than hurt and were probably just regrouping from their crazy human experience. It seems that the noise from all of this strife eventually woke up someone in the house, to get up off the couch near the doorway. This tall person filled the backlit doorway about twenty feet from the sidewalk and appeared to stagger around.
“Send me the bill.” That’s all that she said. The dogs turned and quietly came in at her command. We walked down the sidewalk a few yards, to get away from that house so I could look Sarrah over. A neighbor who had just driven home, hopped out of his pickup and yelled at her, “It Fuck’n Happened Again!” I checked Sarrah out, the bite was into muscle and bleeding, but she could walk. While looking her over I spoke with this stocky guy around my age, we talked a bit about what happened and then walked her home.
It was almost six o’clock when I started calling local vets. One answered and told me “We’re closed” and that they “could not help.” I replied, “Then why did you answer the phone?” and slammed it down. After a few calls and phonebook searching I found what I was not prepared for. My day ended with taking Sarrah into the vile blend of disinfectant and urine stained twenty-four hour emergency veterinary hospital in Auburn. It was deemed that they had to perform some torturous repairs and keep her overnight. I had to leave her in this concrete warehouse filled with caged cries and howls of despair.
Following a mostly sleepless night, I picked her up as early as I could the next morning. She was drugged and out of sorts, but greeted me with a lone tail thump. Her body was shaved of some white and black fur with three “ports” of perforated surgical tubing connecting the bite wounds under her pink and black skin, extending out each blood-caked oozing side and sutured in place. A far-away voice explained that this was done so that a disinfectant solution can be flushed thru with a syringe to clean them out, to avoid infection, as damage heals. Sarrah’s glazed brown eyes closed as I carried her outside.
After I got her comfortable in the safety of her garage, I typed up a brief letter and returned to that house. No one answered the doorbell or knocking, so I taped it to the door and left. It read:
“Dear Akita Owner,
Please mail a reimbursement check (see attached) for the emergency veterinary work performed on my dog, due to the attack by your two dogs last evening. I will mail any subsequent bills incurred by this event.
This entire situation is unfortunate and disturbing as we were merely walking on the public sidewalk, obeying the leash laws. The vehicles in your driveway, combined with a lack of light made it impossible to see your unattended dogs until we were in front of your house—at which point they attacked.
For the future safety of all people and pets in our neighborhood, I hope that you no longer allow them to wander freely.
An apology from them at this time would have just pissed me off, more.
I would rather live in a world where people take care of their own problems, not by simply punching three numbers on a phone. A favored saying of my friend Jeff is “Nobody likes a Squealer”, though I completely agree, I did. As I thought it over… Most people would not be dumb enough to fight with dogs, nor lucky enough to win. Anyone else walking Sarrah probably would have met with a different ending. Besides, years of experience on that street I had seen other dogs and kids walking them in the same area. I stewed on all of this for most of the day following the attack, argued with myself a little and then pulled the trigger. I decided that if another attack happened, whatever the outcome, it would “Be on Me”, so I broke my own rule and called.
That evening I answered the door for the Animal Control Officer, who to my surprise in our small town is also a Cop. She arrived in full police issue gear: jumpsuit, combat boots, vest, gun, handcuffs, pepper spray and all. I took her to Sarrah and told her what had happened, while she photographed the damage and made notes. She also strongly advised against fighting with dogs, suggested walking with pepper spray and something like a walking staff for the visual and physical defense as many times spray does not stop dogs in attack mode. Though not exactly how she advised, I have never walked unarmed, again. The officer was very sympathetic and nice to us, but she lied to me. As we spoke on the phone I stressed that I did not want the animals destroyed. But the instigator dog was confiscated later that night, detained for a few days of testing and then put down. Charges were filed. I also had no interest in pressing charges. I would have been okay with reimbursement, an official visit and the proverbial ‘slap in the face’ wakeup call that comes with it. I learned a valuable lesson; by making ‘the call’ I put our legal process in motion simply becoming part of “Citation No: 2003-096” and what I wanted, had nothing to do with it.
The process of flushing her ports two to three times per day for two weeks was excruciating, for me. I cannot imagine what it felt like for Sarrah, but she tried to stay still. I can’t imagine what she was thinking while I held her down and painfully cleaned her, but she seemed to know that I was helping her. Each time I got ready to clean her wounds she gave me a look that could tear a real human heart, if nothing else scar it. A few times this routine brought tears to my eyes, once vomit to the back of my tongue and always blood pressure that could kill. I held her and tried to comfort her after each cleaning, while my blood boiled.
The road of recovery also included a few trips to Sarrah’s regular veterinarian. She was never happy to go there, but whatever was done behind closed doors after the attack caused her to tremble when we went back. Even driving toward that general area caused her to be alarmed and wail, for the rest of her life.
The Animal Police Officer’s second lie came to light, I got subpoenaed for court. Being no stranger to court myself, mostly due to moments of youthful renegade wildness and heavy-footed tendencies, this was my first time as “Plaintiff”. I was not happy about being hauled into court twenty-nine days later, simply to say, “Yes, that is what I said happened.” People gathered in the large white overly lit silent courtroom, to wait in this place without windows and breathe controlled air. I sat on one of the hard dark wood benches in a section with people I recognized to be other residents of that street, including the guy who yelled at the woman that night. I guessed that these people were other witnesses to our trouble and possibly other problems. One quietly told me “Those dogs killed every pet we ever had.” Some of these people momentarily seemed a little pleased to be part of this event and offered solemn nods of approval.
The dogs belonged to arrogant examples of oxygen wasting beings; these average-looking middle-aged people were even a little cocky in the courtroom, talking with their eyes while sharing quick smirks and sarcastic grins before and after those in charge were paying attention. Court went very quickly. They plead guilty and said that they were “very sorry” in court, to the judge. More to my satisfaction we all heard the list of court ordered matters of compliance that these people were to do to keep their other dog:
- Reimburse me, (which they already had done).
- Rebuild their backyard fence, updating it to adequately contain “a potentially dangerous animal”.
- Post a ‘Beware of Dog’ sign on the front of their house.
- Muzzle their dog when walking it.
- No one under eighteen would be allowed to walk their dog.
- I think there was a fine as well, but I do not recall.
The scars that we carried with us after the battle with the dogs and their people, changed us. Sarrah’s physical scar tissue bothered her hip, even after time had passed. Massage could not completely remove the residual damage. Sarrah’s mental scar faded, faster than mine. After she healed, we did walk around that block, on the other side of the street, Armed, eventually Sarrah was no longer afraid of that area. We had a point to prove, I had a best friend to heal, and potential for who knows… Later I did forgive the dogs, after all they are genetically bred to quietly stalk and kill. But I did not, will not forgive their people. My mental scar still glows brightly, if something makes me focus on it. Mine is rage-based loathing for ignorant animals, in human form.
In fairness, Officer Jan is a good person who deeply cares for animals. She told me what I wanted to hear so that she could do her job and what she believed needed to be done. I am certain that she would be much happier if the actions of Dumb Animals would stop requiring their pets to be “destroyed.”
After a year or so of blatantly ignoring the court ordered requirements with in your face demonstrations (they were too lazy to walk often, so this was no big deal to me). I heard about another problem near that address. Their remaining dog attacked a Labrador Retriever being walked by a mother, carrying her baby in a papoose carrier. The woman was knocked down and her dog was hurt. History repeated and that Akita was put down, too. Soon after these idiots sold their house and moved away. Hopefully some kind of poetic shape shifting happened, trading places of sorts with these dogs and their humans.
Around this time, at the end of each day; before I went to bed I would say “Good Night” to Sarrah. In addition to normal evening chores, I rubbed her ears, touched my forehead to hers and whispered, “Every Day is a Gift.”
* * *
I decided to post this improved version of FUgly (I added [DRAFT] to the title of my first version). It made sense to me to have both versions for those interested in comparing them. This improved version came after having the group of writers that I spend Tuesday evenings with, “Workshop” it (read it in their spare time and have a group discussion on its strengths and weaknesses). This discussion and the returned copies with their notes helped me rework this chapter using some better words and sentences to weave in more details that living in the eye-of-that-storm makes it hard for me to see objectively. I did leave most of my usual ‘bent literary rules’… such as using Capital letters mid-sentence, to make words Bigger.
I’m sure this new version will continue to evolve… as I learn.
I must confess, I Never thought I’d be involved with blogging: not following any, nor especially having one.
I started my blog after listening to Nina Amir speak on “How to Blog a Book” at the 2013 Write on the Sound writers’ conference (another surprise from following the spirit of my dog down this writing trail). This trail is full of new experiences and literary adventures, most completely unforeseen to me, so I’m just going with it.
To back up a little, I always dreaded writing in school (hated might be more accurate). For my twenty-year – two-year college degree I took Writing 101 – last. From this class came something that I wrote called “What Happens”. Afterward I didn’t write much of anything until I needed something, something to help me while dealing with the loss of my dog dying. So I began what I call “Sharing Gifts with Sarrah”. This led me to taking classes, attending seminars, writing workshops and then blogging. I’m not sure about blogging etiquette or rules (which is just as well since I’d probably ignore them anyway), which leads to my motivation for this confession. I go back and edit parts of what I’ve posted about “Sharing Gifts with Sarrah”, mostly small tweaks, but edits all the same (I recently started tagging those significantly changed “Amended”). Blogging bits and chunks of the story actually forces me to make them better. I find that small improvements are needed to make a portion float on its own, rather than fall short. I also don’t Reblog. Certainly these edits go largely unnoticed, which is fine with me or at least has been until now.
I recently joined a Memoir Writing class, a group of writers (some of which are former classmates from the Hugo House) taught by Tara Hardy. The point you are looking for is that I turned in the chapter “FUgly” for the class to read and workshop in the next class on June 17th (Sarrah’s birthday). It is a difficult chapter that needs writing improvement. I reworked again it over a few days (and edited my post) prior to turning it in for critique. Certainly their feedback will lead me to many more improvements and yes more edits. Which makes me wonder if I’ll then repost it or perhaps make it be a new Version 2 (actually more like Version 5 or 7) for comparison. Who knows…
The true confession is that I don’t really know what I’m doing or maybe even Why, but I like it.
I took another Writing Class at the Hugo House,
“Asking The Right Questions: Self-Inquiry in Memoir” by Suzanne Morrison.
She started by having us write answers to the following questions and then share our answers.
– Write one sentence about the story we are or want to be writing. “My story is a reflection on learning about life, from living with a dog.”
– A memoir we love. “A Big Little Life by Dean Koontz”
– A song we love. “Into the Mystic by Van Morrison”
– A word we love. “Perhaps”
Then after some discussion about how to dig for questions and capturing feelings by writing about “Glimmers” (moments that cause recollection and reflection in sensory detail) we were given our first prompt.
1 – Write about a Glimmer that comes to mind that has occurred in 2014.
“Winter had many days shrouded in thick dense fog. The mysterious cool wet precipitation now causes my hip to sing with searing pain, before I even go outside. Walking in the fog makes me recall numbing pain from football hits, stinging burns from Kung Fu kicks and the flames from a car accident that I could not walk away from.
2 – Take one thing from your writing that links back in time, ten years or more.
“The slow motion of impacting into the side of a pickup came suddenly from the left. Deafening explosions of glass and metal distracted enough to not anticipate running into a little house on the right. Crunching wood replaced the sharp memory from a few seconds earlier, only to be erased by the fire where our windshield used to be. Laying in the mud watching the burning car with my feet still in it seemed like a fitting end, at least it was quiet.”
3 – Write about something from the second Glimmer that embarrasses you.
“Being an only child makes it easy to be your Mother’s favorite. A certain burden comes along with being the chosen one, one that does not allow for making bad choices. Choices that put you in the hospital after a silent ride in an ambulance, after a noisy life-changing event. Parents do not like life changing events in the early morning hours, on Mother’s Day.”
4 – Write about something that has happened to someone else that is tied to your last writing.
“My friend Dan decided not to wear his seatbelt, he never did. Driving too fast in the foggy drizzle to get home a little sooner seemed to him like the thing to do. The other older driver of the pickup shared that perspective and had a similar smelling breath.”
The next few were given as homework.
5 – Reminds you of a subject you’re interested in.
“I’ve always been drawn to cars, in particular muscle cars of the sixties. I also have what my grandfather called “A heavy foot” after my mom asked him how I did when he taught me to drive his pickup, the summer after sixth grade, on the gravel roads near his farm in North Dakota.
6 – Something that you don’t understand.
“Despite several documented examples of getting into trouble and a few painful episode’s resulting from traveling fast, I still have a love affair with the nasty bitch we call Speed. All forms of logic and punishment cannot seem to make me completely part with this mistress of blood rushing excitement and the tastes of adrenaline laced moments.
7 – Riff on one word or phrase that has potency.
“I still have a love affair with the nasty bitch we call Speed. I’m not sure what to do with this one but Love is a drug and perhaps so is Speed.”
Having spent most of my almost half-century of living in the Pacific Northwest has given me the experience of watching people crowd into an area.
Observing as humans wade through the economic tides and refine the process of developing land, starting with the easiest and taking steps into the more difficult and less desired parcels.
A sort of reckoning takes place. No change goes unpunished. Our natural environment has evolved over time into one that had its way of dealing with rainfall. As human needs replace what was, weather dictates what will be. The more hilly earth becomes smooth and paved, the more concentrated needs become for dealing with excess water when the rains fall.
An evolving complex formula has come about for building water retention sites. These man-made ponds are camouflaged scars to the earth. Displaying some examples of human bargaining with a blend of indigenous “natural plant-life” (cattails, grasses and trees) for wildlife and often some kind of appeal offering to the local payer of taxes (landscaping, trails and/or a park) to gain the right to develop, creating monuments to appease the gods of rain. These places of reckoning are hotly debated for long periods of time, constructed relatively quickly, celebrated briefly and then quietly slide into being largely ignored. Not Sarrah, she always spotted these places of reckoning and insisted that we investigate.
Two of these places evolved nearby in Sarrah’s lifetime.
The first one is located at the low point of a community college campus hidden behind a tennis court; it has a labyrinth of paved trails through trees and a bridge over the fluctuating pond. I recall reading that some college classes were involved in the layout designing and choosing plantings, some studies probably continue.
Another was constructed so that a three-field baseball park could be flat and dry. This park is behind our re-located local Post Office. The land was probably swampy pasture with some scrub trees and blackberry bushes before our International Airport grew making it too noisy for human habitation. This water management creation has a fenced-in small pond, a rocky “dry river bed” and a much larger water retention pond below (we saw it seasonally dry out and fill to the top). At times a choir of frogs fills the air with hypnotic notes. The trails here are simple paths worn in the grass by shortcutting kids and dogs with people.
When Sarrah discovered this place it became part of going to get my mail, the best part.
If it were up to Sarrah we would explore both of these typically quiet places on the same day, when freedom from commitments allowed, we did.