Basically I would like to be in a position where I need to refute claims that Mallow is making me a seven-figure income.
Tegan Moore, Etc.
It is hard, writing about writing when writing is 1) something you are still basically a novice at, and therefore probably not someone who should be looked to for anything akin to Writing Advice, and 2) mostly a long-played exercise in learning how to accept rejection.
I do not resent my rejection letters, because so many of them have been helpful. They point me towards what I need to be in order to not get rejections anymore, or at least to get fewer of them. I need to take greater risks using fewer words; I need to love my characters more; I need to cut deeper and with a surgeon’s eye instead of stabbing blindly in hopes I nick a vein. Useful stuff, and I do think I will get there. It’s just such a long slog, and I’ve no map, and I hate not knowing timelines.
It is easy to get mired in the slog. There’s never been any giving-up thoughts because that is impossible: for someone who writes out of my impulse, not from joy or love of the craft but a need to release pressure from a creative valve, the alternative is self-destruction, so I can’t really give up. But it’s easy to spend my writing time staring at Scientific American blog posts and pictures of puppies I might someday name and teach to do tricks and to worry bout my bank account. It’s easy to spend more time just laying in bed. Ten more minutes. Normal people don’t push themselves this hard. Wouldn’t it be nice to be normal?
November was particularly hard. Events conspired to suck simultaneously. I wished I was a badger, living by myself in a hole in the ground where no people or bad luck could find me. I didn’t write and I didn’t care.
My husband brought me to the desert. I’ve been to many deserts but this was Death Valley and unlike any desert I’ve been in before. Most deserts are alive and busy and full. This one was not. It was empty of everything save wind and salt and distant cliffs. It was desolate. There weren’t even many other tourists, so we had the whole damn empty nothingness to ourselves.
I loved it there. It felt so right.
I don’t know what it was about the particular quality of emptiness that filled me back up, but it was what I wanted. Laying out in the middle of nowhere under the blinding moon, looking at more stars than, literally, I have ever seen at once in my life, I was possessed by a spirit of stillness and possibility. It made me think about writing and why I do it. It made me think about how big things are and how good that makes me feel.
This desert lacks water, sustenance, shelter, life. It doesn’t need those things. That’s not what it is for. It’s for passing through. You would be a fool to try to change the place. Just shut up and look at all those fucking stars.
I did manage to carry this back into the real world—always the test of vacation epiphanies—as well as through some challenges and one near-tragedy that is not quite finished playing itself out. Seeing all that intentional, unavoidable emptiness gave me some sort of ballsy determination that’s a new, growing part of my personality. It surprises me. I like it. It’s useful.
I turned thirty-one in the desert. Most places you love—and I deeply loved Death Valley—you leave already planning your return, but do I need to go back? I don’t know. I don’t think so. The magic worked but I think it probably only works once.
Everyone else should go, though. Go to the desert. There’s some wonderful shit out there.
It’s somewhat rare to find a piece about the life and death of animals that is neither Just The Facts nor a Message. I read both of those kinds of writing with some frequency, but they never feel quite right, because my own experience seems so much more complicated. There are more than two ways to feel.
I am extremely late to this party–the article is from at least a month ago, if not two–but I couldn’t find a browser that would let me open it. That’s what I get for trying to do this at work.
The simplest and most-repeated piece of writing advice is to just write. This seems stupid, unless you’ve done some writing and have learned for yourself how easy it is to find alternatives to writing: research, building a social media platform (=trolling Facebook), “research,” rejiggering your website, editing, editing again, refreshing your inbox for submission confirmations/those edits your friend said they’d send today/the ever-anticipated not-rejection email that will never come. As often as I already hear the adage, I could probably stand to hear it again. And again. Daily. Writers write. Maybe they also obsess over Feed.ly but probably they don’t do it during their writing time. Or if they do, they feel bad about it.
I’ve heard this saying expanded by intelligent and successful writers: write, and keep writing, because the people who give up obviously never make it. It’s a good motivator, if a somewhat depressing one, because a lot of people who don’t give up must also never make it, right? Wait, is it better if I just give up now?
Still, what’s the alternative? So I keep writing.
This is a hard-enough proposition. Like many people with my interests (read: nerds), I’m prone to melancholy, so staying positive is not my first reaction when the friendly rejections with editor notes and the you-made-it-through-the-slush-pile-but-still-nope emails start to lose their novelty. But it’s okay. Karen Joy Fowler told me it took her something like eight years to get a story published. Connie Willis said it took her that long too. I’ve only been writing for half that time, and I doubt I’m starting with raw materials of the same quality, so: shut up and keep writing.
This post is actually about my dog. Thought I’d warn you now.
Making your first sale is a slow and painful and, often, long process, and to keep me afloat through this I’ve been focusing on short-term wins in a place where it’s a lot easier to judge them, because the wins come with ribbons.
My dog is an agility dog. She is my first dog, and she is not an easy dog. This isn’t unexpected, though, and I love the work with her more than anything I’ve ever done, so I’m mostly happy to do it. We started trialing in agility this spring and saw success right away: our first run came with a blue ribbon and a Q (which is another ribbon, green, and a point toward a Novice Agility title, for which you need three Qs—then it’s three more Qs to the Open title, and so on). I was thrilled, Vesper had fun, we both got lots of compliments, and I signed us up for all of the trials. All of them.
Things started to go downhill pretty fast.
I don’t just want to play this game with my dog. I want to play this game well. Vesper has a lot of natural ability and I have high ambitions. I don’t think we’ll ever be World Team material, but we could qualify for national-level competitions someday. This means that, even though I am a novice trainer, I can’t fuck around in training. The last thing I want to do is ignore problems because her performance is good enough, because it will rapidly stop being good enough as the courses get more challenging. Small problems now become big problems later. And our problems aren’t small.
My dog, who is genius in practice, becomes an asshole in the agility ring. It’s not her fault: it is stressful, and she is still one-quarter puppy, and she was not initially all that interested in doing what I want. Her focus on me is hard-won and not always complete, to say the least. After our first few trials she started running out of the ring halfway through the course; a few trials later she started running around–and eventually out of–the ring before even starting the course. And then she pooped between the weave poles and the double-bar jump on a course where she’d already run away from me three times, and I carried her out of the ring and put her in the car and cried, because relationship problems don’t really get much more obvious than your dog running away from you a bunch and then taking a dump in front of the judge.
I thought this was our setback. Vesper and I have relationship problems, and the problem is that our relationship isn’t rewarding enough for her to listen to me when things get intense. I stepped back and talked with a lot of people smarter and more experience than me and made a plan. Maybe we would be trialing again in a month, or six weeks, after we’d done the work we needed to do to succeed. That seemed like forever.
Then a couple of weeks ago my dog woke me up in the middle of the night. At first I thought she was just itchy and bored, but when I got up to take her out she wouldn’t put any weight on her left foreleg. She was lame. My heart stopped; the way she held it palsied to her chest and the way her neck was spasming, and the whites around the edges of her eyes—could it be neurological? Christ, was she about to go into seizure? I could feel her heart racing behind her ribs, always too fast even when she’s sleeping, but now it seemed ready to burst.
The emergency vet was not nearly as concerned as I was. I got home at a quarter to five with a doped-up dog and some pain medications. I held her in bed with me and listened to her whine quietly until my alarm went off an hour and a half later.
Several vet appointments later and there’s still no formal diagnosis, partially because I don’t have money for advanced testing and partially because it doesn’t really matter. It’s some kind of soft-tissue damage in her shoulder, and no matter what kind of damage it is all the recovery starts at the same place: a month of crate rest. She’s not even allowed to hop off the couch without help. Then rehab, and slowly building her shoulder strength back up. Jumping, which I have read puts something like six times the dog’s weight in impact on the shoulder joint, is not something we will be doing for at least six weeks. If not more. And even then, we will jump eight inches. Vesper’s competition jump height is twenty-four. We have to build back to that height. It will take an indeterminate amount of time.
My one-month break from trialing has become a one-month break from everything, including walking. Agility training, even foundations puppy stuff, even basic relationship games like tug—these things are all dangerous as hell if I want my dog to play this agility game for a long and healthy lifetime.
I gave myself a patience pep-talk when I pulled V from competition last month. It was going to be fine; it’s not really that long, and the benefit long-term will be worth it. Now I just want to play with my dog, who is so heavily sedated she has trouble picking her feet up enough to clear the front doorsill.
The writing rejections keep coming. It’s alright, it’s okay. I’m not the first writer to stumble down this path, and if it wasn’t long and exhausting would I want the company at the end anyway? Yes, the path itself is often rewarding, but would I keep going if I didn’t think there was something else ahead?
When I’m frustrated with writing I work with my dog, and when I want to choke my dog to death with my own bare hands I lock myself in my writing room. When neither of these things can give back at the moment what do I do?
No real conclusion to this one. I’ve found a little consolation not in full stories and submissions, but in five-minute plot outlines for things I will never write. Instead of teaching my dog a blind cross, we are back to doing nose-targeting. I’m writing characters and leaving them on slips of paper in forgetful places. I’m clipping my dog’s nails and wiping the gunk from her eyes, because the drugs she’s on muddle her sight.
At some point, I started doing these things for the love of them. While it’s small satisfaction now, it’s what I have, and I’m just going to have to take it.
Here’s my whole problem with meat: it’s fucking delicious.
When my sister was eleven she saw a PETA video and decided she was done. “I don’t like meat anyway,” she said, and that was that, no contest, forever amen. She’s still vegetarian some dozen years later and has never complained about the challenge, nor tried to convert anyone.
I was the opposite on all counts. I am the opposite, still.
I am well-informed about the role and treatment of animals in Western society. I took classes, wrote a thesis, own a small but solid library on it. I have seen enough slaughterhouse footage that I could butcher a cow, though I wouldn’t be very good at it. I know which brands are cage-free in theory only and, locally, which ones actually have chickens on soil, and why even that doesn’t make it okay to use an animal for something its body makes. I will explain why while I eat some scrambled eggs. If it is a certain day of the week, the eggs might be covered in sausage gravy. If nobody is looking I might even eat bacon, though I won’t order it myself, so it’s probably your bacon I’m eating.
I am a vegetarian, for the most part. I’m just really horrible at it.
When people ask I am vague in answering. Once, in an attempt to help along the discussion, someone suggested that I was a flexitarian. This person did not say the word in a judgey voice; there were no air quotes. They were trying to help, for real.
“Fuck you,” I said.
I did not know this person very well. We were both new to our jobs, learning what was expected of us and how far we could take a joke. “Fuck you” was not an appropriate thing to say in this context. But there it was, all fat and prickly.
“Ha ha,” I added. It sort of helped. “I don’t love the labels.”
“I get it,” said my coworker, “labels.” And I was not fired, so it worked out okay.
It is true that I don’t like all the categories vegetarians make up for themselves. Someone once described themselves to me as a “pesce-pollo-vegetarian” and the only way I felt could express the extent of my distaste was by pretending to barf on their shoes. Do we really need to make up words like that? Really? If you’re a wedgetarian you only eat things that come in wedges. If you’re an ovo-lacto-vegetarian you just said two of the most unappetizing words in the english language as a description of your food.
Another part of the distaste is an overarching personal dislike of categories in general, and fad categories specifically (freegan is one for the ages, guys, right along side metrosexual). If I join a cult it’s going to do something besides eat things. Or things in addition to eating things.
But what I truly, viscerally hate about flexitarianism is the implication that I might be so okay with the way I eat that I’d go and pick out a name for it. If I was really actually okay with what I choose to eat I would just eat things, and be done with it, and stop worrying about what it’s called or shouldn’t be called and whether or not it’s actually a real thing. But I am not okay with my diet.
As much as I hate to identify myself by what I choose to eat, a lot of my internal debate is about identity. I am an animal too, after all. Shouldn’t I get some sympathy for that?
Fast fact: when I was in first grade I was sent to sit in the hallway because my barking was disrupting the class. I was also crawling on the floor and, to my classmates’ delight, sniffing a few butts. Dog was my favorite game, though I was happy to play any large carnivore. If water was available the game was sea lion. I wore holes in the knees of all my sweatpants.
(I only wore sweatpants. Between this and the barking you can pretty accurately reconstruct my social life for the next ten years. Addendum: I have a photograph of myself at age eleven on horseback wearing a Star Trek: Voyager t-shirt.)
All this is to say that as a kid I identified more strongly with animals than with people. I loved animals. Intensely, categorically. I loved looking at them and thinking about them. I still do. I love them and their weird, amazing brains. I’ll still take a walk with my dog over a call with a friend under pretty much any circumstances. It’s easier, and you rarely need to worry about what they think of you.
I have a great deal of respect for animals as individuals. This does not apply solely to the animals that give a fuck about people. I think animals have actual thoughts and emotions, even the relatively stupid-seeming ones. Different than my thoughts and emotions, yes, and on a different scale probably, but still thoughtful and emotional. I really feel like I should stop putting these thinking, feeling individuals into my mouth, but I appear to suffer some disconnect between “I really feel” and “I would like to order.”
It’s not that I haven’t tried. But there’s this ethical hole beneath the pragmatic, try-not-to-eat-meat-because-I-like-animals surface that sucks me rapidly down, down, down towards paralysis. If I don’t eat meat I shouldn’t eat cheese or eggs, because the lives of dairy cows and laying hens are a longer, potentially greater misery than animals raised and killed for meat. That makes sense. And what about fish? Clearly alive, probably not numb to their existence. But they’re so foreign. How do they fit in my shared-experience paradigm? Do I care about fish? Can I make myself care about fish? What about insects? Can I kill a spider? If I can’t kill a spider I might give up on this whole deal, because fuck spiders. Way too many appendages. And what about the insects crushed by the combines harvesting my vegetables? What about the rabbits shot by the guy who sells me potatoes at the farmer’s market? Don’t non-leather shoes look tacky? Do my cats have to be vegan? How do you decide when to stop caring? How do you keep caring? How do you care at all, when you’re obviously helpless and useless and a bad person?
I’m not saying you should make your diet be like my diet. I’m clearly too much of a disaster to serve as any sort of example. I’m a hypocrite who hates hypocrites; I am the worst.
It’s not even a conversation, at heart, a about eating meat. That’s just the easy conflict, the obvious one.
Partially it’s a practice in public humiliation. I can be an asshole, especially in my own head. I forget that I don’t actually have anything figured out, and as such I am not in a great position to judge what others decide to do. I don’t even believe strongly enough in my own choices to, you know, just not eat meat already. According to a lot of sources, it’s not really that hard.
Maybe it’s because I’m a cerebral monkey, myself, that I think that the debate, the honesty, is the important part. I may be making irrational choices, but at least I will keep looking at them, holding them in my hands and squinting and trying to make them make sense. I am, after all, an animal myself. And this is what my kind of animal does.
Like Aesop, I admire the tortoise type. Set a goal, slow and steady, finish what you start. These are the people that tend to “make it” in any given field, because if you just keep going you’ll eventually have to get somewhere, even if it isn’t exactly where you wanted to go when you started. Dedication, attention to detail, and patience: people with these qualities get shit done.
I’m not really that kind of person.
My patience is forced. I will listen to your long and wandering story, but only because I don’t want to seem like an obvious asshole. I don’t swerve in and out on the freeway trying to game the traffic, but only because I’m already pretty convinced I’ll die in a car accident. The only reason I pay attention to details is because I hate wasting the time it takes to go back and redo things.
I have a functional kind of patience, but it’s not something I’d call a strength.
This is Vesper. In this photograph she is one year old and has just learned to hold a two-on-two-off contact on an obstacle called the dogwalk or plank. She is doing this because she is an agility dog, or will become one shortly.
Dog agility is a sport built around speed, accuracy and teamwork. A handler (me) navigates a dog (her) around a series of physical obstacles. When done well it is impressive enough that even a normal person (the kind that might very reasonably raise an eyebrow at the previous sentences–or paragraphs) can kind of get why you’d want to do that. When done poorly it is a thing singularly well-built for disaster. It is a disaster showcase. So much can go wrong.
Agility turns normal people with sedans, savings accounts and respectable wardrobes into truck-owning fleece-wearers with pockets full of tiny bits of hotdog.
From what I can tell, most people want a dog for companionship. I find this boring. When I wanted companionship I got cats, and when I wanted more of it I got married. What I want from a dog is the unique high of cross-species communication. Agility tests this kind of communication in a most extreme way. Try telling your dog to turn left when she’s twenty feet in front of you, high out of her mind on adrenaline and running as fast as she can. See how much practice that takes.
I knew that this was what I wanted a dog for, and so I looked for a dog that would be good at it. You need an animal who’s smart enough to pick up complex behaviors quickly, with strong problem-solving abilities. Most important is an extremely high work drive, meaning they want to do a job–any job–all their waking hours. These things mean you have a committed, fast, thinking partner on the course. It also means you have an absolutely godawful pet.
Vesper at nine months was extremely reactive. If there was another dog in the street, she would perform leash-lunge backflips until it was out of sight again. People were almost as exciting. Children put her in a thrall–as did birds, squirrels, neighborhood cats and any kind of ball. Walking her was a miserable chore that left the person sore and angry and the dog frustrated and not in the least bit tired. Her first puppy obedience class, she did so much shouting and leaping and over-enthusiastic dancing I worried we would get kicked out–especially since she was three times the size of any other dog in there. The instructor barricaded us behind visual barriers, and we began the longest, most demanding and complex behavior I will ever teach this dog: pay attention to me. I don’t care what’s going on out there. You need to pay attention to me.
The two of you begin with minuscule increments. You wait until the dog takes a breath between freak-outs and you click your clicker. (Presumably you have already taught your dog that click = what you just did is worth a cookie–a more detailed explanation here.) Probably your dog is too excited to eat the cookie; let it fall out of her mouth if that’s what she wants to do with it.
Probably you will have to repeat this a dozen times before the idea penetrates your dog’s over-aroused, excitement-fogged brain that when she is a tiny bit calmer, cookies start to appear. She will get a little tired from freaking out so hard, and will use this opportunity to mop up the abandoned cookies from the floor. They will taste amazing (they are nitrate- and gluten-free all-beef hotdogs, or maybe even steak, depending on how desperate things are at the moment). The next time she gets a click she will turn and look at you and as you feed her a nib of beef you will see the tiniest spark of recognition deep within the swiss cheese of her brain. This will be very exciting, because it is the beginning.
Do not think about how far you have to go right now. Trust that in nine months you’ll be able to unleash your dog in a public place, in a dirt arena steeped in years of strange-dog smells and full of complicated equipment, with horses and dogs and people wandering by, and you will be able to leave her in a sit-stay at the start line while you lead out two jumps so you can get a head start on her for the front cross before the fourth jump. Trust that she will be able to ignore her coach and the judge and ring stewards to follow you through the second front cross at the ninth jump, and that she will be able to focus enough despite the chemical high in her brain to hit the correct weave pole entry. Trust that when she becomes confused and overwhelmed and takes off for a lap around the ring on her own, you can call her back to you and she will run just as fast towards you as she did away.
But right now don’t get ahead of yourself. You will only get there by tiny increments, of half-seconds and dogs at the end of the block, endless laps walked and pounds and pounds of meat and cheese cut into quarter-inch cubes. You will get stuck and frustrated often. You will consider quitting when your dog begins to make a habit of abandoning you during practice to instead jump up and punch your teacher in the gut. You will want to throw her in the yard or stuff her in her crate on the days when she seems suddenly deaf and “around” means “try every trick you know in short sequence instead of using your brain to remember that one word which you definitely know.” You will cry several times when you come home to find that she’s been creative while you were out, with found materials or made.
You will clean it up. You will control yourself. You will take a deep breath and a two-minute break. You will take two steps back and start over again.
I’m not a patient person, by nature. But I may not have a choice but become one.
A short piece I wrote is up on (gulp) Karen Joy Fowler’s website.
I’ve thought about the described moment many times over, and thought about writing it, but never put it down. It’s one of those feelings you’re introduced to in some youthful incident that, whenever you encounter that emotion again, there you are again in your childhood yard, wearing your favorite sweater and smelling the mud and moss and feeling sick to your stomach.
Animals lurk, slither, flounce, float and barrel through so many of our stories. I’m particularly interested in this because I am the person who notices the cat in the shrubs before I notice the guy washing the car in the driveway. I have always been this way. To me, animals are the most interesting thing in the picture, and it’s no different in a novel.
When we write about animals, I think it is fair to say that the animal almost always represents something human. In a world with boundaries laid by metaphor, this will surprise no-one, and usually we are fine with this—when the story is well-written, at least. But I can’t help feeling like the animals in our stories are often cheated. Because unlike the “kinds” of people written into a world, there’s no way for the animal to counter what they’ve been appropriated to represent, and unlike many of the objects burdened with meaning in the same stories, they do actually have something to lose.
I wouldn’t say it’s wrong to use an animal to represent something else. I do it all of the time—in life and in writing—and some of my favorite stories do as well. I would never want that to go away. It’s just that animals so rarely stand for themselves.
Lady Into Fox is a slim volume I keep returning to and forcing on others, a devastating little novella with a simple premise and story: a young wife turns into a fox, and her husband must navigate life with this change.
There’s little speculation as to why a woman might turn fox. There’s no apparent magic in this world, and though her name is Sylvie there is no sense that this was inevitable, foreshadowed or even possible. We do not dwell on the impossibility of it. We instead live with her husband, Richard Tebrick, as he figures out what it means now that this person he loves is completely different from the person he loved before.
The metaphor is immediately obvious and highly relatable: people change, often beyond recognition, and we are charged with loving them anyway. Sometimes we should hold on and sometimes we need to let go; neither of these options are easy or pleasant.
This story is not about a fox and it is not about loving a fox, not really. Sylvie looks like a fox, smells like a fox, has bad fox habits inappropriate for a Victorian lady, but Sylvie is always Sylvie and a metaphor for her own change. The story is about something else; the fox is just a clever way to tell it.
I write stories like this all of the time, and I love them. But someday I’d like to write story that really is about the fox. I can think of few stories that are actually about the animals they appropriate.*
This brings me to Karen Joy Fowler’s most recent novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.
(A warning here: if you haven’t yet read any reviews, hate spoilers and think you might want to read the book, then continue at your own peril.)
Fowler creates a character who is unpredictable, loving, emotional and thoughtful, who we care about and resent a little and think of as a person, and only reveals that this character is a chimpanzee once you’re well into the novel. There’s no anthropomorphism; Fern the chimpanzee earns all of her humanity. She is not the main character, and is absent from most of the action of the novel, but the story is very profoundly about what it means that she is not human, but self-aware and intelligent and a part of a family she trusts, and what it then means when she is abandoned by that family. Fern doesn’t stand for anything except what she is: an animal in a human world, where she kind of but doesn’t quite fit.
This is rare in fiction. The only other place I can remember hearing such a straightforward account of the alien personhood of another animal is Ackerley’s My Dog Tulip, a frank, loving and unflinching memoir of life with a particular and demanding German shepherd. Most modern life-with-x-animal memoirs anthropomorphize horribly (and I’m even generally okay with some anthropomorphism, as I’d prefer to err on the side of attributing intelligence and emotion to animals, but this shit is bad) and turn their subjects into family-film fodder. Ackerley does not. Tulip is an intact bitch, unnervingly flirtatious in season, often unmanageable, and fully realized as a complex personality whose sexuality and animality are unavoidable. Marley is a Disney character by comparison; even a lot of the training books I’ve read (and I’ve read a lot) aren’t as frank as this.
By fully investing in Tulip as what she is—not a person, but a dog with personhood—Ackerley actually allows her to be more human than if he’d talked about her on human terms.
Why do we so infrequently speak of animals in the way that Fowler speaks of Fern and Ackerley writes of his dog?
I imagine part of the challenge is that it’s hard to write people as complex and vivid as Fern and Tulip, and so it’s a rare writer who decides to turn that kind of talent on a character who can’t speak. And part of the challenge is that it’s so foreign. How do we know what a German shepherd bitch in heat thinks of London? You have to know your subject intimately, and care deeply about them, to begin this kind of project.
And, most importantly, the writer has to care about the animal as an animal and not as a companion or an idea of that animal. “But I do care about dolphins/sloths/hoary marmots,” you may think, and I’m sure you do. I do too! People who don’t care about dolphins/sloths/hoary marmots don’t spend as much time as we do looking at pictures of them on the interwebben. It’s easy to care about an animal—in the abstract. But you can’t write from the abstract and get that honest, unflinching and sympathetic perspective. And making a true effort to comprehend an animal’s mind opens some doors you can’t really shut again. The ethical implications of what you see there can be… overwhelming.
That you love someone doesn’t mean you understand them. It’s a writer’s job to understand and empathize more than the average person, but that doesn’t mean we always succeed.