Of Brevity, My Dog, and Me
May 25, 2011 § 3 Comments
Mike Land, author of “Dogs in the Dark” in the latest issue of Brevity, weighs in on the origins of his essay:
One frigid New England evening, I sit in a plush chair of a dormitory lounge, observing the members of what the college calls my Interest Circle. These students could have picked trendier topics, ranging from vampires to Family Guy, but instead they chose Writing Life Stories, inspired by the Bill Roorbach book of the same name.
With so much writing in the rest of his or her life, what undergraduate would choose, of all things, to then write some more? Yet on the sofas to my left and right, my students lean back or crouch over, notepads on thighs, scribbling their way deeper and deeper into the writing prompt I have foisted upon them.
So I damn well better write something, too.
I contemplate the assignment, a fixture in my workshops. After discussing our favorite essays in Issue 31 of Brevity, we now must imitate one of them, in the process identifying the traits toward which we aspire. I shuffle through the essays until I find what I’m looking for – Ann Claycomb’s WQED Channel 13: Programming Guide. While there is plenty to admire in a detached manner, I am drawn to Claycomb’s piece for a personal reason: She opens with rising in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, only to find her young son staring at her from the hallway; in my own life, just the night before, I awoke to find the closest thing I will ever have to a child – my aging border collie mix Cal – gazing at me from the bedroom door, his white snout and chest almost luminous in the dark.
Sensing in a new way that my dog’s time was drawing nigh, I lay awake most of the night, filled with my own kind of parental anxiety, wondering if I would do all the right things. As a result, as I watch my students, I now feel physically exhausted, and emotionally raw. But this is where Claycomb’s use of technique saves me, giving myself the aesthetic form into which to channel my fear and sadness. When it is my turn to read aloud, a few students eyes moisten as my voice grows husky. A half hour later, I drive home to Cal knowing two things: That there’s an essay here, and that it’s far too soon.
For one thing, Cal’s still here. For the next three months, we walk in most of his favorite locales, visit most of his favorite dogs, my artistic impulses mostly limited to videos and slide shows of our various adventures. But since Cal’s pillow is wedged between my computer table and my bed, I might as well write while we visit; pages from the broken printer tray waft down onto my dog, blanketing him in prose. He looks up, then resumes napping, probably grateful I’m working in the short form.
Cal finally passes on a Sunday morning, drawing his last breath on the living room floor, between the legs of me and a former girlfriend. Someone had wisely urged me to invite others into the moment, which strangely did add a dimension of redemption and beauty to an otherwise traumatic event; I even composed a slide show set to a bouncy Neville Brothers’ tune and posted it on the internet; but Facebook is one thing, and art quite another. Almost two months pass before I return to the piece – but when I do, it’s the aesthetic challenge of past Brevity essays that helps me write about a recent loss. Particularly, I revel in the pleasure of juxtaposition, the freedom to move fragments around to create the most provocative effects. Claycomb achieved this through using the television programming guide; in my case, the subject matter dictates a juxtaposing of the dark bedroom with facts about canine sensory abilities – the latter representing the kind of intriguing research many Brevity writers manage to graft into their narratives, despite that nettlesome 750-word limit.
But in that limit also lies liberation. My most recent project prior to “Dogs in the Dark” was a 394-page manuscript called Travel in Dog Years, recounting a dog-oriented road trip we undertook years before, so it was a relief to work in a more focused form. And since that manuscript has yet to find a publisher, I am that much more gratified when, four months after Cal passes, Dinty W. Moore informs me that, at long last, my dog is getting his literary due.
Not that I’m done with Cal, or he with me. As I write this, a full year later, Cal’s pillow still lies in the corner to my right, beneath the still-broken printer tray – and the framed photo of Cal against a rock face, looking back over his shoulder from a chasm called Purgatory. But that’s another essay.