Learning to Care (About Writing and Dogs)
August 17, 2016 § 19 Comments
A word from Brevity‘s new Managing Editor, Jacob Little:
I recently had a health scare that’s resulted in numerous trips to various doctors. In trying to help me with “nutritional rehabilitation,” one of the doctors suggested I get a dog.
“Why would I do that?” I asked him. “The only reason I’m here is because I can’t even take care of myself. What makes you think I can keep another living creature alive?”
“That’s just it,” he said. “If you can get used to caring for something else, you can transfer those skills over to yourself.”
I couldn’t help thinking, Good god. Is everything a metaphor these days?
“It’s a little bit different,” I said, “keeping a dog alive versus myself. I can’t just eat kibble and shit in the backyard.”
“Yes, it’s different,” he said. “But not for the reasons you think. The difference is you’d care whether the dog lived or died, but you don’t care about yourself.”
Jesus, I thought.
So I got a dog. His name is Crisis, both because he has arrived in the midst of my own, and also because he always seems to be having one. He hides and shakes when he sees a spider. He gets scared when the mailman comes. He follows me around like a shivering shadow. He loses his mind with enthusiasm every time he thinks I might charge around the house with him. He senses when I’m lonely and puts his head on my knee. All this and I still can’t decide if my most prominent feeling for him is gratefulness for his companionship or resentment for the amount of time and care he requires. I resent him for making me care.
I don’t think this is a character fault of mine. I hope not. There are so many others.
To me, when I am able to acknowledge and consider the frustrations of a person, I’m all the more appreciative of when they are actually able or generous enough to give something back to me. It’s amazing to consider that such faulty, messy creatures can do such beautiful things in our lives. So here’s another metaphor: I feel the same way about writing.
I don’t like writing. Not even close. It’s almost always a fight; a tedious and absurd chore to complete. Most days, it feels to me like a colossal waste of time, an obscene luxury. It seems almost wholly unethical to indulge in such an egocentric pastime. Even the good moments seem to be ones of self-congratulation and self-release. Perhaps these aren’t truly bad things, but neither are they noble.
Like Didion, I too am grateful for all the stories I tell myself in order to live. I just don’t want to pretend that the “stories” in that sentence means something other than “lies”—or perhaps more optimistically: “partial truths.” Still, even a partial truth is dangerous without remembering to scan carefully for the falsehood. After all, the most effective and dangerous lies are the ones that hide themselves amongst otherwise unassailable truths.
I find myself agreeing more and more with Maggie Nelson when she wrote in The Red Parts that “stories may enable us to live, but they also trap us, bring us spectacular pain. In their scramble to make sense of nonsensical things, they distort, codify, blame, aggrandize, restrict, omit, betray, mythologize, you name it. This has always struck me as cause for lament, not celebration. As soon as a writer starts talking about the ‘human need for narrative’ or the ‘archaic power of storytelling,’ I usually find myself wanting to bolt out of the auditorium” (155).
But I remain personally grateful for stories all the same. I’m grateful for any and all slivers of truth I can find in them, hollow as they might seem when compared with real experience and human connection. I’m grateful for the ability to communicate something to others in a way that I otherwise could not. I’m grateful for the way writing helps me to process how I feel about ideas, other people, and myself in relation to them.
To play on Winston Churchill’s famous phrase, I think that stories are our absolute worst form of truth-telling, aside—perhaps—from all the other ones.
Here is what I think I’m trying to say. I don’t think acknowledging my deep resentment and suspicion of something harms the love I have for the thing itself; I think it deepens it. I care about writing precisely because I understand its limitations and dangers, what it can accomplish in spite of those faults.
—Keep writing out there.
Jacob Little steps into the role of Brevity’s Managing Editor later this month (and will still serve simultaneously as managing editor of Profane.) He is a PhD candidate in Creative Nonfiction at Ohio University, and his recent nonfiction is published or forthcoming in DIAGRAM, Split Lip Magazine, Pithead Chapel, and Yemassee, where he won the 2015 Creative Nonfiction Award. You can find him at jacoblittle.net and on Twitter @little_jaycup.