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.
“I’m grateful for any and all slivers of truth I can find in [stories], hollow as they might seem when compared with real experience and human connection.” Me too!—especially since recent research suggests we learn from stories exactly the way we learn from real life. Maybe that supports story-telling as the oldest art.
I forgot to say thank you. Thank you.
“I resent him for making me care.” So true, both of dogs and writing. Great essay, Jacob.
I have always felt that I was able to learn history better from the fiction of that era than the history books written later about it.
Yes, that has been my experience too! I understand far more from reading novels about the Great War than I ever did merely reading history, which has its own flaws, uncertainties, and errors.
Reblogged this on Her Headache and commented:
When I share something here, it’s often from this place. Another great post from one of my favorites.
Welcome to Brevity! Aww, Crisis is cute. Funny, I’ve just been reading Neil Gaiman’s new non-fiction collection, and he keeps talking about stories as lies that tell the truth. It was beginning to irk me that he used the word “lie”, but after reading your post, I’m beginning to understand a bit more why he might be doing so…
Reblogged this on The Coffee Bean Brain and commented:
Thank you! I needed this!
Eddie McPuppers and I loved your article. Thank you for reminding me how complex we ALL are.
Loved this. Hope your dog brings you more joy than hassle. Great piece, and yes, keep on writing.
Annabelle and Beans say, “Woof.”
I am continually amazed when men and women writer’s maintain a death grip on the concept that there is some “Truth” out there (where? in a galaxy far, far away perhaps) that exists autonomously outside of the stories we tell ourselves. From one point of view, truth is not fixed but fluid. What is SO in this moment transforms in the next.
I just remembered a line from one of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels. To paraphrase very, very badly, “it is the lies that we tell ourselves about the non-existent, such as justice, honor, and law that elevate our lives from the truth.”
You raise some good points. I agree that the truth is fluid and not fixed. It is momentary and elusive. I also agree that justice, honor, and law are not our “natural” states, as that Pratchett quote suggests. But I don’t think those things are “lies” by themselves, at least not inherently. We don’t need to lie to ourselves about them. Isn’t it enough to say that “these things are artifices that we have made. They are not who we are, but they speak to what we HOPE to be, what we long for.” Good writing can (should?) admit when it has failed. Failure is not a lie. Pretending you haven’t failed is.
In other words, I do think there are concrete truths but they are 1) Impossible for any one human to grasp, and 2) changeable due to constantly shifting contexts. These difficulties should not stop us from striving to tell the truth as we best understand it, even (especially?) when we know that we’re missing something. I think that the truth is always living in our houses with us; not in a galaxy far, far away. And it’s that eerie, unknowable presence that haunts us into writing, among other reasons.
Enjoyed your response! It added a great deal to the collection of items that comprise my personal “philosophy” such as it is. Perhaps you could call it the framework I constructed to look forward to the new day.
Read your reply again. I really liked the concept of artifices we have made and speak to what we hope to be. And yes, good writing should admit when has failed. For me there is always a gap between the stuff in my head and the end result that I put to paper. Personally speaking the trick is reframing the failure so its a springboard, no a reason to stop,
I meant, of course, Aug 17…
Congratulations to Jacob Little on becoming Managing Editor of Brevity. And condolences on losing any free time you had.
However, my throat stuck on certain words in your introductory blog post: “I don’t like writing.”
I’m puzzled. Don’t like writing? Haven’t you ever breathed the rare air when the words align themselves, constellations on a clear night? Haven’t you ever experienced a moment when the words explore a new world? And explode an old one.
Don’t like writing? Perhaps you’ve never felt the computer keyboard become an instrument, your fingers flying like a concert pianist. Or perhaps Chico Marx. Such moments make writing more than chore.
You claim you don’t like writing, but you’re a writer. Surely you’ve felt the joy of pushing your abilities beyond perceived boundaries, mastering the high wire and the deep dive. Surely you’ve heard the words sing.
Yes, such moments are rare, but if you love the words, with practice, the words eventually will love you back.
Perhaps we are talking of two different things. I’m talking of the pure joy of playing with language, the tactile joy of it, like child exploring colors by finger painting. You’re talking about “stories” that tunnel toward some ore of a Truth. Maybe you have it backwards. The words come first. With practice, the will reveal perhaps not the truth but your truth, your Word, a companion for life, the last word you will speak.
Not like writing? If true, how dreary the task. Yet you must have felt the magic when the right words fall in the right order or you wouldn’t continue writing. Again, congratulations. And thanks for reminding me why I like writing, wouldn’t go a day without it, even the ones when the words don’t run.
Beautifully written, thought-provoking– thank you.