What Do You Want? Finding Your Essay Amidst the Well-Placed Nudges and Barks

August 29, 2018 § 16 Comments

HeathcliffandCaroleAug2018By Carole Duff

Heathcliff, 110 pounds of black lab mixed with something big, deep-growled, then climbed out of his nest bed. Loud, sharp, sense-splitting barks rang like a fire alarm, echoing through the house.

“Good boy,” I said, without meaning it. Though I relied on his protective instinct, I’d been wrestling with an essay that didn’t know what it wanted to be—or wouldn’t tell me.

“Do you hear something?” I asked Heathcliff with as much patience as I could muster. “Is someone coming?” I looked out the windows of our mountain house, down along the switchbacks of the old gravel, logging road that wound up our driveway. Nothing.

Hackles up, Heathcliff approached my desk, his yaps persistent. “Is something out there you need to chase?” It was probably either a vehicle coming up the road or critters to pursue. At other times his whining meant time to get up, let me out to do my business, or feed me. We’d already taken care of those needs earlier this morning, so I ruled them out.

“What do you want?” I said in frustration, whirling my chair to look into his upturned face.

I felt like I was speaking to a toddler again. When my children were that age, I’d scooch down, eye-level to their wails. “Tell me what’s wrong,” I’d say. “Use. Words.”

Heathcliff understood some words—sit, wait, okay eat, go outside, go to your bed, come, go in the car, up (the stairs), hurry up (relieve yourself)—all related to routines and simple needs. But he didn’t know how to communicate what he wanted except with barks, growls, whines, and body gestures.

He nudged my arm with his muzzle, and I obliged by scratching his velvet-soft ears. Whatever riled him had passed. “Thank you for warning me,” I said as calm returned. “Everything okay?” He leaned his slender rump against my legs so I could massage the tense muscles up and down his body. He then curled back into his nest bed.

The blinking cursor and meaningless words on my laptop taunted me. “What do you want?” I asked.


Traditionally, the key to unlocking a narrative is to establish what the protagonist wants. Then a writer can explore why the protagonist wants what she wants, and what keeps her from getting it. If stakes are clear, then the conflict, the protagonist’s choices, and the resolution—following well-placed nudges and barks—might settle and curl up in the reader’s imagination.

In memoir, however, what “I” want can be tricky, because the protagonist and antagonist are often the same person—the writer as “I” working against herself. Or to put it another way, what the protagonist “I” wants is often what the antagonist “I” wants to hide­.

For example:

I want love, approval, attention, without revealing my pitiful neediness.

I want to be in control, while masking anger and blame when things don’t go my way.

I want independence, without showing my dependence and need of others.

I want to be right, while concealing how much winning matters to me. Who cares about those losers? Whoops.


What do I want? I asked myself, staring at the uncooperative essay on my laptop. To get published—affirmation. But essays don’t care about that. They just want to say something worthy, which for me as the writer involves a lot of barking at seemingly nothing, growling and whining then a little stroking—Heathcliff-like assurance that things are okay when I curl up in bed at night.

What had Heathcliff wanted? To do his mission, to warn of possible danger. Once done, he wanted attention and approval, and he didn’t hide his need.

Memoirists can learn a lot from dogs—perhaps all writers can. When we scooch down and ask the “I”, what do you want, we go eye-level with the work. Then we toddle along unsteadily, using words while the essay nudges and barks, showing us what it wants to be: revealing, unmasked, unhidden. Honest.

Carole Duff is a veteran teacher of young women and now a writer of creative nonfiction. She posts to her weekly blog Notes from Vanaprastha and is working on a book-length faith memoir. Carole lives in Virginia with her husband Keith Kenny, also a writer, and two large rescue dogs, Heathcliff (pictured above) and Freya, a discerning barker.


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