Simmering My Story

September 23, 2022 § 24 Comments

By Morgan Baker

When my husband wanted to breed our second Portuguese Water Dog, Spray, I hedged. I didn’t think this was the greatest idea. Research told me that Spray could develop pyometra, a potentially life threatening infection, or ovarian cancer. Puppies could get stuck on their way out, and some puppies just don’t make it after birth. This all terrified me. I showed Matt all the literature on the dangers of breeding. He stood his ground. This would be a great family adventure. 

Ellie, my younger daughter, didn’t agree with him either. We had added her to our family to help Ellie with her anxiety when she was 13. Spray was her dog. 

I also didn’t want to be a “backyard breeder.” If we were going to do this, I wanted to be a responsible breeder. The couple from whom we got Spray thought we were great candidates for breeders. They sold Spray to us on an unlimited contract, which meant we could breed her and register the puppies as purebred Portuguese Water Dogs. Most contracts restrict new owners from breeding and require them to neuter their puppies. 

After much discussion, we went forward with the breeding. Spray was gentle and laid back, the sweetest Portuguese Water Dog we’d ever known and if she could bring more sweet pups into the world, we would make a lot of families happy. Not only did the Nightingales, our breeders, guide us through all the tests Spray had to undergo to make sure she was genetically fit to have puppies, they gave us their whelping box and all their blankets and fleecing pads. After more than seven litters, they were ready to pass on their wisdom and accoutrements.

I took notes and started a blog about the breeding and whelping, which coincided with Maggie’s last year of high school and her departure to college. At the end of the whole shebang, Matt suggested I write a book about the adventure. 

I did.

It took years during which I taught, freelanced and drove Ellie’s carpool. I submitted queries to agents and pitched it to small publishers at the AWP Annual Conference, but it didn’t go anywhere. I was tired, frustrated, and disappointed. Then my husband and I moved to Hawaii, the perfect time to put the memoir in a drawer while I started writing about my next adventure. But the puppy story stayed with me.

We returned from Hawaii shortly before the pandemic. I participated in a virtual writing retreat and pulled the puppy book out of the drawer. I started futzing with it. 

I called my writing friend, Becca, who had edited the memoir at one point. “I just realized, it’s not about the dogs, it’s about Maggie,” I said. 

Her response: “I told you that three years ago.”

Oops.

The memoir was about saying goodbye to Maggie, my older daughter. I had avoided writing about the depression that had tripped me up, then grabbed me and held me prisoner. It was scary and embarrassing to revisit, but I knew that was the direction I had to go.

I continued to take classes and workshops. I wrote a stronger query letter, I rewrote the beginning and restructured the whole memoir. I was patient with myself and the story, especially the hard parts.

Some writers can crank out a book every year. Not me. But I never gave up. This was a story I needed to write and wanted to share. 

I learned to be flexible, to listen to how readers interpreted my story. The editor who read the very first draft, which was horrible, said the story was about my marriage. While she had a point, that wasn’t why I was writing. I wanted to write about the adventure my family went on, how I eventually got on board. I wanted to explore the conflict between how great the puppies were and how depressed I was over my daughter’s departure. I wanted to show how I made it through and how I dealt with subsequent good-byes.

Now with a restructuring, some serious rewrites, a new beginning, and more false starts with agents and small publishers, my memoir has been picked up by a small indie press. It’s a heady feeling. The new publisher thought writing about mental health was important and that my story would resonate with other moms sending their teenagers out into the world. 

I am proud of myself for writing the thing that scared me the most, and I’m proud of myself for never giving up. Sometimes things take a while to cook. Sometimes simmering is better than boiling. 

Maggie is now 30 years old and married. I am older too. The college days are long gone. But when I revisit the moment when we said good-bye in front of her new dorm and walked away from each other, my stomach lurches and all the good-byes I’ve had to say in my life come back and rock my soul. 

__

Morgan Baker’s work can be found in The Boston Globe Magazine, The New York Times Magazine, Cognoscenti, Motherwell, Under the Gum Tree, Expression, The Brevity Blog, and The Bark, among other publications. She teaches at Emerson College and privately online. She was the managing editor for Thebucket.com. She is excited that her debut memoir will be out in Spring 2023 from Ten16 Press. She lives with her husband and two dogs in Cambridge, MA. For more information on workshops visit Morgan at bymorganbaker.com.

A Memoir Takes Its Place: A Conversation with Rebecca McClanahan

September 8, 2020 § Leave a comment

We are posting one of our September Craft Essays a bit early to celebrate the recent release of Rebecca McClanahan’s new book, In the Key of New York City: A Memoir in Essays (Red Hen Press). In this craft contribution, Nancy Geyer talks with McClanahan, a frequent Brevity contributor over the years, about the crafting of her memoir, with a focus on conveying setting.

Here’s an excerpt,

Nancy Geyer: In one of your craft essays for Brevity“Forest in the Trees,” you mention recurring patterns or motifs as a way to unify a book. They can also reinforce the feel of a place, right? I’m thinking of your squirrels and park benches.

Rebecca McClanahan: Yes, recurring motifs seem a natural way to unify a book and to situate the reader in a place. And you’re right about animals and park benches! Squirrels do indeed scamper now and then through the book’s pages, but quite a few other creatures make appearances as well—pigeons and ducks, including the duckling in the Hans Christian Andersen statue, and the dogs in the park, and even the baby bird that the homeless man shows me nesting in the lining of his jacket.

And yes, the park bench was such an important part of my experience of New York—not only as my own physical (if temporary) stake on the landscape and a place from which to view the scene, but also as an opportunity for conversations with strangers, who were always eager to share their stories and their sometimes strange but always intriguing wisdom. In that way, a park bench is where the public and private meet, right? Which seems to echo the experience of living in New York. At least my own experience during the time we lived there.

Now, take a moment to pop over and read the full interview here.

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