Universal ChordsPosted: September 24, 2008
Lee Gutkind sent me a signed copy of his book Forever Fat: Essays by the Godfather because it sold out at our “5 R’s of Creative Nonfiction” workshop last Saturday before I could buy it.
Anyone who knows me knows I do not approach things in an ordered way. Even books. I will first hold a book in both hands, cup its spine, squeeze it somewhat for depth, caress its front, hug it to my chest. I know that what’s inside the book will have an impact on me, will change my life in some way. I will look at the book’s front cover, the back cover, the back flap, the front flap — maybe not in this order — and then I will glance at the Acknowledgments and flip through the pages, stopping on a sentence here and there. I breathe in the smell of the pages and let my eyes land on words as though they are pieces of a puzzle…and really they are. I can get a feel for the work just by taking in random words. Then I go to the Contents page. I get a sense of the book and the author by the titles there. I will first pick a title or two that might interest me, read those stories first, and then go back and approach the book from the beginning.
Anyone who is familiar with the contents of Lee’s book and who also knows me knows exactly which title I picked first to read. “Dog Story.” Of course. I have my own dog stories, two about Molly and one about Chaeli in Pink Butterbeans, my book of essays. You don’t know a person until you have read his words, his thoughts and feelings and until you go through with him the experiences he has lived and hurt and pushed through and feel the impact of those. This is true of anyone, even the Godfather.
There’s a thread that links the reader to the writer, the reader feeling the emotions, identifying with the writer in similar situations and picking out the pieces in her own life that spark the same feelings as those of the writer.
The writer of creative nonfiction must strike a universal chord to make his personal work relevant to others. We all write because we have an idea inside our hearts that what has happened in our own lives will have an impact on others. Others will take our work to heart and be affected by what we say and how we say it. Readers will naturally feel close to us, one with us, they will feel as though they know us in a personal and intimate way, and because of our expression in words and works, they will have a better understanding of themselves and their horizons will be extended.
In “Dog Story” Lee shares his experience with Icy, a beloved German Shepherd who changed in personality after Lee’s divorce from his first wife. Icy displayed aggressive behavior, attacked a child, then an adult friend. Icy couldn’t be trusted. Icy went to work with a K-9 unit, grew more vicious, and had to be euthanized.
As the reader, I found chords in the story that linked me to the author, experiences I could relate to, things that brought feelings surging to the surface.
First of all, there was Buffy, my family’s first dog, when my boys were little. Buffy was a mix of Collie and pit bull and was the smartest dog I have ever known. She was playful and happy and chased leaves in the fall and fire sparkles on the Fourth of July. She came into season before she was a year old, and I was unwise then and put a pair of my panties on her to keep her safe and left her tied up outdoors one night. The next morning she was gone, and the panties were crumpled on the grass. She had gone to the creek with Bullet and Chainsaw. She was like a child; she played with us when we played. And then one day as I was gently swinging my one-year-old around in circles, Buffy nipped at his feet. I thought she wanted to play, so I picked her up and swung her around, too. From then on she seemed jealous of the baby. She didn’t want me to carry him. We lived in a town where there were no leash laws, so Buffy wandered the neighborhood. One day she lost patience with a barking dog on the next street and lit into him. It took hundreds of stitches to repair the dog. Buffy started barking at children who came to play. I began chaining her on the patio, so she could be outdoors but she wasn’t a threat to people. One day she barked viciously, jumping and thrusting and pulling at her leash, all her teeth bared, her voice straining in a new and different way, trying to get to Chad and Chan who came over to play. She would have killed them both if she had broken loose. I knew then that Buffy had to go. My yard was often filled with little children, and I couldn’t take the risk. We found Buffy a home way out in the country with an older couple. I couldn’t watch her go, I couldn’t follow up, I hoped she did okay, but I had my doubts, and it hurt.
Lee says that Icy was more loyal than his first wife, who cheated on him. My first husband cheated on me, too. I know the feelings associated with that and even though I determined he was weak and insecure, it was not enough to negate my feelings of being unworthy and of being not enough.
I had a dog euthanized once, too. Molly, my beloved golden retriever who got cancer at the age of eleven and couldn’t swallow, was put to sleep to end her suffering.
The doctor arrived at noon. I spread a blue flannel blanket on the patio, looked into her weary eyes and said, “Come lie down, Molly. It’s time.” She knew. And she lay down on the blanket beside me. My husband held me, and I cradled her in my arms. The next seconds were a teary blur of pink fluid injected into her leg and my repeated assurances: “I love you. Go rest.” I wanted her to go hearing my voice and feeling my touch. I was the first human she ever heard or saw and I wanted to be the last. The doctor said her heart had stopped. She died right there in my arms. Death came quickly and quietly. As significant as life is, I couldn’t tell when hers ended. There should have been a spark, a flash of light, the sound of a trumpet, an indication that her soul had departed and drifted heavenward. How could she slip away so easily and peacefully without my knowing? [Pink Butterbeans]
Personal and private stories become public stories, writer and reader sharing a common bond, common emotions, common feelings, magic moments and those that are bittersweet or poignant or gut-wrenching.