Lost Dogs, Lost Dads and the Unhesitating Heart


There’s Something About Harry

Before I had heard that this dog had been lost, before I’d heard that his owner was lost without him, I felt a pang myself. That’s the power of an image—or more accurately, the power of an emotion. My sister had sent me this photo, telling me that it was a picture of Harry, her friend’s dog that had gone missing that morning. But I didn’t even get to that point in Harry’s sad story before I felt my own loss.

What looking at the picture did was take me immediately to a memory, one I hadn’t thought of in years, of a German Shepherd that my family had brought home from the pound when I was eight or nine. I think my brother and I were supposed to share responsibility for the dog, but I do remember that I was in the lead in begging to have a dog. Our dog, Champ, was a beautiful shepherd like Harry, and he was friendly and fun, but he had a “flaw”: he could easily jump over the five-foot fence that bound our yard, and he did it regularly. We had to hunt him down, all in a frenzy, over and over.

I don’t recall how deep the discussion and if many other solutions were offered, but my dad decided, perhaps only after a month or so, to return Champ to the pound. I was crushed. I remember driving to the pound with the dog in the back of the station wagon, hating my dad at the wheel, my face burning. It’s strange to still have the salt active in a wound from so long ago, and stranger still the mix of emotions, because it makes me miss my dad, who died a couple of years back.

Emotions Jump Without a Net

But this post isn’t exactly about dogs, nor about losses, as an adult or a child. More so that some emotional grounds, though they might be covered, are never actually buried. People’s emotions can jump from their bodies without any chance for their cerebral side to intervene. And that’s where we as writers, whether of business or essay or tale, should open a gate. Not as manipulators of emotion, but encouragers of it. Post the pictures in readers’ minds of lost dogs, stern parents, the gleam of future dreams.

No matter if you are writing about email marketing programs or the electricity of your first kiss, try to open the gate so the emotion comes through. (Now you might grant me the kiss part, but email marketing? Believe it, there’s a charge and a current in everything—you just have to plug it in.) So yes, the Internet has changed the game—at least on this side of the digital divide—but before the first packet, before the first link, before the first tweet, there was the human heart. It leaps.

Oh, by the way: Harry? Harry made it home. Good dog!

Flesh and Blood Are We

I had a post at Firepole Marketing a short while back that runs its fingers through a few of the things discussed here. Check it out: Flesh and Blood, Meet Flesh and Blood.

How to Write with Emotion and Balance

The Maid of Orleans

Years ago (and long years after our relationship ended), my high school girlfriend disappeared in Colombia. She was never found. She was my first true love, a unique person whose intelligence, creativity, looks, unaffectedness and a charmingly open goofiness bowled me over. I was still in love with her when she disappeared, and am in love with her memory today.

Over the past few years, I’ve tried to shape with words that sense of appreciation, loss and regret I feel for Joyce’s life and her passing. But I have been unsatisfied with the results—I can’t hit the right marks without veering off into gloppiness, or in trying to avoid that, into some parched field of objectivity, plucked of passion’s flowers. It’s frustrating, because pulling up the bucket from the deep well of emotion can produce the sweetest water. When done skillfully, opening the flesh of an old wound is when the blood pours most red, most true.

Mark Twain considered Joan of Arc to be one of history’s most extraordinary figures, as indeed she is. His biography of her, though praised in some circles, was widely panned for its sentimentality and reverential, plodding, un-Twainlike style. Yet he thought it one of his greatest works. Perhaps the Joan-besotted Twain was unable to write with the same sharpness in his pen because of his admiration for one of history’s legends. His love clouded his writerly craft.

Emotional, Yes, Emoting, No
The reason I’m mulling these things is because of my father’s recent death. I wrote a short piece on him just hours after I’d learned of his passing. Though it’s in the same room with the thoughts and feelings I wanted to convey, it’s not actually at the bedside, touching the man, relating that touch.

It’s funny about writing and writers: I was crying when I wrote that piece, but yet I was in my writer’s mind as well: weighing words, syntax, rhythms, as you should for any piece of writing. I very much wanted to pull from my own well, but not so that the bucket overflowed, making the results sloppy, the expression mushy. That writing didn’t do what I wanted it to do, but at least it served as a purge for overflowing feeling, and its sense of love for my father was true.

Fact, Fiction and Feeling
I’m thinking now that I’ll try again to write both about my father and about Joyce, using the essay form I admire. However, it might make sense to make them fictional characters at some point, twist some facts and details, layer some composites. Fictionalizing people and events might provide a conscious perspective, without losing that quickening, the essence of the models, the breathing people as you perceived them.

It’s strange to deliberate over how to write about people you love. It sounds too calculated. You might think the best way is simply to let it out, to gush, to let the sobs show in the lines. There is emotional value there, surely, but here I’m talking about the finer construction: to get at your honest feelings—past the first juddering of shock, despair, loss—you need to probe, to ponder, to position and reposition your points. I think we owe that care to the memory of our subjects, whatever the cost of the honesty.

Emotional Writing Can Cut the Cake (But It’s Not Always Sweet)

Channeling emotion to drive your creative writing can be a two-way street: Writing fueled by emotion can pulse with the power of realness, show broken skin or broken heart; it’s where you write from being in the game, rather than watching it. But writing from a personal current can also produce florid overwriting, work that’s colored by mawkish hues, or even blindly inaccurate prose that freezes on a fixed point of view. I think focused, emotional writing can smack a ringing bell, but that misdirected emotion in writing can dilute its strengths, making it merely personal.

I was thinking these things because I’m down in my Southern California home town, staying with my parents for a bit. In the last year, my 92-year-old father has fallen deeper into his advanced Alzheimer’s, and is now mostly confined to a bed, only “rising” by means of a hoist that has to be operated by two people to maneuver him into a wheelchair. But he’s still at home, still sloppily able to feed himself, still brightening when people enter his room and greet him, though he’s likely as not to not recognize the greeter.

I’ve written about his condition before, when his diminished capacity wasn’t as advanced, but lately he’s turned a corner, and even if his body lingers, his mind is becoming more ghostly, his world a small, small corner, with dimming light. I again want to write about my father, want to write again about how I never truly knew what he wanted, what his aspirations were, whether he judged his life a good one, if he even did pause to judge it.

Fathers and Sons, Arms Linked, Arm’s Length
I’ve previously touched upon how my father’s manner resembles mine in some ways: a person quick to make a joke, but in the joking also perhaps making a space between himself and others, perhaps more comfortable with a certain distance. I know that is true of myself, but I don’t absolutely know if it’s true of my father, because I never felt intimate enough with him to probe. I know he’s always been a warm man, a reliable caretaker of my siblings and mom, a war veteran, a guy who taught me, to my great pleasure, to play baseball and basketball. But those are thrown-off evaluations, resume-writing; the core of the man is elusive to me.

So, my father, diapered, his country now a small bed, the tv on to keep him “company,” attended by my valiant, near-blind mother, at 87, herself slowing to time’s great watch. And I want to write about it, with emotion, but accurately, with the precision my father is entitled to, not to force anyone (or myself) to feel my discomfort, but just to write with the deserved passion that testifying about someone’s life requires, without twisting the words to torque feelings.

An aside: I’ve been reading my friend Jule Kucera’s blog, where she is recounting the early days with her husband Trent, some years before his untimely death. Her writing is frank, revelatory, vivid and sometimes embarrassing. And undoubtedly painful for her; I can feel its emotional power—and yet there’s still a writerly sensibility and restraint. I appreciate Jule’s model.

Here’s to writing that’s real.