Thursday, August 9, 2012

Suffering for Art

Professor Anne came home from the vet yesterday and is recovering nicely from a pit bull attack. She wants everyone to see her badass nose stitches and her awesomely goozing leg wounds, but she is terribly embarrassed by her cone of shame. Aside from the physical injuries, you wouldn't know anything had happened to her. She follows me around and staring at me as if to say, “How about you take this Elizabethan bullshit off my neck and we’ll play with the squeaky popsicle?” When I try to explain that she needs to rest and lie quietly and not disturb her wounds, she seems unconvinced. She refuses to wait for me to help her with stairs or getting into the car. She still wants to meet and play with other dogs.
I, on the other hand, feel like I re-watch the attack in my mind about fifty times a day. I find it hard to sleep, concentrate, and to not tense up when we meet other dogs on our walks. I've worked with dogs for years, and rationally I understand that what happened is just a freak thing, and that we're lucky the damage isn't worse. It's amazing to me that the professor is the one who actually endured the attack, and yet she's already moved on.

"I'd be fine if it wasn't for this f''in' satellite dish around my neck."
When she looks at me like, “What’s the BFD?” I explain that because I’m human, I'm obligated to plant myself in that moment the other dog grabbed her and do the whole What if? and I should have… and If only… even though these thoughts are completely unproductive and my concern looks ridiculous next to her high spirits and amusing cone collar antics.

This situation has made me think—as so many non-writing-related situations do—about writing. And how every once in a while I feel a little like a fraud, because I make it my job to think about worst case scenarios, the deepest ways people can hurt, the hardest choices we have to make. Then I write about those situations, often without having actually experienced them.

What happened to Anne is the most disturbing thing I’ve ever witnessed firsthand. And probably I should feel lucky that the worst thing I’ve ever seen is one dog attacking another. Because way worse stuff happens in the world.

But life’s not a suffering contest. All of us, whatever we’ve done and seen and endured, are working from the same emotional palette. Getting dumped might not sound as bad as getting stranded in the wilderness with no food, but maybe both situations evoke similar feelings of abandonment, loneliness, despair, and fear about the future. Maybe the person who gets dumped takes way longer to recover than the person who finally makes it back to civilization. There are no rules about what events should affect us and how.

That's what I love about writing. Falling in love becomes epic. A simple trip to the grocery store ends up changing the lives of everyone in the new age beverage aisle. I used to read a lot of books as a kid where the MC really wanted a pet but his/her parents didn't, and I would get so invested in those stories. Suddenly nothing in the world--war, poverty, strife, the Indians winning a World Series--mattered as much to me as Mandy convincing her parents to let her get a snake.

I’ve always been a bigger fan of Nicholas Delbanco’s theory that by the age of four a writer has experienced every emotion he or she needs to write compelling fiction than the notion that young writers—or young artists in any medium—can’t create deep works because they haven’t suffered or experienced enough. I'm sure many of us empathize more deeply with fictional situations that mirror our own, and I hope and expect to always be growing into a smarter, stronger, more complex writer (and person) as I age. But who decides what level of experience or suffering is “enough?” Maybe it’s not what we experience so much as how we understand and process our experiences.

I think a lot about the idea of fiction as escapism. Of course I read and write to hang out in other worlds and live vicariously through characters. But I don’t think there can be true connection with a work of fiction, either as a reader or a writer, without understanding and empathy. Without introspection. Maybe fiction isn’t so much a way to avoid the thoughts, feelings, and situations we fear in RL as it is a way to meet them head on.

I can’t be like Anne and shake off the bad stuff that happens like it was nothing. But I also don’t want to go through life collecting unexamined wounds that never fully heal. So I seek or create characters with similar wounds and watch the way they deal with them, and slowly start to understand how I deal with mine.

I love my dog and I love writing because they both encourage a similar approach to life: take the things that hurt you and let them become a part of you. Take as long as you need to adjust to them being there. And when you’re ready, pick up the squeaky popsicle and keep playing.


  1. Was it an Alabama Pit Bull or a West Virginia one? I am so sorry that happened. Get well soon Professor!

    1. West Virginia, and on a public trail. The Professor thanks you, though she believes she is already well. She is hilarious on her pain meds.

  2. Poor Professor Anne!

    Keep your chin up, Professor, I don't think it looks like a satellite dish, it's more of a regal Elizabethan ruff, surely.

    My dog Cleo had to wear one of those once. It rendered her incapable of walking up the three steps into my house. She kept wondering what happened, looking down, and smacking herself back down the steps. Hi-larious! (I took it off her after an hour, when it was obvious she wasn't going to figure how to lift her chin.)

  3. Aw, Cleo! Yes, the professor got stuck in a lot of doorways. I tried not to laugh. I wore the collar a couple of times to make her feel better about it.