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What We Keep

It seemed like a good idea at the time...

"Are you sure about this?"


I think there may be an arm of fate or a discerning muse who, if a writer has been Good, will keep her from certain cliffs. Both my new books are sequels, of a sort, and were intended to have been written years ago, but set aside for various reasons. When I had the opportunity to finish them, I found that large chunks of both old plotlines were trite, implausible, and in one case historically impossible. I am grateful to whatever anti-muse kept me from writing them as-is all those years ago.


I had to re-read the previous books, of course, and did so with some trepidation, but apparently I was more restrained in those, or possibly had a good editor who said, "Good grief, think again," or words to that effect. For whatever reason, the old ones seemed to me to hold up, although I did want to make the kind of marginal notes that I am in the habit of jotting down for writing students. You know the kind of thing: "Stilted dialog."  "Overused analogy."  "Can you find a fresher image?"  "This sentence has escaped you entirely."


One thing this new venture into old projects has taught me is this: Never throw away that manuscript that no one wanted. You never know when someone will, and if there are excellent reasons why no one wanted it, you will most likely see them now and do something about that. I can't remember how often I thought about tossing those, clogging up the basement shelves in those wonderful sturdy cardboard boxes that typing paper used to come in, just right for a manuscript. I think maybe it was the boxes I didn't want to part with. You can't get them now and I guard my small hoard of them. So here's to the muse that put them on the shelf for my own good, and the goddess of office supplies who whispered in my ear, "You may want those boxes."


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Love & Dogs

Percy waiting for Felix to come home


In the aftermath of the Day of the Dead this weird warm November, all the dogs of my lifetime come drifting across my memories, perhaps lured by the heartening news that there will be dogs in the White House again. A friend has just adopted a dog, Sabina Beans, and I have been following her adventures on Facebook with joy because Sabina Beans is so clearly happy to be this friend's dog.


When something decides to love you, it's not a gift you can give back.


Percy was a rescue. We acquired him when our golden retriever died and we thought the pug, Gilly, would be lonesome with no one to boss around. He was three years old, had a mournful expression and a Hapsburg jaw and had never been neutered until the rescue people got him. He also had whipworms.


We took Gilly with us to pick him up in Virginia Beach, knowing that if we left her for three days and came home with another pug she would lose it entirely and pee on everything we owned. The hotel allowed "one small dog" so after we collected Percy we had to take them out for walks separately, on the theory that the desk clerks probably couldn't tell one pug from another. He seemed to like us and Gilly seemed to think that she had picked him out.


We brought him home, treated the whipworms, and began to discover that he had certain. . .peculiarities. He had clearly been weaned too soon and had a habit of sucking on the bedclothes, leaving rings of small tooth holes that eventually enlarged into one big one so that all our quilts looked as if giant moths had been at them.


Mainly he had a thing about people coming in the front door. Someone sometime had clearly come through a front door and done something bad, and he wasn't having it again. His strongest reaction was to men, but he would bite women's ankles as well when he felt like it. He would also bite them when they left, for good measure. He was better with men who were dog people, and he was fine with my husband's brother for some reason. We also discovered that if there was a large party (we held several gatherings every summer for the students and faculty in my graduate program) we could shut him upstairs until there were ten people or so in the house, and then he would be fine since there were so many he didn't know who to bite. And most of the students in my children's literature program were female, so that helped, as did liberal applications of dog biscuits. He did have a tendency to tree the male students until someone rescued them. When he bit an illustration professor we had to quit letting him socialize under any circumstances that might get me fired, or sued. So after that we would have to shut him upstairs, where he howled and moaned and shrieked and threw himself against the door.


When we had had him for about a year, our son moved back home. For the first month, Percy followed him around barking. Our bedrooms were opposite each other across the hall and at night any time that Felix got up, Percy would hurl himself off our bed and bark at him some more. This went on for about a month until we were all nuts, and then his magnetic poles reversed or something. One day Percy decided he was in love with Felix instead. He followed him everywhere, a one-pug motorcade, demanded to sleep in his bed (he moaned and whined outside the door if Felix tried not letting him in) and now lost it completely every time Felix left the house. He lay down by the front door alternately whining and producing a cross between a moan and a bellow that sounded like a lovelorn foghorn. If Felix left in the company of a female, Percy was particularly unstrung.


Just having Felix on the other side of any door that he couldn't go through was too much for Percy. He would sit outside the bathroom door and moan and fuss while Felix shaved or took a bath or anything else. I made it worse one night while Felix was bathing and Percy was gibbering outside the door and I was trying to sleep. I leapt out of bed, flung the bathroom door open, screamed "I can't stand this anymore!" and shoved Percy through it. Percy was a dog with whom it didn't take much to set a precedent. After that Felix had to keep a dog bed in the bathroom and take Percy with him, accompanied by muttering in my direction about whose fault that was.


Felix had not wanted a dog, and he particularly had not wanted Percy, who bit all his friends and behaved like a helicopter parent when he went out. But it's a funny thing about what happens when something loves you. It's hard not to love it back. When a dog insists on sleeping with you, and will go anywhere with you even if he knows it's to the vet, and clearly thinks you are his personal god, then something happens.  When he says, "I'm your dog," he is.


So Percy was Felix's dog, even if he belonged to us, sleeping in his laundry and on his bed, riding shotgun in the car to the Dairy Queen that Felix knew gave free dog treats, switching finally from walks to pottering around the dog park as he developed arthritis, Felix's self-selected dog  for the rest of his life, a dog who found love in middle age and stuck with it.

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Oh do you write?

The office assistants felt the third chapter was slow.

Also it needs more dogs.


These are the encounters that make writers morose at parties, in case you were wondering.


Person at Cocktail Party: You're a writer? I love books! I bet I've read yours! Tell me some of your books!

Author: They weren't best sellers exactly. You really may not have heard of them.

Person ACP (apparently under the impression that there are only about 50 books published each year): Oh I read all the time, I bet I have.

Author: Names most recent book, favorite book, and the one that sold the best.

Person ACP: Oh, I guess I haven't heard of you.


Person Who Has Read Your Book: I just loved it! Have you thought of making it into a movie?

Author (who like every other writer on the planet daydreams ferociously about this): Well, of course, but it's not that easy.

Person WHRYB: My cousin works in Hollywood. I'll give him your name. He'll just love it. (He's on the crew of a reality show.)


Person Who Is Very Busy: I would write a book myself, but I just don't have the time.

Author: It does take time.

Person WIVB: I have a terrific idea though. No one else has thought of it. I'll tell you my idea and you can write it and we'll share the money.

Author: I have lots of ideas myself. And books don't make much money.

Person WIVB: This one will. It's a great idea. (Proceeds to explain it at length while author looks for another drink.)


Person Who Has Just Finished Your Book: I really dislike books with swearing in them. Or drinking. Or adultery. Or spiders.

Author: Oh dear.

In some ways I'm with this latter group. I won't read a book where the dog dies. (Although I did just kill a horse.) I usually don't tell its author that over the shrimp toast.


I am aware that this makes me look like a grump. Put it down to my writing it on election day.

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