What We Can Learn About Memoir from a Dog

An interesting memoir can come from anywhere and anyone. To back this up I direct you to my current favorite example of memoir: “Memoirs of an Owned Dog” a song by the duo now known as the Milk Carton Kids. The song is sung from perspective of a dog and delivers the funny and endearing tale of man’s best friend in a highlight reel of memoir tropes.The ordinary dog of the song proves there is room within the structure of memoir for humor, creativity, and profundity. I love a good memoir, and I love this song, the following lyrical analysis explains why.

 

The first lines:

“the food was as I like it… cold, wet & in that wonderful tin can shape
I had it marked in a paw print on the dog door the day that I finally planned my escape”

Like any good memoir the scene is set with solid concrete specific detail, and the beginnings of some conflict or action are alluded to.

Next:

“the milkman, he tried
you can bet I wanted to survive but the truck it just came far too fast
So I write on these scraps, my remembrances past, so you don’t blame yourself that I’ve died”

The inciting action is recounted and the impetus for committing of the memoir to paper is revealed.

After the chorus:

“I had dreams of walking the world on my own
four on the floor, every night all alone
I was ready to work for the scruff on my neck
yearning to find something of my own to protect”

The idealism of youth is established with great dramatic irony as the audience is already aware of the impending doom.

Later:

“my bark, then, was surely bigger than my bite
chewing the cud could’ve been my biggest dog fight
and you know how they say we only hear certain things that you say
well, it never mattered much to me but for the will of the way”

Insecurities and shortcomings are revealed through pensive musings on the activities of the everyday.

Then the chorus again:

“they put horses out to pasture
and the birds come home to roost
ain’t nothin’ for a puppy but the backyard on the loose
now I know my job was to lie idly beside
the way the sun retreats for the moon”

Universal themes introduced earlier in the chorus are repeated now to relate to the author’s personal story with poignant tugging at the heart strings.

Next:

“now I loosen this collar for a dog bone bow tie
to go up and meet the big dog in the sky
i’ll tell him when I get there I was spoiled in your place with the hopes that my spirit is honored by your grace”

Loose ends begin to resolve as the fate of the story is accepted. Special time is given to be thankful for the truly important things, and keep the mood hopeful.

Then:

“so after you read this memoir one day
or after you hear my lonesome song play
don’t you trouble your mind, this old hound’s doin’ fine
you know, goodbyes are just words like a clock is to time”

Wrapping the story up is typically sad, and requires words of assurance for the audience. Also included are a few final words of profound wisdom – something to grow on and ponder.

Lastly:

“so sorry I’m not with you
so sorry I can’t be
please know I was the best friend this old mutt could be
if you remember that spot where my favorite tree grows I hung up my leash on a branch, now it’s yours”

The bitter-sweet acknowledgements and epilogue tie everything up in an emotionally satisfying manner.

 

Click the link to see and hear some witty pre-song banter and a Simon Garfunkel-esque performance of the tear jerking “Memoirs of an Owned Dog.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3_0fnP-Mb38

— Clay Reuter

Thoughts on Research from Our Authors: Donna Steiner

We asked some of the authors that we have published to reflect on research in their nonfiction work. Donna Steiner wrote the essay “Studying the Trees” published in our second issue. What follows are some of her thoughts on the research that she conducted for her essay.

Some of the things I researched for “Studying the Trees” include the facts and figures about “visible light;” the names of our local birds; and a few words I already knew the meanings of.  I do the latter in the interest of precision.  I have a deep desire to be as accurate and specific as possible, and that often means a relatively pleasurable hunt for the right words and the right sounds.

In the case of the birds listed on page 74, for example, I think the names matter for several reasons.  One, the words are wonderful in themselves.  Martins, loons, curlews, grackles, vireos – how could I resist the sonic qualities alone?  But also, precision enhances imagery.  I don’t need to show every bird, because the names themselves each evoke a distinct image.  The reader can therefore visualize a scarlet tanager or a mourning dove or a cedar waxwing. Precision becomes a kind of shorthand.  And I believe that shorthand can be lushly evocative in terms of what the reader hears and sees and, hopefully, in terms of what they feel.

Some Thoughts on Medieval Statuary, Gay Talese, and Iconoclasts.

The west façade of the Cathedral at Exeter, in Devon, England, like countless other Gothic façades, is honeycombed with niches containing statues of saints, heroes, angels, and princes, and these are interlaced with stone vines, flowers, animals, grotesques, and gargoyles. Thirteenth century frogs, mice, baboons, oxen, and dogs perch around doorways. Bishops lift their hands in blessing. Winged demons smirk. Martyrs stand in frozen glory, the instruments of their martyrdom held in their hands like trophies. The statues’ impassive eyes stare out over the Cathedral Green, which serves as a park and meeting place for the city. Couples lounge together on the grass, groups of tourists eat picnic lunches; toddlers run around chasing the seagulls. Almost all of these—human and seabird—are oblivious to the more than one hundred thousand bodies buried inches beneath them. The Green used to be the town cemetery; for centuries it was illegal to bury one’s dead anywhere else. And so the community of stone keeps watch over the community of bone. Together they have dwelt here for seven centuries and if anyone can lay claim to owning this place, it is them, mute witnesses to a long history that to me, as an American, seems overwhelming.

Exeter Cathedral

Although all of the figures are literally blind, some of the statues see less than others. These have been decapitated or have had their faces smashed in. They stand resolutely in their niches, bearing their devastating scars proudly, the souvenirs of a second martyrdom at the hand of protestant iconoclasts: Henry VIII’s reformers, or, later, Cromwell’s Puritan supporters.

When we, inhabitants of the 21st century, use the word “iconoclast,” we tend to mean someone—often an artist or writer or activist—who attacks accepted ideas, beliefs, or traditions. But the original meaning of that word comes from the literal breaking of icons—the destruction of images used in religious decoration and observance.

In the case of the Exeter statues, while both groups of iconoclasts may also have had political motivations for their actions, their stated motivations were religious ones. Protestant iconoclasts saw the images as graven images, false idols of Catholicism, the remnants of a dark, misguided religion. Henry’s men, and later the Roundheads, went about the country smashing medieval sacred art, stabling their horses in churches like Westminster Abbey, and using centuries old stained glass for target practice. In the space of a few years, they’d destroyed hundreds of thousands of works of art. The iconoclasts were not only destructive, but also lazy: only the statues within reach of the ground have been vandalized. Anything higher than that was spared.

Centuries later, as I stand at the foot of Exeter Cathedral’s western wall, I am still filled with rage at the obscene vandalism, the complete ignorance that prompted it. I fucking hate iconoclasts (the original definition).

I’ve been here the past week as part of an American choir that is filling in for the cathedral’s resident choirs. As I sit in the Cathedral day after day singing, I am constantly aware of the work that went into its creation. Its interior walls are covered with the same kind of decoration that graces the west façade, and they have been similarly vandalized. I think of the hundreds of gifted medieval masons, sculptors, and craftsmen who dedicated their lives to serving God and decorating God’s temple. I think of all those gifted, worn, callused hands lifting stone, cutting it, carving it, shaping it, polishing it, painting it. I think of all the love and care and energy and time those men gave—as well as their intellect and creativity. The decorations at Exeter—and other Gothic places—are whimsical as well as beautiful. The Cathedral’s builder’s flea-ridden dog pops up in unexpected places—at the base of arches, in doorways. Demons roast a hapless sinner on a spit.

I think of the love and labor of the artist, and then I think of anger and ignorance of the iconoclast who did not understand the art. The iconoclast who, having reduced his worldview to the narrow strictures of a fundamentalist faith, could only comprehend those statues as idols. Ignorant of history and suspicious of art, he couldn’t fathom any other purpose to those statues. But of course, the statues on the west wall were never meant to be worshipped, but to serve as nonverbal religious instruction and as inspiration to the faithful. They were meant to be beautiful.

While I’ve been in Exeter, I’ve been reading Gay Talese’s Thy Neighbor’s Wife, his study of sexual liberation in the United States. In addition to the more famous—or infamous—descriptions of sexual activity and his immersion in it, there is also an extended history of American literary censorship. The impulse behind American censorship seems to me to be the same as the one behind those hammer-wielding Protestants of hundreds of years ago. Self-appointed morality committees and anti-pornography crusaders defined as obscene any frank or detailed depiction of sexuality, including marriage manuals, birth control pamphlets, and classical literature. As a result of their advocacy, works of art as intricate and genial as the Exeter statuary were banned alongside cheap pornography: Ovid. Boccaccio, Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, Joyce’s Ulysses, Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, etc. Countless independent editors, publishers, and distributors were jailed for selling them. Like their Puritan forbearers, the censors in their dogmatic ignorance could not conceive of a purpose in those books other than prurience. And, like their forbearers, their fear of one sin, idolatry (in the case of the Puritans) or libidinousness (in the case of the censors), led them to commit a greater sin: the wanton destruction of culture.

Talese himself faced criticism for Thy Neighbor’s Wife, especially for his participatory journalism. Although he was married, Talese included in his research a stay in a free love community, intercourse with other women and erotic massage, among other immersion experiences. Many believed he’d only used the book as an excuse to engage in extramarital sex. Talese said in an interview for a 2009 profile in New York, “If you want to write about orgies, you’re not going to be in the press box with your little press badge keeping your distance. You have to have a kind of affair with your sources. You have to hang out! I wanted to write about sexuality and the changing definition of morality. Maybe if I had put that in a subhead on the cover I might have gotten a better hearing.” Instead, Talese received the worst reviews of his career and, he felt, the scorn of fellow writers. We are, now, perhaps, more comfortable with creative nonfiction’s techniques of immersive writing and the use of detailed scene. I wonder if the book would have been as controversial in 2013 as it was in 1980. I wonder how many of us would be comfortable in immersing ourselves in such experiences? Whatever the answer, it is certain that Talese was breaking rules and taking risks—personal, artistic, and moral. An iconoclast, if you will.

While it was never banned, Thy Neighbor’s Wife enters the tradition of books like Ulysses, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and Tropic of Cancer, whose authors saw sex and sexuality as topics worthy of exploration through literature. Talese was surely aware that without the efforts of the writers, independent publishers, and anti-censorship crusaders he writes about—the true iconoclasts, many of whom suffered for the cause of artistic freedom—his own book would also have been banned.

In writing about the new sexual landscape, Talese changed—or if you prefer, shattered—readers’ cherished beliefs about ‘normal’ sexuality, an iconoclasm that expanded our understanding of contemporary American culture and our own desires.

As I continue to read They Neighbor’s Wife, I’m put in mind of an amazing essay we will publish in the next issue of 1966, Alicia Catt’s “On Saliva.” Like Talese’s book, it is a sharply observed, wide-ranging look at the body and what we do with it. I can’t wait for you to read it.

–Kelly Grey Carlisle