Stop While You’re a Head: On Emotion in Writing

I keep trying to write ABOUT things — Man’s Inhumanity to Man, the Passing of Time, the Folly of Democracy. All kinds of capital-lettered concepts. And it’s all crap.

As long as I’m trying to write ABOUT something, it’s effortful, awkward, and bad. The only hope is to get out of my head, and to write out of instinct and felt things, not thought things. The only hope is to try to write moments not of intellectual insight but impossible-to-describe emotions.

The other morning I was washing dishes. The sink window looks out over my hated neighbor’s side yard where the hated barking dogs hang out and bark. One of the dogs was out there. One of the hated neighbors was out there too.

I know these beings intimately, in the way neighbors know each other. Reluctantly, inadvertently. So I knew in an instant — from the unusualness of the moment, the postures, the timing, the shaved patch on the dog’s side — that the dog was dying, and the woman had just realized it in earnest. The dog could not get up. The woman could not get the dog up.

I put down my sponge, went out in my bare feet into the alley that separates us. For a second we looked at each other, this triptych: dog glancing at me, then back to its owner, the woman at me, then back to the dog, me at the dog, then her, then back to the dog. There was nothing we could do for each other.

I asked if I could help. She said she didn’t know what to do. I said I didn’t either. She said, “I need to get her inside.” I wanted to suggest we just make her comfortable where she was, but thought that might too frankly address the reality of the situation, so suggested we call her vet, or that I help carry her in. The woman, Katherine, said, “I have one more idea,” and went back up the stairs into her house.

I stayed and talked to the dog, Daisy. She began slowly getting herself up, slowly moving toward the stairs. Katherine came back out. I called, “I’ll come around to help you if she needs help getting up the stairs,” but as I watched, dog and woman slowly climbed the stairs, entered the house. At the door, Katherine turned, waved, “Thank you,” she said. The vet came later that day to put Daisy down.

The next morning the remaining dog began the usual barking in the quiet morning, and I went back to hating them all. Such is my fickle heart. Write about THAT.

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