In 2012, I adopted a ten-year-old dachshund named Charlie Brown. We spent just over three years together before he passed away, but it was as if we’d always been together. And along with us lived the novel-in-progress I wore like Charlie Brown wore his hot dog costume: sometimes reluctantly, a little embarrassedly, taken out only when others asked about it, bringing more delight to people I mentioned it to than it probably deserved at the time. I would never now compare the book to a hot dog costume, but Charlie Brown made it better just as though it were propped up off the floor by his low, long back.
By nature I’m a shy person who takes a while to get to know people and ease into new situations. Maybe most writers are a little on the sidelines, observing. I was amazed at how quickly Charlie Brown attached himself to me—physically. Within a day of our adoption proceedings, he was snuggled against my leg on the couch and leaning against the backs of my ankles as I washed dishes. Writing always indulged my inwardness, but thinking about publishing a book was different; the awareness others would read my work seemed to follow the edges of my words like an eraser that took a little off here, wiped a chunk out completely there. There was something to be learned from how Charlie Brown climbed into new laps without permission or fear of rejection. If I moved slightly in the night, he’d wiggle unabashedly until we were firmly spooning again. He didn’t just not mind pooping in front of me but seemed to prefer it. There was a writing lesson here (if not a life one).
Amazing photo of Charlie Brown in costume courtesy of author
Walking a dog whose snout is so close to the ground can be a disgusting experience but also a fascinating one. Hounds sniff everywhere. Writers, too, need to follow their noses, showing just as much interest—if not more—in the icky stuff. My story came more alive when I became more attentive to the dirt, sweat, and blood in the everyday world of the novel—when I leaned in closer to sense the mosaic of the gravel my main character felt in her knees.
Imagining what the world looked (and smelled) like from a dachshund’s perspective might be the best long-term writing exercise I ever did. The small gap above the bottom hinge of the gate became his window from the backyard. My laptop power cord sticking up in loops from the floor was a hurdle he backed up to get a running start for. My characters needed not to always see and do things the way I would.
Characters also needed to look different depending on who was looking at them. To almost everyone we encountered on walks, Charlie Brown was comical in his wiener-ness, his too-big ears flapping in the wind. But one of my friends always described him as noble, especially when he was patrolling the perimeter of my yard or the dog park. She addressed him as Mr. Brown. A neighbor called him Professor Floppy Ears. A little boy once found my tiny dog terrifying, pushing behind his mother’s legs and practically climbing the wall as we all stood waiting for an elevator. Charlie Brown’s tail wagged away.
If I catalogued the number of words and phrases my dog definitely understood, I’d count about a dozen. Though his vocabulary of body language, gestures, and sounds was much larger than the set of words we shared. He always found ways to communicate what he wanted and how he felt. He darted back and forth between me and the door, he barked or whined, he nudged, he licked ecstatically, he made his eyes bigger and more guilt-inducing. When he was gone it felt as though the conversation had been sucked out of my house. “He was a character,” some of my friends have said about him, and characters speak in multiple ways.
Dachshunds are bred to go after smaller critters, their hot dog-like shape allowing them to dip into a burrow and yank out the inhabitant with their teeth. For a while Charlie Brown would chase rabbits from the yard. But at some point he decided to ignore them, once in a while lunging half-heartedly to send them running. Eventually he and the rabbit I named Lucy (the other Charlie Brown’s frenemy) would sit together in the yard, maybe two feet apart. If I opened the back door to check on them, they’d both turn their heads toward me, bored, like siblings not needing their mother’s interference. Characters’ relationships to one another certainly change; high drama ebbs. Our characters can drift away from what we designed them for.
He would still dig when he sniffed out a chipmunk. It took a while with those tiny paws—months even—but he managed to dig some holes that were deep enough I couldn’t see he was in them from afar. This may sound like a warning to writers not to dig themselves into holes, but really it’s a nod to ambition. Our tools are small, but we should keep digging beyond what we seem capable of.
What other book-completing tips do dogs offer us? Enjoy walks and treats. Every so often let the literal or metaphorical lapdog in your life elbow the laptop away. (Is “elbow” the right word for what a dog’s leg would do? Take a walk to ponder.)
Charlie Brown became very ill, somewhat suddenly, well before my book came out, before I knew it would be published, before I’d even uncovered the final version. His life was bookended in a way that perhaps lends itself to story: born on Pearl Harbor Day, dead on September 11 th . (Infamous dates for the sweetest character: the stuff fiction is made of.) But our short time together doesn’t snap into an arc in the same way. We met along the way; we muddled through the final weeks when no one quite knew what was going on or where it would lead. I spent wrenching months wondering if I’d made the wrong decision in choosing the day of his death instead of waiting. Or if I’d made the right decision but at the wrong time. At first, after, it seemed definitely too soon; then, haunted by that final week, I thought it had been too late.
I weighed the idea of a different story: that all of the months of my obsessing were really about my grandmother’s death a few months before his. And then the idea that it was probably both: this and that, too. Both was probably the right answer—my storyline was not laser-focused but one that frayed.
The particular collection of sharp edges that frayed it might have been different for me than for another writer, but that’s how stories gain texture. The finest narratives, I think, resist being finely-bound narratives. The story started before you got there. You adopt your characters, then stand by as they explore within the fence you’ve built for them. You can’t predict the ending, even if you get to choose where to put the final period. If happy endings aren’t possible—maybe the endings we’re given should lead us to look for the unpredictable, stubborn ways something like happiness nestles into a life.
Rebecca Entel will teach a 4-Week Online Novel Workshop for Catapult starting June 4th!