Perhaps because I am nosey by nature, one of my favorite elements of writing is the interviewing process. I have no formal training in this arena, but my natural curiosity and talkativeness has helped me out, as have my roles as English teacher, yearbook advisor, freelance writer, blogger, newsroom receptionist, and college-level writing instructor. For the last year in my role as a contributor for The Village News, I have conducted interviews on a regular basis–and love it. If you’re about to embark on an interview, here are four tried-and-true tips for you.
1. Be Prepared
Come with a few questions prepared and an angle in mind, but also be prepared for the story to reveal itself as the interview unfolds. Don’t be afraid to ask follow-up questions that weren’t part of your original plan, or abandon some questions altogether. I typically end up asking all the questions I came with–and then some. In some rare instances, I didn’t prepare questions at all. Instead, I was prepared to let the conversation unfold completely organically. Usually, I find the theme of the story reveals itself as I interview my subject. By the end of my interviews with several students in and a sensei of a special needs karate class, I knew my theme would be smiling despite trials and tribulations, but I did not start the interview with this message in mind. See what threads you notice, and follow them.
This spring, I interviewed the sensei of a special needs karate class before observing the class itself. Photo Credit: Radiant Snapshots.
This spring, I interviewed participants in a special needs karate class and observed their class. Photo Credit: Radiant Snapshots.
2. Get the Basics
Sometimes, I get so lost in the stories my subjects are telling me, I forget to note down the fundamental facts of those stories. Make sure you get the basics–dates, job titles, full names, ages, spellings, locations–whatever might be relevant to the subject matter. I’ve learned to do this up front. I begin by asking as many basic, formulaic questions as I can think of, and when my subject tells me about something that happened, I have learned to immediately follow up with whatever who, what, when, where, why, or how I might need when I sit down later to write the story.
3. Respect the Silence
Sometimes, you’re going to ask a question that your subject isn’t going to answer right away. It may feel awkward, but if someone is silent for a long time after you ask a question, respect the silence. Let them be silent. Sit in it. Let them think. It may be you’ve dredged up an emotionally charged memory and your subject needs a moment to compose himself before he can answer. It may be you’ve asked a question that requires your subject to delve deep into the recesses of memory, retracing facts and dates, before she can respond adequately. Wait. Be patient. The silence will yield to conversation again in due time, and the answer you get after a prolonged silence is likely to be a better one than an answer you prodded for.
4. Be Clear
Always be clear with your subjects about what is on the record and off the record. If a subject says something that you’re not sure they want published, ask. If you want to ask a question you know isn’t relevant to your story, let your subject know you’re asking “off the record.” If a subject precedes a statement with “not for the story” or “don’t print this,” don’t even take notes about it. This will help you avoid inadvertently including it, having forgotten your subject told you in confidence.
No matter how strong a writer you are, to write journalistically, you must also be a strong interviewer. In fact, over the course of the last year writing for my local paper, I’ve learned that if I conduct a good interview, the person I’m talking to essentially writes the story for me. I just have to put it all in the right order to convey the theme I need to communicate.
I’ve gotten a lot of rejection e-mails lately. Like, a lot. From literary agents, websites, and magazines. It happens. Rejection is commonplace when you write, in part, to get published. Still, it’s pretty painful to hit what you think is a homerun only to have it caught in the outfield.
Lots of writers will tell you–wisely–that rejection letters can be a sign of productivity, and even success. At a Writing Show I recently chaired, one of the panelists even said during her first year freelancing, she made it her goal to get as many rejections as possible. Hey–if you’re getting rejection letters, that means you’re writing, right? Andgetting your stuff out there. Hey–if an outfielder catches your homerun, that means you’re swinging the bat, right? And you hit the ball. So, kudos. Rejections are just a reality of the write life. But that doesn’t make them feel any better than it feels to hear the umpire holler “out” before you’ve even reached first base, certain of your homerun status.
I don’t have children. I don’t plan on having children. Any legacy I leave will be in the form of literature. Each piece of writing I produce, I leave behind for my nieces to read someday, for my nephews to read someday. For someone I have never met to read someday.
2. Telling People’s Stories
In addition to leaving my own legacy, I write to tell other people’s stories. I tell the stories of people who can’t, for one reason or another, tell their own–or, sadder still, people who don’t even realize their story is worth telling. I have an almost insatiable curiosity about others. I love hearing their stories. Most of the time, people don’t realize how interesting they really are. I want them to know–and then I want to tell everyone else, too.
3. Empowering and Educating People
I like to think the stories I tell, whether my own or others’, empower and enlighten the people who read them. I hope when people read stories like Carlos Rivadeneira’s and Mary Setzer’s and Larry Gable’s, they find hope and strength and perseverance. I hope when they read stories like Ashley Unger’s, they broaden their understanding and capacity for compassion, as well as find self-worth. I hope my stories connect people, build community, inform people, and enhance people’s sense of belonging and place.
4. Immortalizing Loved Ones
I write about the people and animals I love, because that is the best way I know to keep them alive. If I write about someone, she is not only alive in my memory, but also in the mind of anyone who reads what I wrote. It is the best way I can think of to honor the people and animals I love. Writing is my gift, more so than any other means of expression. I love to use it to memorialize my loved ones.
5. Serving Others
One of the most fulfilling aspects of writing is its ability to help me give back–to my community, to worthy organizations that have enhanced my experience or life, to people I care about, to the world. I haven’t yet found a way–written or otherwise–to express how satisfying it has been to use my essay, “The Reward,” inChicken Soup for the Soul: Life Lessons from the Dog to raise money for the Richmond SPCA, Richmond Animal League (RAL), and Bay Quarter Shores. I experience a similar sense of satisfaction each time I work with a friend to produce an article, complete with stellar photographs. I find helping my photographer friends gain experience and exposure (no pun intended!) fulfilling, and the sense of collaboration and teamwork is exceptionally rewarding and, well, just plain fun!
While rejection after rejection can be disheartening, to say the least, I find it helpful to remember that while I do want my work published, I write for a myriad of other reasons, as well–not the least of which is the fact that I am simply compelled to do so, even if I strike out sometimes. More often than not, though, after I write something–anything–I am left with the same delicious sense of satisfaction produced by the sound of a ball smacking into a glove when I am the outfielder.
If you’d like to help the latest additions to our pack, Soda and Nacho (we call them The Littles), and I continue to support RAL, please consider making a donation here before 8:00 PM EST on August 17.
Shortly after I learned that Jack’s story, “The Reward,” would be included in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Life Lessons from the Dog, I also learned that I could hold readings and book signings. I was so excited to get the word out about the book and Jack’s part in it, and even more excited when I realized I could use his story to raise money for organizations important to the two of us. I immediately began reaching out and planning. I contacted the Richmond SPCA because Jack loved his many agility classes there. In addition, Jack, Sadie, and my parents’ pug, Smokey, completed the shelter’s one-mile Dog Jog a few years ago, and I have both run the 5k Dog Jog and volunteered at the race. I contacted Richmond Animal League (RAL), because Jack and Sadie inspired me to volunteer there for four or five years. Finally, I contacted Bay Quarter Shores (BQS), because Jack and Sadie loved to go there, my husband and I got married there (Sadie was at the wedding rehearsal), and the story takes place there.
My very first reading and book signing took place Saturday, April 27, from 1:00 to 3:00 at the Richmond SPCA. I planned to sell books for $15 each, with $10 of each purchase staying right there at the SPCA to benefit the animals.
When I arrived, the staff had already set a table up for me in the lobby, to the left of the reception desk and right in front of the gift shop. The reading was to take place in the adoption center.
The audience for the reading was sparse, with my husband and parents making up about a third of those in attendance. Still, I stood up in front of the room with Sadie beside me and read Jack’s story. I made it to the last few sentences before my voice broke, and I gave up trying to hold back tears. When I finished reading and looked up, many of the audience members were wiping away tears.
As I made my way to the book signing table, a woman from the audience approached me. As serendipity would have it, she told me she owns a place in White Stone, a town in the Northern Neck of Virginia not far from the scene of the story. We chatted for several minutes about dogs and the Northern Neck, and she purchased a book for her sister, whose dog had just passed away.
The next person to approach my table was a journalism student at nearby Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). He explained to me that he’d been assigned to attend and report on an event, and he had chosen mine. I expected him, as a journalism student, to have a few questions, but he asked only three, took my card, and went on his way.
Next, a woman who arrived specifically for the reading and book signing approached. She bought the book and explained she has several sisters, one of whom has six dogs. The sisters plan to mail the book between themselves. “It’ll be The Sisterhood of the Traveling Book instead of the traveling pants,” she told me. I love the idea of Jack’s story–and all the other stories in the book–traveling around the country.
Sadie sits beside a drawing of Jack at our signing table.
Matty, Sadie, and I surrounded by paintings and drawings of Jack at our signing table.
One of the highlights of the event was when a troop of young Girl Scouts lined up to pet Sadie. They were learning how to properly approach and interact with a dog. Sadie remained calm on the floor, letting each little girl approach her, offer her a sniff of her hand, and gently pat her head.
In the end, the two hours raised $160 for shelter where Jack loved his agility classes.
Richmond Animal League at Cafe Zata
My second event was, appropriately, a dog-friendly reading and signing that took place on the outdoor patio at Cafe Zata. I was pretty excited to be the cafe’s first-ever patio event, and that dogs would be invited to attend. It was also exciting to see my name beside the word “author” on the sidewalk sign Zata had set out to advertise the event, which would raise money for Richmond Animal League.
This event took place on Saturday, May 18, from 1:00-3:00 pm. Despite the heat, it was exceptionally well-attended. Every chair on the patio was full, and several dogs panted in the shade under the umbrellas. I felt so supported. Two volunteers from RAL attended, along with Gertrude, a beagle available for adoption at the shelter. Several of my friends, family members, and neighbors were there. A few strangers and even an old high school friend (and her dog) came. My friend Jamie, who owns Radiant Snapshots, photographed the event for me, and my friend Lauren, a fellow writer and longtime RAL volunteer, introduced me to the crowd before I began reading.
I read Jack’s story to a crowd of dogs and people at Cafe Zata on May 18 at an event to benefit RAL.
I read Jack’s story at Cafe Zata during a May 18 event to benefit RAL.
As with my reading at the SPCA, I cried, and I was told later by a few people in the audience–some of whom knew Jack–that they teared up, as well.
After the event, I was parched, so once the patio had cleared out and I had cleaned up all my materials, I went inside to purchase a cold drink. The owner generously gave it to me for free, and I was happy to hear that the reading had brought in some extra business.
In the end, we raised $285 for RAL that day.
If you would like to offer your support to Richmond Animal League, a no-kill animal shelter, as well as for our recently adopted puppies, Nacho and Soda, please consider donating to Soda’s RAL 2020 Calendar Contest Page. Every dollar donated to Soda and Nacho’s Page is a vote for Soda to appear in the calendar, as well as a much-appreciated donation to the dogs and cats in RAL’s care.
Bay Quarter Shores
My third reading took place Memorial Day weekend, on Saturday, May 25, at 4:30 pm during the annual Bay Quarter Shores Memorial Day potluck and picnic. The reading and book signing was a fundraiser for BQS, where story takes place. Jack loved to go there and swim, walk on beach, walk on the nature trails, SUP, and ride on the speed boat. In the end, we raised $140 for BQS.
I cried more at this event than at the others, despite the experience behind me at this point, perhaps because I was standing so close to where the story takes place, and it was only the second time I’d been there without Jack.
People came up to me to tell me they cried, too. People told me about dogs they recently lost and showed me photos. Dogs really do bring people together. One woman said she couldn’t bear to buy the book right now because she had lost her dog two weeks prior, and that I should write a piece about loss. I told her I already did.
In preparation for my three events, I had ordered 60 books–and I am all sold out. I’m looking forward to possibly another event or two this summer, and maybe one in September. It was so fulfilling to give back to groups that have meant a lot to me and my pack. I love being able to use my writing this way. My main takeaways are not procedural or logistic. They are this: Dogs bring people together–and I have the most loving, supportive family and friends a girl could ask for.
If you would like to offer your support to Richmond Animal League, a no-kill animal shelter, as well as for our recently adopted puppies, Nacho and Soda, please consider donating to Soda’s RAL 2020 Calendar Contest Page. Every dollar donated to Soda and Nacho’s Page is a vote for Soda to appear in the calendar, as well as a much-appreciated donation to the dogs and cats in RAL’s care.
If Soda and Nacho raise…
$125, we can cover the cost of microchips for 15 animals
$250, we can cover the cost of a spay/neuter surgery for 5 kittens
$500, we can cover the cost of one day of Parvovirus treatment
$1,000, we can cover the cost of heartworm treatment for 3 dogs.
The last time I stood here, I was 18. Half my life ago. I was headed home from an overnight stay at James Madison University, that cliched feeling of youthful angst clinging to me then the way fog and drizzle cling to the mountains now–that cliched angst I can describe only with another cliche: I was a caged bird ready to fly. I might even have gone home and written a poem about it.
Standing at that scenic overlook on the side of 64 East, I had no idea who I was, where I was going, or what I wanted. That’s how I felt then, standing at a crossroads: James Madison or Michigan State? Eighteen and in the spring of my senior year, I didn’t know yet. I do now. I’m 35. That time has passed. Those choices have been made. I went to Michigan State, became a high school English teacher. Things have been pretty stable since then.
And yet, here I am, standing where I stood 17 years ago, somehow unsure again, somehow on the precipice of something new and unknown again. I stand at the threshold of a new chapter, one I’ve dreaded for a long time–a chapter without Jack and Sadie at my feet, by my side, on my path. I have little idea who I am, where I am going (if anywhere), or what I want to do next.
I listen to the hiss of cars on the highway behind me, their tires slicing through rain puddling on 64 East, and wonder–who am I without these two dogs? Where do I go? What do I do and who do I do it for? Why is it possible for my life to keep going when it revolved around them and they’re gone?
Matty knew Sadie before he knew me. I knew Sadie before I finished college. Before my first day of teaching. I don’t know adult life without a dog. I’m not sure I know myself without a dog. A line exists somewhere between “then” and “now.” Sometimes it’s blurry, but sometimes, it’s crystal clear, marked by a move or a graduation or a marriage or a child. Or, in this case, a loss. My time with Jack and Sadie, so recently “now,” has become “then.” We will talk about it in terms like, “When we had Jack and Sadie.” Use it as a reference point for stories we tell or memories we are trying to recollect more clearly, put into some sort of context.
The rain has soaked through my hair, and after a minute or two, I get back into my car
and drive away, outrunning the rain for now. Three or so miles down the road is the second scenic overlook. It’s not raining here yet, and I pull over, step out into the sun. I watch an orange butterfly balance on the purple bloom of a thistle. I read names and dates scratched into the stone-and-wood fencing at the edge of the parking lot. I watch large, white clouds drift across a blue sky, their shadows sailing along underneath them, skimming across green fields. The rain looms to my right, creeping across the few miles that mark the difference between sunshine and clouds. I know it’s coming, but it hasn’t reached me yet, and I think about how people have told me it will get better. They promise. Time heals all wounds. But this time that heals all wounds also takes me farther away from Jack and Sadie.
I snap a couple pictures. Feel the sun on my back while it’s still out, before the clouds reach us. Remember the 18-year-old girl who stood here 17 years ago, whose questions I now have answers to. And I get back in the car.
As I pull out of the parking lot, the sunshine dims and the rain, like time, catches up to me.
It is a Thursday afternoon, warm–but the kind of warmth easily defied by the shade. The tall, thick, green grasses along the James River have just begun sprouting up out of the newly awakened earth. Jack stops every few feet to snack on some of the young blades. Bluebells hang their pretty little heads all along the paths that parallel the river at Pony Pasture Rapids. Some delicate white flowers–I don’t know what they are–join the bluebells along the trail. The wetlands are soggy and stagnant, but haven’t been that way long enough to accommodate mosquitoes just yet. The day is quintessential spring, and I am grateful to have this afternoon to take Jack and Sadie adventuring. We don’t get very far; not too warm for me is slightly too warm for Jack and Sadie, always wearing fur coats–but we spend close to an hour wandering around the woods, watching the river race past its banks, swollen with spring rains to the west.
I sit in the lobby at Veterinary Referral and Critical Care (VRCC). It’s cold, over-air conditioned. Jack is somewhere in the back, having his bladder emptied. He began shaking as soon as we walked into the clinic, but not because it’s cold. Because he is scared.
I look around the lobby. A wall of windows behind me. A wall of windows to the left of me. Magazines scattered on every flat surface (who can read a magazine in a time like this?). A TV endlessly playing cooking shows–but once, a wildlife show. I like the wildlife show better. The reception desk is straight ahead. Two industrious women sit in swivel chairs with wheels and answer phones and take payments and file folders. Above them, perched atop a door leading into what looks to be a file room, rests a hand-painted wooden sign. “Be Kind,” it reads, in bold, black lettering. It’s adorned with red and pink hearts on a white background. It looks amateur, like something I would set out to make with a beautiful image in my mind only to get, well: that. Something I would make with the best intentions–something that would have been pretty if someone else had done it. I assume it’s a gift from a grateful client whose dog (or cat) is happy and healthy again, and the clinic staff feels obligated to display it. But I like its message, despite its aesthetics. I find it somewhat comforting.
Last night I promised Jack I wouldn’t take him back to VRCC to have his bladder emptied again. He has been on new medication for going on three days now. It should kick in any minute.
It is a little before 11:00 PM. I have to break my promise to Jack. He is in the back at VRCC again. I am sitting in the cold lobby with a plastic cup of water in my hand. A competition cooking show is playing on TV. One of the contestants is cooking plantains. The receptionist behind the desk under the “Be Kind” sign tells me she doesn’t like plantains. I don’t like plantains either. I stare at the clock. It is a Monday night. I am tired. Jack is tired. We get home sometime after midnight and fall asleep together in the family room.
It is a Tuesday afternoon, warm–but it started out chilly. I have shed my coat and sit beside Matty and Sadie in the backyard grass with Jack, leaning against the sun-warmed brick foundation of our house. Jack doesn’t want to come inside. He lays in the grass or makes a nest in the moldy dust under the shed. The sky is robin’s egg blue. When the wind blows, yellow clouds of pollen dust drift through the air, taking flight from the tufts of white pines’ needles. The dogwoods are almost done blooming, their white blossoms giving way to green leaves. A pair of robins build a nest in the bushes to our left. New life is everywhere.
The medication is not doing its job.
I text our sister-in-law, also our vet, who gave Jack a home until he joined our pack. I fill her in on the latest details, ask for her honest professional opinion.
“I think it’s time,” her text tells me.
I put my arm around Jack and cry, my hand shaking after I text back, “Okay.” Jack stands beside me, squinting in the sun, wagging his tail.
Less than an hour later, I squat on the floor of Room 5. Jack is lying like a sphinx on a cold, metallic table draped in a plush, blue blanket. The hairs of other dogs and cats are stuck in the fibers. Matty, Sadie, and my mother-in-law are there. Jack is trembling. My face is level with his front paws, my hands on his shoulders. I talk to him. I sing to him. “Shepherd Show Me How to Go” and “On Eagle’s Wings.” I tell him not to be scared; it’s okay. But I am scared and none of this is okay with me. I sing again. I am amazed at my ability to sing and not sob. How am I doing this? After a shot the shaking starts to subside, and his eyes grow drowsy, though he is fighting sleep with all his might. I lift my face to look into his eyes. He meets my gaze. His eyes hold mine as I sing, until they glaze over and he gently lowers his head. He is asleep. I rest my head on the edge of the table. After a moment, I stand. I press my face into the fur on the back of his neck and inhale deeply. I will miss this warmth, this softness, this smell.
When we turn around and walk out–I am the last to leave–I can’t shake the feeling that I am abandoning him.
Jack and I used to go for a walk every single morning, no matter what. He and Sadie would eat breakfast, I would eat breakfast, and then Jack and I would head out, Sadie joining us on occasion if it wasn’t too dark, too early, or too cold, by her standards.
Now that Jack is gone, my morning routine feels disjointed, inefficient, disturbed. I am awake, I have eaten, but there is no dog waiting to go for a walk with me. Sadie is snuggled back up in her bed. I hold up her harness and dance around and sing and try to convince her she wants to go for a walk. She looks at me and lowers her head, resting it on the bolster of her bed. I decide to go for a quick run. I lace up my shoes and step out into the cerulean morning.
I am about half a mile away from home when the sight of a black sock on the shoulder of the road stops me in my tracks. The sense that Jack is with me, leaving me a message, is overwhelming. Every morning when we woke up, Jack would stand patiently in front of my dresser, waiting for me to take out a pair of socks and give it to him. Then, he’d run around the house with the socks in his mouth until I had his breakfast ready. Every afternoon when I got home from work, Jack would root around in my gym bag or work bag until he found a sock (or shoe) to parade around the backyard with. Matty and I were forever finding missing socks and shoes out in the backyard, where Jack had deposited them. In this moment, in the quiet predawn with the birds singing, when I would normally have been out walking with Jack, it feels like he is with me.
The next day is a Saturday. Matty, Sadie, and our four friends (two humans and their two dogs) are at the Northern Neck. It is the first weekend we have come here without Jack. Last time we were here, just weeks ago, he was here, too. I am walking Sadie with my friend, Ashley, and her dogs, Gryff and Ellie. I look down to my left and a slight, delighted gasp escapes my throat. I feel elated. A well of emotion springs up in my chest. “Look!” I say. There, on the sidewalk, is a single green sock.
Yesterday was Easter. Ashley and I don’t have to work today, so we decide to take our dogs to Pony Pasture for an afternoon adventure. It is the first time Sadie and I walk these trails along the river without Jack. Eleven days ago, he walked them with us. Eleven days. A week and a half. Last time we were here, Jack was here, too.
We are almost to the trails in Ashley’s white Dodge minivan when something catches my eye on a tree to my right. It is a white sign with pink and red hearts. “Be Kind,” it says in bold, black lettering.
It has been one week since we said goodbye to Jack. I am half a mile from home on one of Jack’s favorite walking routes, out for a quick run before work. In the grass along the sidewalk, in the half-light of morning, I see a brand new, unused dog-poop bag. I stop running, bend down and pick it up. No sense in leaving it there to litter the neighborhood, especially when I could use it on a future walk with Sadie. The bag bears some kind of cutesie pattern, but I can’t really see what it is; it’s still fairly dark out.
When I get home and turn on the light in the mud room, I can see the bag’s decorative pattern. It is a white bag, adorned with tiny, little, green alligators in a repeating pattern. Some of Jack’s (many) nicknames were Alligator Face, Alligator Mouth, and Chompy-Chomp, because when he was really excited, really happy, or really trying to get me out of bed, he would smile and gnash his teeth like an alligator trying to snatch an unsuspecting gazelle from around the watering hole.
Instead of adding the poop bag to my stash in the mud room, I tie it to the handle of Jack’s red leash, still hooked to his black and gray, reflective, skulls-and-crossbones harness.
In January 2015, I wrote a diary entry about a walk I took with Jack and Sadie in the Northern Neck. It morphed into a blog post, which morphed into a submission to Chicken Soup for the Soul: Life Lessons from the Dog, which morphed into a story in the book. Over a month ago, several weeks before we lost Jack, I scheduled a reading of the story and a book signing at the Richmond SPCA to raise funds for its dogs and cats. Jack and I had had a fulfilling experience completing three or four levels of agility classes there, so it seemed an appropriate venue and beneficiary. After the reading, as I sit in the lobby with Sadie and Matty, I look up to my left. There, above the reception desk, is the same sign I saw at VRCC and Pony Pasture: “Be Kind.”
This evening brought my most intense bout of regret yet. People talk about our pets crossing the rainbow bridge and waiting for us while they scamper and play. I don’t know what I believe, but tonight I am tormented because popular belief says Jack crossed the rainbow bridge; Jack was afraid of bridges. Jack was afraid of bridges and I left him while he was asleep and didn’t stay for his last breath like I always thought I would and what if he was afraid to cross that bridge without me?
I am just blocks away from my dad’s birthday brunch when my car strikes and kills a bird. I slam on my brakes and peer down at his little broken body–just in case. Maybe he’s not dead. But he is dead and I am as crushed as his delicate bones and I arrive to lunch a wreck. But as I approach the door, I see a stone with a dog painted on it. A dog that looks like Jack. And, instead of feeling more sorrow, I feel slightly comforted. And then I walk inside and on the floor is a mat bearing the same canine likeness. And in the bathroom, a sticker on the paper towel dispenser.
A painted stone outside of Millie’s downtown
The mat at the entrance of Millie’s downtown
After I order my food from a waitress who discreetly supplies me with extra napkins (I don’t even have to ask her) to blow my nose and wipe my eyes, I glance around the restaurant and there, just above the mirror at the bar, hangs the sign: “Be Kind.”
Eventually, my sobbing subsides and I am able to eat most of my food, though I hardly touch the virgin drink I ordered. My dad, mom, brother, and I pay, and they walk me back to my car. As I get in and close the door, I look up to see the back of my dad’s T-shirt. “You Should Know Jack,” the lettering says.
And I did. And I am so glad I did. Jack and I shared a bond that, for a while, I took for granted as the bond all dog owners form with their dogs. It took me a long time to realize that Jack and I were a special pair. It was not telepathy, not really–but we had an understanding that transcended words. We communicated with each other through a look, a slight gesture.
An emergency vet I took Jack to several years ago in the middle of the night when he was suffering from pancreatitis commented on how in-tune he and I we were with each other. Strangers sometimes approached me to comment on the way Jack watched me. Matty was always telling me, “I have known people with dogs all my life, and had dogs all my life, and I have never seen anything like what you and Jack have.” If any dog could find a way to reach me, to communicate with me beyond my ken, I know Jack would be that dog. And there is a skeptical side of me that says the socks and the signs and the subtle little hints are just coincidences, or would have been there but gone unnoticed if Jack were still with me. But I prefer to believe that’s not true. I prefer to believe Jack is with me, somehow.
A few days ago I was out for a run when I came across two of my neighbors walking their dogs. I stopped to chat and pet all the dogs. In the course of conversation I heard myself say, “When Matty and I were walking Jack and Sadie earlier–” I stopped. “Well, Sadie,” I corrected myself. But as the conversation wound down and I resumed my run I said aloud, “But maybe Jack was there, too.”
Those of you who follow us on Instagram or know us personally probably already know: Our pack of four lost an integral member a week and a half ago, leaving behind three grieving members. I am not ready to write about it yet, at least not in any sort of meaningful, comprehensive way, though I have been writing about it in a very personal, rather disjointed way in my diary just about every day. I am still processing. (If processing this is even possible, which I am not yet convinced it is.)
What follows is a narrative essay I wrote about Jack in 2011, when I was about halfway through my graduate degree in creative writing and Jack had been part of our family for close to four years.
I should mention that since this writing, we learned Jack was actually closer to two years old when he joined our pack, as opposed to the not-yet-a-year detail mentioned in the essay below. He was roughly 14 when we said goodbye last week.
Lucky Dog: A New Leash on Life
It is 4 o’clock in the morning. November. Just starting to get cold outside. Feels like the middle of the night. Yesterday, my husband brought home a new dog. We already have one. A little beagle. Sadie. She likes to sleep later than 4 o’clock in the morning. But this new dog, Jack — he doesn’t know any better. He bounds up, wide awake, as soon as he hears me stir. I open the bedroom door to step out into the hallway that leads to the family room. Jack bounds out ahead of me. He stops in the center of room. Looks at me. I look at him. He is a cockeyed sort of dog. One of his eyes has a brown spot around it. The other eye gazes out at the world through short white hair. His nose is crooked. His back is crooked; he stands in a sort of “C” shape most of the time, looking a little like a cocktail shrimp on a plate. One of his ears stands straight up when he’s listening; the other one flops over no matter what. Just as I begin to think how endearing this inherent asymmetry is, he suddenly bends down slightly, bracing himself. I wonder what he is doing. Then he begins to pee. A lot of pee. Right there on the family room carpet, in the middle of the floor. It is four in the freaking morning. I don’t know how to potty train a dog.
I clap my hands. He looks at me blankly. Cocks his head slightly, wondering, probably, why I am applauding his piss. I clap harder. Maybe the noise will startle him into not peeing. Maybe it will distract him.
“No!” I say. “No!” As if a dog that just last week was a wild dog picked up by the dog catcher in the foothills of New York has any idea what the word “no” means.
He continues to pee on the carpet. I swoop down upon him mid-stream, scoop him up into my arms, and rush him to the back door. I set him down outside. He has stopped peeing, but I can tell by the way he is sniffing around he isn’t actually finished. I follow him around the yard for a while. It is not fenced. Jack makes a break for it. Down the driveway. Down the road. I am chasing him in my pajamas in the dark in the cold. Luckily, he is distracted by something he smells in the bushes of my neighbor’s yard. He stops to sniff. He lifts his leg. Pees some more. I wonder if this adventure is going to make me late for work.
“Good boy,” I say, hoping I am reinforcing the concept of pissing outside and not the concept of running away. When he is done, I pick him up and carry him back home.
It took Jack a while to learn that he was now, actually, home. We had to teach him how to sleep under the covers with us at night. That he didn’t need to be afraid of towels or of walking across bridges. How to take a treat from our hands without taking one or two of our fingers with it. How to pee outside, and that the fact that the family room was outside the bedroom did not qualify it as outside. How to walk on a leash, and that while he was out for a walk on his leash, he no longer had to eat road kill and trash off the street to survive (we are still working on that). He even knows how to smile now, though he won’t on command – only when he is genuinely happy. When Jack first came home, he had a lot to learn. So did I.
Jack’s smiling face
Jack smiles at me on Christmas day
Jack poses and smiles with his daddy
A few days before Jack came home, my husband Matty and I had an argument about whether or not we should add a second dog to our household. We were just starting out in our careers and were pretty poor (some things never change). And dog supplies can be costly. A second dog would mean buying double the food, double the treats, and paying double the vet bills. Today, three years later, I am Jack’s human of choice and whenever he feels jealous, Matty likes to remind Jack, “Mommy didn’t even want you, buddy. Remember who brought you home. Daddy had to fight Mommy to bring you home. You’re lucky Daddy won.” While this isn’t entirely true (it was never that I didn’t want Jack), I am glad that though he tries, cocking his head from one side to the other and lifting his mismatched ears (we call the ear that never lifts up his “broken ear”), Jack cannot understand what Matty is saying. There are, however, many words and phrases Jack can now understand. This is a list of them: sit, stay, wait, leave it (selectively), down, doggy practice, ride, walk, dinner, breakfast, dessert, treat, up, jump, here, Jack, daddy, mommy, who’s here?, hungry, and outside.
My sister-in-law is the one who essentially saved Jack’s life. She was working as a vet in the hills of New York when the dog catcher brought him in to be spayed and get his shots before going on to the pound. Jack was a little, emaciated, big-eyed wild dog that had been living off acorns (which to this day he carries home and drops on our deck after autumn walks) and dead things. He wasn’t even a year old. She couldn’t let such a sweet dog go to the pound and, lucky for Jack, told the dog catcher she would keep him. Jack spent the next several months living between the vet’s office and a crate at my sister-in-law’s house while she tried to find a suitable home for him.
During that time, Jack learned very little. The problem was this: The first thing Jack did when he got to my sister-in-law’s house was climb to the top of the stairs, squat down, and poop. She already had a black lab, two cats, a husband, and a toddler. She didn’t have the time or energy to potty-train her son and Jack. Thus, Jack was relegated to a plastic dog crate – the travel kind with nothing but a caged front and little holes in the side that usually spell out something like “DOG TAXI” and serve as ventilation. There he stayed, except for a couple potty breaks a day, while home after home fell through for one reason or another. Then one November day, Matty drove up to New York. When he came home, Jack came with him.
It wasn’t long before we knew something was wrong with Jack. I came home from work one day and, as usual, Jack and Sadie came running to the door to greet me, Sadie howling and barking and Jack wagging not just his tail, but his entire body — wriggling around the way a worm does when a curious child pokes at it with a stick. Then, suddenly, Jacky’s little eyes were stone and his body, stiff. He tottered for a moment, back and forth, and then, he tipped over. Sadie sometimes had seizures, and while this episode wasn’t quite the same, I thought maybe it was a seizure. I did like I do for Sadie. Knelt down beside Jack, rested his head on my lap, talked quietly to him. After a minute or two, he stood up, shook it off, and went about the rest of his doggy day. I didn’t think much of it. But then it started to happen more and more frequently. Sometimes multiple times a day. Jack quit eating. Quit playing with Sadie. Eventually wouldn’t leave the bedroom at all. Matty and I had to carry him to the backyard to go potty and carry him back in again when he was done. We frequented the vet’s office, setting appointments for every two months for over a year. No one knew what was wrong with Jack. They put him on meds that made him vomit. They took him off. They put him on meds that would work for a few months, and then lose their effectiveness. We drove to the vet over and over again. Each time, Jack would curl up in the passenger seat, a look of heartbreaking resignation in his puppy eyes. I would stroke his back with my free hand as I drove, praying and praying and praying.
Everyone always likes to talk about how lucky Jack is. Really, I think, I am the lucky one.
After maybe five or six months, the vet told me Jack may need to see a canine cardiologist. That his red blood cell count was low and perhaps there was something amiss with the valves in his heart, as well. After paying several hundred more dollars in vet bills, I got in the car with Jack and drove quietly home. About halfway there, I called my husband. Told him the grim news. As we talked, I looked down at Jack now and then. When he was awake, he would look up at me out from under his sleepy eyelids. So much trust in those eyes. He had implicit faith in me. I couldn’t imagine a world without Jack in it. I was prepared to do anything to keep him here. I would spend any amount of money, go to the vet every day if I had to.
But that wasn’t working. Months and months and still not working. Still the tipping over. Still the lack of appetite. Still the gums in his mouth too white – indicative of anemia. Still the sadness. I prayed. I prayed every day for Jack. I prayed with Jack. I read him pieces of the Bible while I stroked his velvety, mismatched ears. I held him always in my thoughts.
Then, he got better. For several days, I came home and waited for him to tip over. No more tipping over. After a week or two, I learned to stop expecting it. I started taking him on short walks with Sadie again. He regained his energy. He was more playful. He was eating. I took him to the vet for one more regular, two-month check-up.
“Jack,” the vet said after checking his gums, taking his temperature, listening to his heart, “you are a mystery. And you are one lucky dog.” She took him off the meds. Before long, Jack could join Sadie and me on our regular, longer walks. It was as if nothing had ever been wrong. The vets still don’t know whatever was.
Matty likes to say I am “at least 60% happier” because of Jack. He is convinced that since Jack came home, I am in general a cheerier person. I can’t really dispute this. Jack makes me smile more times a day than I otherwise would. He gets up with me every morning at 5 and romps around the house with a squeaky toy in his mouth, wide awake and energized – ready for the day. Without his shennanigans, I can safely say I would not be smiling at 5 every morning. But with Jack chasing me around the house wagging his tail and chomping on a toy, how can I not crack a grin? He looks at me with his goofy, cockeyed ears, and how can I help but smile? And one of my favorite feelings is Jack curled up against my stomach in bed every night. When I am away from home overnight, I get cold without his fuzzy warmth beside me and I miss him. When I return home, he is there – where he has been all along – waiting for me with love and joy and the ever-enduring faith that I was coming home all along. It just took me a little longer this time.
It is January. About 4 in the afternoon. A Friday. My mom and my brother’s dog Baxter, a furry husky/akita mix, meet Jack, Sadie, and me at the state park near my house for a late afternoon hike. The dogs have been cooped up all day while I was at work. Their energy and exuberance is evident in the way they spastically sniff and cry and tug at the ends of their leashes like they’ve never walked on a leash before. Sadie, in fact, jumped around my little car the entire ride here, hopping from window to window, seat to seat, front to back.
We walk, stopping now and then to let the dogs sniff and to listen to the quiet that is the woods on a cold Friday afternoon when most everyone is either still at work, or keeping warm inside. We talk about our days, the family, weekend plans. When we come to the old mill site, we cross over the bridge where once, Jack fell into the creek and I had to heft him back over the side of the bridge. We walk up a steep hill with trees to our left and a drop off down to the creek below to our right. As we round the corner to the boardwalk that will allow us passage through the wetlands that surround Beaver Lake, my mom says, “He really is lucky.”
“Who?” I say.
“Jack. He might not be around anymore if he hadn’t ended up with you guys. Whatever he had would’ve killed him.”
“Yeah,” I say, still unable to imagine a world without Jack.
After about an hour, we have walked the entirety of Beaver Lake Trail and it will soon be dark outside. Mom loads Baxter into her car and he curls up to rest on the back seat. I tell Sadie and Jack to “go for a ride” and they readily hop into my car. Mom and I hug goodbye and head home, she turning right at the park exit and I turning left. I smile as Sadie assumes her habitual position behind the headrests of my backseat where she can watch the road behind us peel away and stare at the drivers of the cars that follow us. At times, in my rearview mirror, I have seen such drivers wave at Sadie, even talk to her sometimes. They are always smiling. I look down at Jack, sitting up in the front seat like a little man, looking out the window. My whole heart smiles. That night after a late dinner, Matty stretches out in bed to my left. Sadie jumps up and pushes her way under the covers at his feet. A heartbeat later, Jack is standing at my side of the bed, looking up at me. I lift the covers up. He jumps up on the bed beside me, curls up at my belly button, sighs. I rub the space between his eyes. Everyone always likes to talk about how lucky Jack is. Really, I think, I am the lucky one.
It all started on a walk with my dogs. Which shouldn’t be that surprising, as every day starts with a walk with my dogs. We eat breakfast, leash up, and head out. Every day begins with a dog walk–and so do many of my essays, poems, blog posts, and book chapters. One of my essays, about to appear in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Life Lessons from the Dog (in bookstores April 9), was not only inspired while I was walking my dogs, but is also about walking my dogs. It tells the short tale of how letting Jack take the reins (or should I say, “leash?”) and determine our walking route one morning led me to a beautiful view–and taught me a valuable lesson: I don’t always have to be in charge.
The essay had humble beginnings. It started as a January 2015 diary entry, penned after returning home from our walk, and eventually morphed into a blog post on my now debunked, little-read personal blog, where it sat for several years, largely unnoticed. In 2018, while scrolling through a Freedom with Writing e-mail (if you’re a writer and you don’t subscribe already, you should), I learned that Chicken Soup for the Soul was accepting submissions for several upcoming books, one being Life Lessons from the Dogs.
I remembered my diary-entry-turned-blog-post, and, after a few revisions, submitted it. Almost a year later, I received one of the most exciting e-mails of my life to date. The essay I wrote, at the time called “Northern Neck Dog Walk,” had been shortlisted in the selection process for the upcoming Chicken Soup for the Soul: Life Lessons from the Dog.
Trying in vain not to get too excited, I started a group text including my parents, three siblings, in-laws, and half a dozen friends, and texted out my happy news, complete with far too many exclamation points and smiley face emojis. I e-mailed all of them, too–to make sure they got the message. Though it was difficult, I did manage to resist the urge to post my good news to social media, in the event that, in the end, nothing came of it.
Then, I waited–telling myself it was a big success to have made it even this far.
A few weeks later, I received official word that my essay had made the cut, and would be featured in the book, a fact I quickly plastered all over my Facebook and Instagram accounts.
My complimentary copies of the books arrived last week, and I have been busy setting up fundraisers for Richmond Animal League, where my dogs inspired me to volunteer in their honor for roughly five years, and the Richmond SPCA, where Jack and I completed (and LOVED) several agility classes.
During a recent visit to the Northern Neck, I found myself sitting across from my aunt at a Mexican restaurant where we had met for lunch, along with my uncle, my husband, and my parents. As we noshed on tortilla chips, waiting for our burritos and fajitas and taco salads to arrive, she observed, “So, Amanda, it seems to me your writing has really taken off since you’ve gotten involved in a few writing groups.” Her observation is completely accurate. (And, if I know her, she’ll probably take credit for inspiring this blog post–as she should.)
While writing itself often requires at least some solitude, “no man is an island.” Since I’ve gotten more involved with Virginia Outdoor Writers Association (VOWA) and James River Writers, my writing has taken off, and I am learning more than I ever knew there was to learn–about writing, publishing, networking, motivation, you name it.
One of the benefits of becoming involved in–or at least aware of–the various writing groups in your area is learning about opportunities to enter contests. The Poetry Society or Virginia (of which I am also now a member) holds a contest I learned about when I attended the James River Writers Annual Conference. I entered several poems, and one earned second-place sonnet in one category of the contest. Not only did this success bolster my self-esteem and increase my enthusiasm, but it also meant I got to attend an awards ceremony and luncheon at a nursery near the mountains, where I not only had the opportunity to read my poem to an audience of fellow poets, but where I also got to sit in a greenhouse on a hillside and listen to dozens and dozens of other poets read their winning poems. I left the awards ceremony inspired, awed, and filled with creative energy. (I also bought a dragon plant I’d been eyeing in the greenhouse throughout the readings. It’s my poetree, and since I brought it home and re-potted it last April, it has grown and thrived in tandem with my writing practice.)
In addition to the opportunity to enter and maybe win writing contests, becoming involved with writing groups gives you the inside scoop on classes, workshops, and conferences. I learned about the year-long novel-writing class I enrolled in at VisArts at
the James River Writers Annual Conference. Had I not joined that group and attended that conference, I never would’ve learned of or taken that class. Had I not taken that class, I can almost guarantee you I would not have finished my second manuscript, and if I had (which is unlikely), it would not be nearly as strong as it is (though it still needs some work).
Participating in the class at VisArts not only ensured I completed my manuscript, but also allowed me to meet several other really talented writers, people I learned a lot from and who are still helping me with my writing today. And if that isn’t enough, it was through taking this class that I was asked by a classmate to co-chair the 2019 Writing Show with her. (Shameless plug: The next one is this Wednesday! Topic: How to Write a Killer Synopsis.) This opportunity has been priceless, and we’ve only just begun. Already, I have met so many intelligent, literary people; learned a TON about the writing industry; and been inspired over and over again. My involvement in James River Writers paved the way for me to take the VisArts class, which in turn paved the way for me to become more deeply involved with James River Writers.
My involvement in VOWA may also soon support my role as co-chair of The Writing Show. Yesterday, I attended VOWA’s Annual Conference. One of the panel discussions centered on how to please an editor. It just so happens the May Writing Show topic centers on how to make freelance writing financially rewarding. My hope is to contact one of the editors I heard speak to VOWA yesterday about speaking at The Writing Show in May.
“So, Amanda, it seems to me your writing has really taken off since you’ve gotten involved in a few writing groups.”
Finally, I learned about Life in 10 Minutes at a James River Writers class a few years ago. Since learning of Life in 10, I have taken several of their workshops, attended a one-day event, and taken a class. These experiences have produced several pieces of writing, a few of which have gone on to appear in sweatpantsandcoffee.com, Nine Lives: A Life in 10 Minutes Anthology, and more. I even got to interview Valley Haggard for a blog post, which was later republished in WriteHackr Magazine. The same class where I learned about Life in 10 Minutes was also the reason I finished my first manuscript.
Joining writing groups and becoming involved makes writing, usually so solitary, a social activity, in the most productive of ways.
Joining writing groups and participating in their contests, classes, conferences, and workshops is not the only decision that has helped support my writing–my family, fellow writers, friends, and colleagues have also played a role–but joining writing groups and becoming involved makes writing, usually so solitary, a social activity, in the most productive of ways.
I began my teaching career in the fall of 2006, just weeks after graduating from college and returning home from a five-month semester abroad in Germany. Nearly thirteen years later, I still teach at the same high school in the same classroom I walked into as a fresh-faced, 22-year-old, first-year teacher, barely older than my students. Looking back at the past decade or so, I realize there are a few things any aspiring English teacher might want to know.
Your life will be a revolving door of essays and papers to grade.
1. You are always going to have more grading than anyone else in your building. Ever. Stacks of essays, research papers, journals, etc., and they will require a lot of attention and time and thought and feedback. As soon as you finish grading one pile of papers, the next paper is due. Your life is a revolving door of essays.
If you can deal with #1, go ahead and read #s 2-5. If you can’t handle #1, just stop reading right now and reconsider your career path.
You will have the joy of discovering and rediscovering literature for the duration of your career.
2. You are going to get to know your students very well because of the things they write. They will often write things they will not say–things that will surprise, sadden, and delight you.
3. You are going to have the joy of discovering and rediscovering literature for the rest of your career. You are going to become an expert on the books you teach, and yet see something new in them–Every. Single. Time.
Writing college recommendation letters is a lot of work–but it’s also one way you will directly, positively impact your students’ futures.
4. Lots of students are going to ask you to write lots of college recommendation letters and scholarship letters because, well, presumably you can write. For the same reason, lots of students are going to ask you to look over their college admissions essays (as if you didn’t already have stacks of papers to read!). It’s a lot of work–but it’s also one way you directly, positively impact your students’ futures.
5. You will have opportunities to be active “in the field”–to judge, run, and enter writing contests, and to attend writing workshops, classes, and conferences. Of course, this is what you make it and you get what you put in. I try to take full advantage of this perk of the job. I believe participating in and facilitating contests, attending workshops, and completing classes all enrich me both personally and professionally. I also feel like the fact that I blog, publish articles and essays, and continue honing my craft and content knowledge earns me some credibility with my students When they notice the byline on the framed articles around my classroom boasts my name, they are often surprised and in awe. When they see the awards for articles and poems on the windowsill, they often want to know about what I wrote. I could be wrong, but I feel like knowing I actually WRITE helps them feel like I am more capable of teaching THEM how to write. I am not just a talking head, parroting back the rules of writing; I am also a writer. I love that my job lets me directly engage with activities I would be doing anyway: writing and reading. And, often, my career as an English teacher directly SUPPORTS my writing endeavors outside the classroom, as well. Many times, I have earned professional development points for my teaching license. My school even supplemented the cost of my graduate degree in creative writing.
There are many reasons not to become an English teacher: endless stacks of papers and essays, trying desperately to help students understand Bryant’s “Thanatopsis,” standardized tests, the persistent struggle to find effective ways to teach proper grammar.
But, for me at least, the reasons to become an English teacher are even more numerous: watching students notice their own improved writing, taking advantage of professional development opportunities that also nurture your personal literary interests, diving deeply into beloved books, helping students learn to read between the lines. I could go on.
If you can stomach the less enjoyable aspects of the job (and, remember, every job involves these), the rewards–at least at my school–far outnumber the inconveniences and struggles.
In case you’re expecting some deep meditation on the practice and value of going for a walk, or an extended metaphor about life as a walk–or anything like that, let me warn you: This isn’t that kind of poem. This is just a rambling, silly little rhyme I composed in my head yesterday afternoon while I was, well, walking my dogs.