A writer friend vented to me one day, frustrated that the characters in her work-in-progress were rebelling, not following the narrative and character arcs she’d outlined for them. Joking, my friend vowed to bend the characters to her will, eventually. She didn’t want any advice, just to blow off some steam. Besides, we’d already had a conversation in the past about letting the characters develop in their own way, the “let them come to you” writing truism.
But the more I thought about it, the more it confirmed my belief that writing guidance, even if it’s solid, isn’t always understood. Sometimes, maybe even most of the time, guidance is best offered as a parable, a story that might connect and inform at a deeper level. Since then, I’ve recalled a true story that I didn’t want to write just now, but like my friend’s characters, it insists on being heard.
Decades ago, when my grandfather, a farmer and county lineman, was still living, a series of dogs walked alongside him. First were the hunting dogs he’d bought, including Jimbo, a big yellow Lab who was my “horse” when I was little. Over the years, hunting dogs gave way to runaways from other less-hospitable homes. These dogs, usually pit bulls, wandered through the pine forests that circled my grandparents’ small farm, and sometimes the dogs even trotted down the dirt road, their paws kicking up sparkly puffs of mica-laden dust, until they reached my grandparents’ home at its end.
Grandpa’s last dog, who’d come to him the wandering way, was a black and white pit bull mix. Now no matter how they arrived, purchased or unexpected, Grandpa always gave his dogs unusual names, and this one was no exception. Grandpa named him Reagan. Of all the dogs that had loved my grandfather, Reagan was the only one that was afraid of everything. He’d shy away, never aggressive, but fearful of being close enough to be touched by anyone other than my grandfather. Even then, he’d tremble, which told me all I needed to know about his former owner.
In those days, I was in college and working part-time at a veterinary hospital. I’d make the forty-five-minute trip to visit Grandma and Grandpa about once a month, and each time I’d try a new tactic I’d learned at work to assure Reagan that I wouldn’t hurt him. I’d sit and call to him, try to walk alongside him at a distance, offer a treat, but nothing worked. If I came within twenty feet, he’d give me a sad side-eye, then lope away. At dusk, Grandpa and I would feed the catfish in his pond, tossing corn pellets from an old Folgers coffee can and watching the catfish, bottom feeders, churn toward the surface, their sleek gray bodies roiling in the feeding frenzy they expected every evening, like clockwork.
One spring evening after we’d fed the fish, Grandpa eased himself onto the ground, and I plopped down next to him. We watched the fish enjoy their supper as Reagan eyed us from afar. Every so often, Reagan would take a step or two toward me, and I’d turn my head just a bit toward him, offering an encouraging smile. Reagan gave me the same sad side-eye, hung his head, and walked off.
“Grandpa, what’s wrong with Reagan?” I asked. “He seems to like me, but he won’t come near me. What am I doing wrong?”
“Coot*, you’re not doing anything wrong,” Grandpa said. “I heard tell his owner beat him, and now he’s just afraid of everybody and everything. Give him time, let him come to you.”
For once, I listened. I sat there, watching the catfish slow their feeding gymnastics as their hunger became sated. I sensed Reagan’s presence, but I resisted the urge to turn my head, or move at all. Motionless, Grandpa and I continued to sit on the warm, damp soil as the sun slipped behind the pine boughs. As the rays faded into the earth, I felt a gentle touch on my shoulder. I didn’t turn, I didn’t look, I didn’t move. I didn’t have to. I knew what it was. Reagan’s head rested on my shoulder, his breath warming my cheek.
“I told you, Coot,” Grandpa said, still looking straight ahead at the fish. “All you had to do was sit still and let him come to you.”
Another writing, and life, truism is that it’s ever-so-easy to give advice and oh-so-hard to follow it yourself. For a few weeks now I’ve been working on a New Year’s blog post that I thought would wrap up everything I wanted to say about 2020 and everything I’m looking forward to in 2021. It was crap. Yet I’d put off writing this blog post about characters and my grandpa’s dog because it didn’t fit with my New Year’s theme—even though I’d written the entire piece in my mind, over and over––I continued toiling on the post I thought would work.
See what I did there?
Here I am, thinking about the good advice I’d give someone else, yet I couldn’t see how it applied to my own work. Sure, I wasn’t developing characters just then, but I was developing a narrative. And when the narrative I’d planned didn’t work, I ignored the one that kept resting its head on my shoulder, a gentle, comforting presence that had come to me unbidden.
In this new year, no matter how many crises you’ve endured or how long you’ve waited to fulfill a desire, I hope you’ll take a few minutes to sit a spell. Although the day-to-day world may roil in front of you, give yourself some time to focus on the future. And when you least expect it, I hope you’ll feel the gentle presence of your characters, your words, your whatever-it-is that you’ve been needing for so long now.
Wishing you peace, health, and happiness in 2021.
The plagues of 2020 and my doctor’s advice that I stay safely at home are making me think back to much happier years. In the ironic path that life constructs, I’m finding those happy memories are helpful and relevant to the writing and editing issues that my clients—and I—are dealing with every day. If you’d like to read more posts like this, sign up for my newsletter. I promise I won’t spam or overwhelm you—I don’t like it when people do that to me, so I won’t do that to you!
*The term “coot” refers to an eccentric, or grumpy, old man. I don’t recall ever asking my grandpa why he nicknamed me this, but I wish I had.
Mari Ann Stefanelli