A Little Bit of Truth Mixed with a Few Good Lies

A few years ago, when I was still studying in my MFA program, I had a fiction professor I admired immensely. She was smart, sassy, hilarious (and beautiful, to boot), and she had red hair and wore leather pants. She was and is one of those people who can pull off anything, and if I were to get stuck in an elevator with someone, she’d be on the list of those with whom I’d choose to get stuck. (I might even jam up the elevator just so I could get stuck.) It goes without saying, though I’ll say it: she was a fabulous writer. She struck me as fearless. I chose to study with her specifically—I wanted someone who was going to push me in my writing, and who wouldn’t hold back, but would do it kindly. She lived up to my expectations.

This professor started each class with prompts from real life. She asked us to write about our photographs, our memories, our fears. The best fictional stories, she said, often originated from our own lives. But, she cautioned, exaggerate what really happened, and the characters, their qualities and personalities.

I never forgot that advice.

There were two stories from my life that I really wanted to write as nonfiction, but I couldn’t remember enough about the details to render them well. I could remember what happened, but only some of the dialogue, not enough to make the nececessary story building blocks: scenes. At least not enough to make honest ones. I’m a stickler for truth in memoir. I don’t write down dialogue in my nonfiction stories unless I actually remember what someone said and how they said it (at least according to my memory, which I recognize could be flawed, but at least it is what I remember and I’m not making it up. I don’t buy into the theory that, “Well, he probably said that,” or “This is the way he talked in general.” If I didn’t write down what was said at the time—thank goodness I used to be an avid journal-keeper—or I don’t remember it, then it doesn’t go into my nonfiction story in quotation marks and that’s that.)

My fiction professor gave me hope. I could write these two stories from my life as fiction—start from the truth and change up the characters, change their histories, even change up what happened if I wanted to. So I did exactly that. “The Snowstorm” is one of those two stories, and it ultimately became the first fiction story I published (thank you, Zone 3!). 

When I started to talk to the publisher of my memoir about doing an exclusive giveaway for those who preordered my book, what came to my mind immediately was “The Snowstorm.” Though my book is nonfiction and this story is fiction, the story chronicles two young people as they navigate the choices and sacrifices one must make to go for the love they each want. Which is what my memoir is about, too. 

My publisher gave “The Snowstorm” a beautiful design, and the story will be given to anyone who preorders The Going and Goodbye.

I have been working on a short story collection for the last few years, and it’s nearly done. “The Snowstorm” is in it, of course. As I have been writing short stories, I often think of advice my professor gave me. I think of her fearlessness. I think of how I hope my own journey toward fearlessness would make her proud.

The problem was the cheese

Recently, I enrolled in an advanced/therapy dog class with my little brown dog, Kibbi. The class goes beyond just the typical obedience commands—sit, stay, come. It prepares dogs and their dog handlers to go into public and community facilities—schools, nursing homes, hospitals—and to be calm and helpful to people they encounter. 

This isn’t Kibbi’s first rodeo in the therapy dog world. She is seven years old, and my husband, Preston, went through therapy dog class with her and passed the certification test when she was about a year old. But it is my first rodeo. Even though Kibbi is already certified, every handler has to become certified, but lucky for me, she has been serving as a therapy dog (with Preston) working with youth at a local medical facility for years, and she is the official therapy dog of our funeral home, Morris-Baker. So how hard could this be for me? 

Well, turns out it isn’t exactly easy, I found out fairly quickly. The test has gotten a bit more rigorous since Kibbi and Preston took it years ago. Case in point: part of the test was (and still is) that a handler has to command the dog to walk over a piece of food on the floor without eating it. Kibbi has known how to do that for years, so this is one of the items I would term “easy-breezy.” But now the dog also has to be able to go up to a person sitting in a chair who holds out his/her hand offering food to the dog, and the handler is supposed be able to command the dog not to eat it. What?? 

(Did I mention my dog is food-motivated?)

The other night in class, Kibbi and I attempted this exercise, with the trainer sitting in the chair. She did not offer a dog treat—that would have been difficult enough—but instead she offered something Kibbi is never offered: a piece of cheese. Smelly, yummy, mysterious, and rare. To Kibbi’s credit, she did so-so with this temptation. I had to restrain her a little the first few times to keep her from eating the cheese, but she got the hang of it by the third or fourth time, and by the fifth, she wasn’t tugging on the leash at all. Victory!

I was feeling proud of her, and proud of myself, as we continued on to the next exercise, the one where she has to walk over a piece of food on the ground and not eat it. This is the one she has done dozens of times over the years, the easy-breezy one. And on that night, it was. Kibbi passed the cheese successfully once, and I praised her and gave her a treat. Good girl, good girl! She passed it a second time. Such a smart girl! Then she passed it a third time, and I proudly praised her and gave her a treat. Wonderful! Then she turned right around and snatched up the piece of cheese before I could stop her. 

I could have been upset with her, but I thought it was funny. And I understood it—she just wanted her piece of cheese. Don’t we all sometimes, especially after someone keeps telling us over and over that we cannot have it?

I’m not sure if we will pass the eventual test together, but we’re going to try. Preston has told me countless stories of people Kibbi has encountered and helped calm and comfort, shift their mood, and lift their spirits. The truth is Preston is great with her. His positive attitude and relaxed demeanor bring out the best in Kibbi. Last year, I got to witness them together during Camp Courage, a one-day camp for children who have recently experienced a loss. I stood on the sidelines and observed as Preston and Kibbi spent the day with the children. Afterward, a facilitator talked about the wonderful effect Kibbi had on the children as they sorted through their feelings of grief and learned coping skills to help them heal. 

Kibbi will be at Camp Courage again this year with Preston. Perhaps I won’t be just an observer this time. Kibbi and I are working daily on our commands, and I am beginning to realize that the practice isn’t for her; it’s for me. And that maybe the problem wasn’t really the cheese.

Note to the reader: This blog post originally ran as a Community Voices piece in the Johnson City Press on April 7, 2017, but I wrote it a couple of weeks prior to that. Since writing it, as you can see from the photo, Little Miss Kibbi (and I) "graduated." I just wasn't subjected to the pink hat. And yes, she does have a right ear, too.

You can read more about Kibbi and how she came to be in our lives by reading my upcoming memoir, The Going and Goodbye

If you are interested in Camp Courage: Camp Courage will be held June 27, 2017 and is open to children from kindergarten through 8th grade who are grieving the death of a family or friend. Applications are due June 2, 2017. Camp Courage is run by Mountain States Health Alliance Hospice in partnership with Morris-Baker Funeral Home and Cremation Services. For more information, please call Anna Butler, Mountain States Hospice chaplain, at 423-431-7663.

Good poems as great teachers of writing: a morning ride in Tokyo

yellow flower.JPG

I was in my mid-twenties when I bought my first chapbook of poems: Sabishi: Poems from Japan by David Hassler. It was around the time that I acquired this book of poems that I figured out something— which took too long for me to figure out but that I finally did. I had been trying (and, in part, failing) for years to write poems about big things—billowing emotions and grand issues—and it was only then that I realized a way to do that was to write about something small. I’m not entirely sure why it took me that long to understand this important, and now seemingly obvious, lesson. 

My favorite poem from the book focuses on just a moment:

“Morning Ride on the Yamanote Line”

The conductor’s voice
glides over the drowsy heads,
like a familiar hand
smoothing unruly hair.
A schoolgirl in uniform
falls asleep on my shoulder
as the train tilts and sways.
She has forgotten about her satchel,
what she is carrying to school,
and sleeps in this brief lapse
of time before the day begins.
For a moment I have a sister, a child,
someone for whom I must be still.

But I am not the fastest learner, and I didn’t remember the lesson so well when I started to write memoir seven years ago. I was trying once again to answer bigger, vague questions, and to write about the greater landscape of my emotions and life, and I forgot to focus on just the one red, widening tulip; the one dew-soaked blade of grass; or that one time when I picked a dandelion and blew its white, puffy seeds into the air, forgetting that all of it was trouble. 

It’s the moments that matter. It’s the thing everyone tells us, but how easy that slips from me. Start with the small. Pick one scene, and then another. Add one little story to the next, and soon you have the grander story and the deeper meaning to go with it. It’s how life works, too.

Every year during National Poetry Month, I like to share a poem I love. It was so easy to pick this one. All these years later, I have the Sabishi chapbook in my shelves. Sometimes I pull it out and open it to the “Morning Ride on the Yamanote Line.” I take that early train ride with the poem’s speaker, and I remember to be still.

Poem from Sabishi: Poems from Japan published by Kent State University Press. Copyright © 1994 by David Hassler. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

A slightly different version of this post was originally published in Change Seven Magazine (thank you!) on April 11, 2017.