Sometimes writers just have to write. It happened to me, unexpectedly, a few weeks ago during an Inlandia creative writing workshop here in Riverside.
Jo Scott-Coe, our gifted workshop facilitator, gave us an assignment. For the next meeting, bring a book that has been important in your life.
I brought William Maxwell’s short novel, So Long, See You Tomorrow, a simple but mesmerizing story of a killing in a small Illinois town and its ramifications for the community. The book focuses on the personal journey of one young man who, years later, re-reads newspaper reports of the incident and tries to re-imagine the killing and its aftermath through the eyes of different members of the community.
I began reading it early one evening in a Cambridge, Massachusetts, hotel. Although I had to teach a class the next morning at Harvard, I could not go to bed until I finished the book well after midnight. Re-reading that novel and admiring its artistry and insights have become a recurring part of my life.
At our next workshop, Jo asked each of us to choose a brief passage from our book and copy it down. Despite my skepticism about the assignment (seemingly shared by some other participants), I dutifully copied three paragraphs in which the aftermath of the killing is unexpectedly and poignantly viewed from the perspective of one protagonist’s dog, who is ultimately put to sleep.
Jo then asked us to write something prompted by what we had just written down. Almost without thinking, I began writing about Tigger, our wonderful kitty whom we had to put to sleep last summer. Out came the story of Tigger’s last day, told mainly from his perspective. When I got home, I immediately sat down and expanded that story, tracing the course of that fateful day by shifting among perspectives, as did Maxwell: first mine; then that of the veterinarian; then Tigger; and finally my wife, Laurel.
At our next meeting, Jo asked us to read one page from something we had written. I chose the middle page from my three page Tigger story, providing perspectives from the veterinarian and from Tigger. The ensuing discussion provided suggestions, which I considered while making revisions. But when it came to Laurel, who is also in the workshop, she merely shook her head and said, “I don’t know why Carlos wrote this. I just don’t know why.”
I sent the revised version to my network of friends who read and comment on each others’ writing. I was particularly interested in the comments of Ellen Summerfield, a glorious Oregon poet, and Steve Petkas, a perceptive Maryland wordsmith. Ellen, a minimalist, usually looks for ways to cut; Steve usually looks for ways to expand.
Both liked the story but, predictably, they gave contrasting advice. Ellen said I should drop the first two sentences, completely. She was right. Steve suggested that I expand the vet’s section, but I didn’t because it would have outweighed Tigger’s tale, the core of my story. Fortunately, Steve, a long-time dog owner who is generally dismissive about things written from animal perspectives, said Tigger’s section worked for him.
However, as I finalized my essay, Laurel’s comment continued to echo. Why was I writing this story? Suddenly it came to me. Because I had to. I couldn’t let our magnificent friend go without memorializing him.
When I asked Laurel to expand on her comment, her answer was simple. Why had I written about Tigger’s death and not his life? As usual, Laurel was right. My three-page essay about Tigger’s passing was just the beginning of my journey. Tigger deserves more. That’s when I decided to write a book about Tigger’s life. Because I have to.