Notes on “Dog People”

I finished a first draft of “Dog People” about a year before I got pregnant. I thought I had a good handle on what it might be like to be a new mom, but when I read the draft about a year after Cora was born, I knew I’d missed the mark. The story was mushy and gray–being a mother is joyful, but hard too–and I’d failed to really capture how alive that contradiction is every moment, of wanting to simultaneously hold your baby and walk away, to go back to work and never leave the house. I’d never lived with such contradiction before in my life.

Looking back on the first draft, there were a few things I still liked: I’ve always been a fan of stories where two unrelated characters are thrown together, like a dog groomer and a new mom. I liked that I knew the ending had to push past Margie getting back in the house to some form of resolution with Jim, even though the earlier option for how that happened wasn’t very good. When I went back to revise, I really listened to the story and let the ending arise from the details I’d given myself to work with. Robert Boswell writes in The Half-Known World, one of my favorite books about writing, about how, when you get stuck in a story, the best thing to do is go back and read carefully, paying attention to the clues you’ve given yourself.

One of my favorite things about the final story is a small detail about the knitting needles. I wrote, “For the rest of her life, the sound of knitting needles clacking together will be a sound Margie associates with Katherine, a sound she will recognize out of context and always know.” When my daughter was a baby, sometimes in her sleep she would push her binky out of her mouth and it would clatter to the hardwood floor. If her father and I were in the living room we’d both pause, frozen, and wait for the coming wail. Sometimes Cora would wake up and sometimes not, but the sound of that binky hitting the floor is a sound I’d recognize anywhere. Unswept oak, an Avent pacifier. It’s a sound that struck terror in my heart and could wake me from a bone-weary sleep, but is also one of the most nostalgic sounds of my life.

Cora finally gave up her binkies when she was three. I told her if she left them in the bottom of her Christmas sock, Santa would take them and distribute them to needy babies around the world, and in return, she’d get a Dora kitchen. She thought it was a shifty deal at best but agreed to the terms, and sure enough, the fat man held up his end of the bargain. She never looked back or complained, although she did want reassurance for the first few nights that Santa had in fact passed them on and it hadn’t been for nothing.

A few weeks later, she found a rogue binky in her room and came running downstairs. “Mommy, Mommy, Santa missed one!” I told her thank you and said I’d mail it to him right away so he could take care of it. She stared at it a moment before nodding resolutely and heading back upstairs to play. I wanted to give her back the binkies; I wanted her to let them go. That’s what was missing from the first draft.


4 comments

  1. Mary Dornbusch says:

    Love this post, Erin! Just returned from three nights in Mpls staying each night with different families giving an evening out to moms and dads and getting the Grands all to myself. On the night I was with Wyatt (5), Oliver (3) and Fletcher (1-1/2) it was 9 pm with Wyatt the only one still awake. Alone in the kitchen I popped a handful of M&Ms in my mouth, went into his room and laid down beside him. I said, “Okay, Buddy, lights are out, I am going to rub your head and tell you stories but you can’t talk or even ask questions.” He said, “Right, Grandma, but just one thing. Sometimes, doesn’t the air smell like chocolate?” Seriously busted! I will never again eat M&Ms without smelling this sweet moment. Sounds and smells putting us back in the moment. Love it.

  2. erin flanagan says:

    What a great story! I love how kids find us out. Their logic relies on piecing the world together rather than the way adults look at the world, which seems to be more programmed. And I think this gives you license to eat M&Ms every day as a way of feeling closer to your grandkids.

  3. Renae says:

    Yes. This.

    I feel like I’ve had the conversation with you that my favorite writing is the writing that resonates with what I already know but haven’t necessarily thought specifically about. The stuff that you already recognize as true. That contradiction, and especially the constancy of it … just, yeah, you’ve articulated it so well.

    The binkie sound struck a deep chord with me as well. For me, it’s the smell of hand sanitizer at St. E’s (or any hospital that uses the same; it’s not the same as over-the-counter hand sanitizer). I associate it so strongly with my babies (and the NICU) that I am utterly transported every time.

  4. erin flanagan says:

    Thank you for the kind words!

    I just had the regular hand sanitizer, but that gets me too. There were irrational moments when I wanted to snort it to stay awake. Ah, motherhood!

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