Walking the Dog is a Good Thing For a Writer To Do

One complaint I frequently hear in writing critique groups is that the writer is “walking the dog.” This describes the writer who leads the reader step by step through a scene sequence, often subjecting the reader to tedious monotony. Many times, this is a fair critique. Beginning writers often struggle with ending scenes and transitioning to new ones, so they drag the reader through a play-by-play of minuscule events to tie scenes together.

While this error can easily be fixed, I find the remedy offered by many critics to be just as harmful. Many people will advise the writer to “get to the action” or to “stop walking the dog.” For example, they might say, “We don’t need to know that Jane got out of bed, got a glass of water, took a shower, dried her hair, painted her toenails, got dressed, and made herself a cup of coffee before jumping in the car and going on her way to uncover a terrorist cell in Boston.”

This laundry list of actions is not effective writing, but I would resist the advice to avoid walking the dog, because walking the dog is so fundamental to composing a good scene. That’s not to say as a writer, you should list everything that happened like a diary entry. Rather, be mindful of the things that happen while walking the dog. What does this particular character see on the walk? What important things do they fail to see? Walking the dog allows the characters to interact with their world in a meaningful way.

Perhaps Jane woke up an hour late, her bedsheets stained with fluorescent ink because she fell asleep with an open highlighter and her notebook on her lap. Perhaps when Jane goes to the bathroom, she sees her husband’s clothes strewn over the floor, a quarter-filled coffee mug balancing on the edge of the bathtub, a pile of books and notepads on the bathroom counter. Perhaps as she paints her toenails, she winces at the sight of her ugly, misaligned pinky-toe that she broke while cliff-diving off the coast of Spain the previous year. In the kitchen, she sees the cereal bowl her husband left on the table, the sugary remnants of the cereal flakes caked onto the ceramic. Frustrated, she puts the bowl in the sink to soak it, but at least her husband has made a pot of coffee. Perhaps when she gets to the car, she realizes her husband has filled the gas tank for her.

By filling in these details, the writer is offering setting and characterization in an efficient, elegant way. We get the sense that Jane is adventurous and that her husband is a slob. But we also see that he’s not purposefully inconsiderate, since he’s filled her car with gas. Of course, this example is paired down to its bare bones, but you can see how the reader can learn a lot about characters and their personalities without the writer having to waste a paragraph telling us that Jane’s husband is a slob or that she likes to seek out adventure.

Write a lot of these scenes, or at least go through them slowly in your head, imagining the world though your character’s eyes. I would argue, the subtle emotional responses a character has in the small scenes are more meaningful than the obvious and predictable emotional responses in the big scenes. We know a character will be angry when they’re betrayed by a friend, or sad when their beloved father dies, or afraid when a menacing stranger pulls a knife on them. Beginning writers often reserve detailed description of emotions for these scenes and fall back on clichés. His blood boiled. Tears welled up in his eyes. Her heart thumped. What has happened, is the writer has failed to build up an emotional cache with the character. However, if the reader is already intimate with the character, in the momentous scenes, they’ll already feel what the character is feeling without the writer having to tell them.

The secret to good writing is to be acutely aware of everything. Go out and walk the dog! Stretch yourself to see the world in a different way and have an empathic response for all of your characters, no matter how good or evil they may be. Get it all down on paper. The redundant details can later be excised from the manuscript, but it’s so important to go through the process. This isn’t just advice for writers of literary or upmarket fiction. This is true for all writers. It’s the basis of great storytelling.

walkingdog

 

The Dog and the Bird

Growing up in a small town in Oklahoma, my friend Marc and I used to entertain ourselves by making up stories on the fly and recording them on a tape cassette recorder. We were seven or eight years old. On our less inspired but rambunctious days, the stories were simple and action packed, usually involving some indescribable yet inherently hideous and menacing beast chasing us through the neighborhood or our homes until we finally got away or killed it. We would dive to the floor, crash into the walls, or hurdle over the sofa to simulate our evasive maneuvers. Then, panting from our efforts, we’d whisper into the tape recorder how frightened we were as we pretended to hide. On other days we would attempt more intricate mystery stories—Scooby Doo type adventures—that routinely failed to reach a resolution before one of us was called home to dinner. When we’d meet up again, we never picked up where we left off because listening to the previous day’s recording always revealed some fatal flaw with our plotline. Before Marc moved away sometime around my third-grade year, we had compiled several cassette tapes worth of unfinished stories.

recorder

But the storytelling bug had bitten. For school, we had to write a story. Mine was called The Dog and the Bird. I don’t remember what it was about. It probably featured a dog and a bird working together to achieve some noble outcome. Whatever it was about, I just know I put a whole lot of effort into it and was really proud of the finished product. My teacher gave me some encouraging feedback which immediately inflated my writing aspirations. I asked her about getting it published.

She said, “Ok. But you’re going to have to type it up really nice.”

So I did. I typed it up, checking it multiple times for errors and letting my parents proofread it. I told them I had to get it ready for publication. The Dog and the Bird would be my breakthrough as an author. The story had to be flawless. I took it back to my teacher.

She read through it again and agreed that it was much better typed out. “But you’re going to need to bind it,” she said. “So people can read it like a book.”

amazoncover

That night I three-hole punched it and put the story in a report folder with a clear plastic cover. Now someone could read it like they were flipping the pages of a book. I gave it to my teacher.

Again she was impressed. “Now, you just need some cover art. Every book has a cover.”

I was stumped. I was an author, not an artist. I was also growing impatient. I wanted to be done with it. I knew drawing with crayons or pencils would look amateurish, so using the computer technology available before the days of clip art and the internet, I drew a rudimentary picture of a four-legged animal that might have resembled a dog, at least to the type of person gifted at locating constellations and finding images of animals in clouds. Next to my dog, I drew a faceless, two-stroke picture of a bird—essentially a ‘V’ with curved tips. I centered the title in big bold letters above the drawing and printed it out on my dot matrix printer which made the big letters and the drawing of the dog look hideously pixelated. It didn’t matter. I had completed a book. My book. The next day I presented it to my teacher who promised that she’d share it with all her future classes. I promised I’d work more on the artwork. I never did. But I was satisfied. I was as published as I needed to be. The project had taken all my energy for two weeks, and I needed a rest.

dogandbird

I owe so much to that teacher who recognized and cultivated that creative spark in me. She didn’t give me a cold dose of reality by informing me of the cruel world of publishing, or by telling me to expect a pile of rejections, or that being a published author is extremely difficult. This would have been the truth, of course, but at that age, if faced with these mountains of obstacles, I would have given up before even starting.

I think we forget sometimes that one of the primary goals of teaching is showing someone how to set a goal and complete a task. Everybody wants to achieve something. Guiding a student to find their true bliss is part of the process.

We should never forget this function of teaching. Performing well on a standardized test is an admirable goal for a school but falls way short of being inspirational for the student. If we simply grade teachers by how well they show someone where to place a comma or how to turn the remainder of a long division problem into a decimal, then we are truly selling ourselves short.

Because of my teacher, I experienced a wonderful sense of accomplishment. It was my first completed story. I’ve continued to write stories. Some have been published but most of them shared only amongst a small group of friends and fellow writers. I would have forgotten about The Dog and the Bird except that recently I was sifting through an old box of schoolwork and came across the cover art that had been hidden beneath the rubble of my life like a lost puzzle piece. I hadn’t thought of it in years. I honestly don’t recall which teacher was responsible for encouraging me to continue on the story; otherwise, I would gladly give her credit here. Until now, I didn’t recognize the value of that lesson in publishing.

The most profound moments in life are often not recognized until the moment is long gone. Insignificant and untethered memories reappear and unexpectedly reveal their importance upon distant reflection. But this, I’d argue, is where the true substance of living resides. In the end, when we sum up our histories, our purpose or meaning in life will not be perfectly articulated like a corporate mission statement but will instead be buried deep beneath the subtext of a thousand little moments and scattered memories.

To the Lonely and the Shamed

To the lonely and the shamed who have stood in the darkness of a cold stairwell not wanting to go up or down or afraid to emerge from the solitary place, you are not alone. We all have been there at some point and some of us are still there. We avoid people and dodge accusing eyes. There is depth to the pain of shame that reaches deep into our core. Shame is beyond reflection on specific behavior and more private than disgrace. It’s an indictment on the self. It consumes the humanity in a person and brings out the worst in us at the moment we are weakest. Our empathy dissolves into self-pity. Altruism evolves into anger, blame, and transference of shame.

And there’s no easy way out. Of course there’s the potent pill or the blessed booze that offers a brief reprieve from the pain before dragging the tortured soul deeper into shame. For those who choose to endure with the drooped head and slouched posture, there’s isolation, depression, and the ultimate moment when the mind defeats the person.

But the most disgusting thing about shame is not that we feel it, although for anyone who wakes up every day wanting only to crawl into a cave and expire, it truly is awful. What is horrific is that at a societal level, we induce it in others by the way we assign shame-inducing labels, by the way we treat the people who we deem to be below us, or by the way we make snap judgments on character based on skin color, nationality, tattoos, or body size.

No one understands the pain of shame as deeply as the child humiliated for an error and compared to a dog, or a wife belittled and battered for questioning her husband, or an unwed mother who needs the government check and is not lazy, or the person who is taunted and called a fag but is not gay, or the person who is taunted and called a fag and is gay, or the felon applying for a job knowing a background check will immediately disqualify him. The list could go on.

And there are some who feel certain people deserve shame. Judges might expect it from convicted criminals. Family members expect it from a loved one who has fallen off the wagon. There are those who believe some ought to be shamed for their religious beliefs, sexual orientation, or residency status. It’s easy to draw a justification. Shouldn’t a criminal feel shame for a crime committed? Or an addict for destroying their family with their addiction? Or a Guatemalan for crossing our borders illegally…and not speaking English?

If someone truly has transgressed, we should focus on the transgression and spare the man. Allow a guilty person to feel guilt, accept it, and work to make amends. By inducing shame in others, we are actually breeding recurrence of bad behavior because a man who has nothing has nothing to lose.

No one deserves shame.

But this is to the people who feel shame, those who are stuck in the dark stairwell and who feel alone. Shame feels very public and sometimes we do bare the scarlet letter. In reality, however, shame is a prison we build for ourselves. Managing shame is about letting go. It’s about accepting what we’ve done and who we are. It’s not shying away from guilt when we’ve erred, but it’s also acknowledging that we are not forever defined by a single behavior.

If shame is the prison, then pride is the key to freedom. It’s not that we should think that we are inherently exceptional. Perhaps more dangerous than a shamed person is the eternally proud one, the narcissist. Pride is something we are not born with or that we are entitled to. Every day it must be earned by actions, even if they seem small in the grand scheme of life. But every day offers an opportunity to do that thing, that mutually beneficial deed that elevates the perception of self. Civic pride. Perhaps a good place to start is looking to the lonely and the shamed and reminding them that they are not alone and that shame doesn’t need to endure.

hopper.sunday copy

The Whistling Rebel

The other day I found myself in the hallway of the vacant 13th floor of an office building. As I approached the intersection with another hallway, I heard someone whistling Mary Had a Little Lamb. When I turned the corner at the intersection I came face to face with the construction worker who was responsible for the performance. He quickly modified his tune by throwing in some random notes to obscure the original melody.

It didn’t fool me, and I thought about calling him out on it. But then I remembered all the times when I thought I’d been alone and whistled corny songs. I myself had been a victim of music bullying, teased for liking or whistling uncool music or for being clueless to the latest music trends.

In Elementary School, I was a kid unsure of how to defend myself for whistling Eine Kleine Nachtmusik while walking down the hall. I didn’t have enough “street sense” at the time to say, “Oh, I’m just whistling that annoying IHOP song.” Instead, I’d confess that I’d been sharing a Mozart tune with the world and would deal with the subsequent snickers.

Not only was my whistled music ridiculed. Later, in my high school and college years, my mix tapes were always rejected at parties and social gatherings, perhaps for my persistent inclusion of Safety Dance (the most fun song ever) on every mix.

I’m sure we all have a favorite song we’re too ashamed of to admit. Why is this? Why should a particular arrangement of tones be more culturally acceptable than others? I think we would all like to release our inner Carlton Banks, which perhaps is why the Carlton dance resonates with so many people. We would like the opportunity to be happy without fear of derision for the very thing that makes us happy.

What is interesting to me is the whistling phenomenon. What we whistle is normally an unconscious decision. We’re repeating something we’ve recently heard or recalling something close and familiar. We just do it. A melody takes hold and emerges from our pursed lips.  And it always happens when we’re happy or at least solidly content (I’ve never considered whistling Mozart’s Requiem when in a depressed mood). So, if the melodies we whistle are associated with happiness, why would we suppress the other outlets of these songs for the sake of social conformity? Do we value acceptance more than happiness? Should we be ashamed for being a whistling rebel?

In the Newds

Exotic dancers last week in Ohio staged a protest against New Beginnings Ministry by holding a topless rally outside the church’s doors. They held signs with slogans such as “Be curious, not judgmental.” This protest was in response to the church members picketing the Foxhole North, a strip club in nearby New Castle. Since there are no laws in Ohio prohibiting the exposure of bare breasts, the demonstration didn’t attract law enforcement but instead captured the attention of the media and a few curious onlookers. After church services, parishioners were shielded from the shock of topless women and ushered out the back door to the rear parking lot.

protest11

The protest did little to garner meaningful support for either side of the confrontation, yet somehow, at the height of the protest, both sides claimed to have won. The church’s pastor noted the fact that the strippers would resort to this behavior was evidence that the church’s efforts to harass the strip club were working.  The strippers probably noted the number of people who had come to stand with them as proof of their own success.

At first glance, it would seem the strippers may have misinterpreted the motives of their supporters who probably were more intent on stealing a look at naked breasts than showing actual support for the strip club’s cause.

The church, it would seem, clearly had the upper hand in the ongoing clash. Patrons of Foxhole North had been shamed home by the church’s picketers to the point where business must have suffered (otherwise there would have been no point for the topless counter protest).  Conversely, parishioners of the church could not be shamed by the topless protest. This is the beauty (and the scary thing) of organized religion. You always have the moral high ground no matter how distasteful your practices may seem to others. But isn’t there something supremely distasteful by blatantly infringing on a person’s religious views? The topless protest most likely only emboldened and strengthened the faith of the people inside.

How then is it possible for the Foxhole North to claim victory?

On second glance, the topless protesters may have a point. The goal of the protest was never to stop people from attending New Beginnings Ministry. The goal of the protest was to bring attention to the obvious. Breasts are fascinating.[1] Bare them in public and you instantly become newsworthy. In London, feminists protested the rigidity of sharia law by staging a nude rally, although it’s unclear if onlookers were able perceive anything beyond the nipple. A megaphone on a busy street corner is no match for the draw of a bare breast. Today, August 24, is Go Topless Day, where women are encouraged to strive for equality with men in the right to bare an unclothed chest. Woman all over the world are encouraged to go topless, and men parading with them have the opportunity to wear bikinis (and to get a front row view of bare breasts). Some of these rallies have had protesters holding signs with messages like, “You’re going to hell,” but did anyone really notice them? Maybe if they went topless…

In most of these rallies, it’s hard to get beyond the bare breasts to the real issue.[2] The Ohio protest was different. Now, on third glance, it would appear the protesters achieved exactly what they wanted. In their case, the breasts didn’t detract from a greater message of religious dogma or equal rights. The issue here was the breast. It didn’t matter if the crowd of media and curious citizens supported the Foxhole North or the church. What mattered is that there were a lot of curious people. What mattered is that they reminded us that given the chance, men will position themselves to gain a view of the blessed nipple. It’s human nature, which although at odds with our religious prohibitions, is biological reality. It reminded people that if they want a place to look at the bare breast without feeling guilty that they’re shamefully ignoring the substance beyond the breast, they have a home at Foxhole North.

Final Score[3]

Foxhole North                        2

New Beginnings Ministry        1

 

 

[1] For example, the design of the smooth, golden arches of McDonald’s was no accident, although the original artists would claim to reference the maternal, nurturing aspect of female breasts rather than their sexual allure as the underlying motive behind the design.

[2] Few probably know that Go Topless Day has its roots in the Raelien movement which believes that aliens came to our planet and designed human DNA and that Go Topless Day was intended to be an opportunity to celebrate the artistry of aliens rather than be ashamed of it. Now, the movement supposedly espouses equal rights.

[3] This isn’t a score of who ultimately is right or wrong, but rather, who had the upper hand in the protest.


 

The opinions expressed in this essay are solely those of DF Salvador and do not necessarily reflect the views of dfsalvador.com.

Tony Gwynn

In 1994, Tony Gwynn batted over .400 for most of the season, and every morning that summer I would open up the Sports section of the newspaper and check the box score to see how Gwynn had done the day before. He was on a tear heading into August, and many thought he might be the first person since Ted Williams in 1941 to crack the .400 batting average mark.

To me, the most important statistic in baseball was the batting average. It was the first thing I looked at when I checked out the stats on the back of a player’s baseball card. I would arrange my cards in my collection based on a player’s batting average. Home runs were overrated in my opinion. Home run hitters were guys seeking personal glory while the good hitters were more interested in team success.  I followed all the prolific hitters. I knew of Rod Carew’s year in 1977 when he batted .388 and George Brett’s 1980 season when he batted .390.

carew brett

I knew of all the seasons that Pete Rose had over 200 hits. For many years, Rose was by far my favorite player, but by 1990 his reputation was tarnished and all those baseball cards of his that I’d collected were now seemingly worthless.

Tony Gwynn kept my interest in baseball even after the black eye of the Pete Rose scandal. Gwynn was a good guy, loyal to his team, and a tremendous hitter.

1994 was destined to be the year someone would finally break the .400 mark. Although Gwynn repeatedly batted well over .300, never before had he gone so deep into the season hovering so close to .400. Then August 11th came and the baseball players announced they were going on strike. The season was over. I hated the player’s union and the owners for disrupting Gwynn’s glorious season. When Gwynn was unable to replicate his torrid pace the next year, I had nothing left to cheer for. I hated baseball. The strike had ruined everything.

The Sosa-McGwire summer of 1998 temporarily resurrected my fractured relationship with baseball as I began taking an interest in the type of player I had always detested. The home run hitter. These guys were hitting home runs at such an impressive rate that they captured the attention of the country.   Baseball was back. Mark McGwire smashed Roger Maris’s record (as did Sammy Sosa), but when the bloated Barry Bonds surpassed the record in 2001, the excitement was missing. Everyone knew something was off. The subsequent and ongoing steroid scandal sunk baseball to a level lower than the strike-shortened season of 1994, and the inflated stats from 1998 onward were no longer of any interest to me since it was impossible to know which ones to believe.

The last time I believed in baseball was in 1994, during that unfinished season. Would Gwynn have done it? Would he have cracked .400?  We’ll never know.

Tony Gwynn passed away on June 16th at the age of 54 after a battle with cancer. He didn’t get a chance to finish coaching his team at San Diego State University. He didn’t get a chance to see his son, Tony Gwynn, Jr. finish his own professional baseball career.

Tony Gwynn and Tony Gwynn, Jr.

On Father’s day, the day before Tony Gwynn died, his son told a Philadelphia reporter about his father, “I always try to get in an I love you. For a while that was uncomfortable for me, I don’t know why. But since 2010, it hasn’t been uncomfortable. It’s something I want to make sure I get in because you never know what’s going to happen.”

There are several things that the baseball strike and cancer didn’t allow Tony Gwynn to finish, but nothing stopped him from achieving the ultimate victory in life: achieving a meaningful bond with his family before it’s too late.

 

 

Beauty Matters

mona ace

You’re one of fifty-two people who mill about in a large room.  Each of you holds a playing card against your forehead.  No one knows their own card, but you can see each other’s.  The goal of this little game is to pair off with the highest card possible, but to accomplish this, your request for partnership has to be accepted by the other.  Of course the Aces and Kings are the most popular and they pretty much know right away that they’re the cream of the crop.  It’s instant mutual acceptance when an Ace requests to partner with another Ace.  It works fairly quickly with the Kings as well.  By the time this experiment is over, for the most part, Aces have paired with Aces, tens with tens, sixes with sixes, and twos with twos.

It must be kind of depressing being a two, being the last in the room to find a partner, watching all the high cards go, then the middle ones, and experiencing the horrible realization that you’re the low card that no one wants to pair with.

Research has shown this is how couples typically pair off in the real world.  Hot women tend to be with hot guys.  Sevens with sevens.  Twos with twos.  Through the process of assessing interest and receiving rejections, we get a pretty good gauge of where we stand relative to others, and we choose our partner accordingly.

The popular belief is that beauty is subjective—beauty is in the eye of the beholder—but really, we all hold similar opinions as to who we consider physically beautiful.  Even people in one culture can easily pick out beauty in another culture.  We are hard wired to perceive beauty.

So we do our best to enhance ourselves, to add value to our card.   We’ll diet and exercise to maintain the best proportions or wear makeup to project the illusion of youth.  We do this because it’s necessary to attract a partner with the most sexual allure.  We value other traits too, but physical beauty reigns supreme.  Talents can add to one’s overall allure but it’s more like one suit value trumping another.  Adding a Harvard degree to a killer body might make you the Ace of Hearts to the Ace of Clubs.  In other words, talent, charm, and intellect can increase the value of your suit, but not your pip value.

We often talk about the shallowness of physical beauty and how real beauty is something within, and there is a certain internal beauty we do admire.  It’s this internal beauty that makes a close friend or relative loveable in a heartwarming kind of way, but this kind of beauty doesn’t translate to romantic attraction.  They are two distinct kinds of beauty—one endears us to many friends and the other excites a potential romantic partner.

So can a Six ever make it with an Ace?  It happens but it’s not common.  If we’re slightly devious, we’ll try some sleight of hand.  Alcohol to level the playing field.  The use of power and/or intimidation.  Money.

shrek

Our stories, myths and legends try to convince the lower valued cards to hold out hope and that maybe in some perfect universe, Marisa Tomei might be attracted to short, stocky, bald men.

tomei

The lesson that many of our most cherished love stories attempt to drive home is that  inner beauty is everything.  But in what fairy tale is Prince Charming a three hundred pound oaf with big ears and acne?  The truth is, most fairy tales and stories are populated by pretty heroes and ugly villains.

So what about the twos and threes?  What is their destiny?  To become witches?   Criminals?  Is this what we expect from less physically attractive people?  With constant rejection and low societal expectations, wouldn’t a two or three naturally come to resent the world?  I’m sure at some point we’ve all felt that sinking feeling of being the last man or woman standing in the room—it sucks—but we all haven’t faced this rejection on a day-to-day basis.  This rejection does not come from only potential sexual mates.  Pulchronomics, which studies the economics of beauty, shows us prettier people earn more money than their plain counterparts.  Handsome children earn more attention from teachers.  It’s no wonder that criminals tend to be uglier than most.

Obviously, being ugly does not make one a criminal just like being depressed doesn’t cause someone to commit suicide.  There is, however, a striking correlation, and I wonder if we fully consider and appreciate the consequences of being physically unattractive and receiving constant rejection.

What we do tend to do is ridicule those who are preoccupied with their looks.  But in a world where looks has a greater bearing on future success than education, a focus on primping actually seems to be the smarter path to take.

This being said, we also tend to overvalue the benefits of beauty in relation to overall happiness.  Perhaps being the perpetual object of desire makes it easier to engage in extra-marital affairs, which can lead to painful divorces, breakups, or love triangles.  Perhaps the promiscuity associated with Hollywood is less indicative of the loose morals of show business and more the result of extraordinarily beautiful people constantly in the midst of each other.

So what’s the lesson?  Obviously beauty matters more than it seems appropriate to acknowledge.  But the more important question is what can we change?  Do we try to make the not-so-physically attractive more eye-appealing and encourage vanity?  Or do we try to change the perception and importance of beauty?  Can we really transform something that is hard-wired within us?

I think it would be nice if we could occasionally ask for a reshuffling of the deck.