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Moving your story forward, thoughts on editing-as-you-go

handwriting_LargeThe danger of editing as you go

If you keep going back to see what your characters did earlier in the piece you might succeed in ‘improving’ their behaviour, sharpening their dialogue, brightening a scene or shading it down … but you will not have moved the narrative forward one iota. Trust the story; you can always go back later and shoo the devils out of the details.

A lesson from the Surrealists

In 1936, Hugh Sykes-Davies, wrote In the stump of the old tree, and I’ve been reading the poem, loving it and holding it up to the light for more than forty years – but just today I see how it reflects on writing process, the going forward and the potential expense of looking backward.

Sykes-Davies is coming back into fashion now, and I am so glad of it.  Apart from his outspoken commitment to Communism, his networking abilities – friends included some avant garde giants of the time, for instance  David Gascoyne, Ludwig Wittgenstein and T. S. Eliot – Sykes-Davies also wrote an enduring textbook, ‘Grammar Without Tears’, an original copy of which I am saving to buy off Amazon.

I’m envious that Sykes-Davies, a by-the-book and wrote-the-book scholar of structural grammar, jumped the rails to become a Surrealist.  His poems helped deconstruct the entire grammarly pudding, poke fun at the rules and clearly open some of the gates to post-modernism and post-structuralism.  It’s the sort of bravery I adore.

hsd5

Hugh Sykes-Davies, English surrealist poet, Cambridge scholar, grammarian and outspoken Communist. At St John’s College, 1940’s – where he taught for nearly half a century.

On top of all this, Sykes-Davies was a swordsman of some repute. While he may have looked meek as milk, “He had many wives, four of them his own,” wrote George Watson in his essay, ‘Remembering Prufrock’.

I digress. As ever.
Here is the text of In the stump of the old tree – which I now see as a paean to the writer’s habit of editing as you go … sometimes at the peril of your story’s forward momentum:

In the stump of the old tree

In the stump of the old tree, where the heart has rotted out, there is a hole the length of a man’s arm, and a dank pool at the bottom of it where the rain gathers, and the old leaves turn into lacy skeletons. But do not put your hand down to see, because

in the stumps of old trees, where the hearts have rotted out, there are holes the length of a man’s arm, and dank pools at the bottom where the rain gathers and old leaves turn to lace, and the beak of a dead bird gapes like a trap. But do not put your hand down to see, because

in the stumps of old trees with rotten hearts, where the rain gathers and the laced leaves and the dead bird like a trap, there are holes the length of a man’s arm, and in every crevice of the rotten wood grow weasel’s eyes like molluscs, their lids open and shut with the tide. But do not put your hand down to see, because

in the stumps of old trees where the rain gathers and the trapped leaves and the beak and the laced weasel’s eyes, there are holes the length of a man’s arm, and at the bottom a sodden bible written in the language of rooks. But do not put your hand down to see, because

in the stumps of old trees where the hearts have rotted out there are holes the length of a man’s arm where the weasels are trapped and the letters of the rook language are laced on the sodden leaves, and at the bottom there is a man’s arm. But do not put your hand down to see, because

in the stumps of old trees where the hearts have rotted out there are deep holes and dank pools where the rain gathers, and if you ever put your hand down to see, you can wipe it in the sharp grass till it bleeds, but you’ll never want to eat with it again.
Poetry and Prose, 7 (Nov. 1936), 129.

* Sewannee Review, http://www.sewanee.edu/sreview/home.html, 2001
reprinted in Jacket magazine. (http://jacketmagazine.com/20/hsd-watson.html), 2002

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Remembering the Funny Little Dog. Stevie. Felix. My boy.

Vale my boy, Stevie the Brave, the FLD (funny little dog), the best mommy’s boy of all.  Two years this week.

I went to get him at a house where they had thought it would be nice to have a dog and then decided it wouldn’t. They had him in the tiny yard because Mother wouldn’t tolerate him inside, and there he sat on the other side with his round nose making a smudge on the glass doors.

The father carried in the dog for me to look at. The advert said ‘border collie x’ but this was a small, log-shaped entity with short hair and legs, and a white flash on his chest – not a border collie’s arse, as far as I could see. But there you are, you’ve driven half an hour to see this ‘puppy free to good home’, and this somehow inclines you to say yes more than no.

So he wasn’t what I had in mind as a friend for Ruby, my other dog, a very definite border collie x (Ruby’s ‘x’ was with blue heeler, so you couldn’t fool either half of her).  But I had left home saying I was bringing her a dog, and here was a dog – just not the kind we’d had in mind …

Felix.  He was supposed to belong to the little boy of the household, but now the lad stood to one side, chalky-faced and silent, with tears an nth from spilling.  They said Felix must go because the boy, only ten years old, wasn’t taking sufficient care of him, and Mother had “had enough.”

Father explained: the boy had all sorts of after-school activities, everyone was ‘too busy’ for Felix’s walks, plays, for his puppy-hood.  Father looked a little ashamed, standing there with the black sausage in his arms. 

HHe told me Felix was a very, very good dog. It was just they didn’t have time – nobody had time.  He said Felix was house-trained, never barked and did not dig.  As he lined up those merits, a little bell went off somewhere internally, but I decided to ignore it, as you do at such moments – only to remember them later. 

I looked at the dog. Felix, meaning joy. His tail fanned at a hundred miles a moment, the whites of his eyes were showing because he was frightened. He knew.

They said I was the only person who’d responded to their advert and it was clear that if I didn’t come through, the pound was high on mum’s to-do list.  I didn’t like Mum.  Felix and I went home with his kennel, his bowl and a red collar they’d bought when he still seemed like such a good idea.

Ruby was completely nonplussed; this was not the border collie-anything she’d been promised.  It was a Felix, with a white star on his chest and tufts of long white hairs on his otherwise black toes.

<span style="font-size: 13px;Felix, meaning joy, joyful, became Stevie.  He barely knew his old name anyway, which made me sad.

A few days after he came home I had a phone call from the little lad.  He wanted to know how Felix was doing.  He hoped I wasn’t disturbed by his call.  He just wanted to check.  I felt strangely angry with that family.  I could have been more compassionate with the boy; as it was I told him Felix was fine, settling down well, but I said goodbye quickly as I could.  I think I told the boy he could call any time he wanted.  He never did.

I once had a professional dog-handler look after the dogs while I went away for a fortnight. Each day she came to the house and fed, walked and played with them. You could trust her; she reeked of Whisperer; both dogs sat and stared at her as if she had every kind of treat packed into her pockets. When I came home she told me: “You can never separate these dogs …”

Who would have thought?  Up till then my impression of their relationship was that only the laws of self-preservation prevented one of them from leaving home in disgust.

I began to look at their relationship differently – and my relationship to each of them.  I felt The Whisperer had taken me up a notch, too – watching her interact with the dogs I began to see them differently, as individuals, ‘persons’ in the sense that personhood is meant in the abortion debate – entities with their own inner lives, souls, their particular relationships to the world.  I learned to see their lives and needs way beyond the basics of ‘She’s ready for a walk’, ‘He wants his dinner’ – I saw who they were separately from me, from my responsibility to them. This is a subtle transition in a person’s perception, but if you know what I mean then you have also learned to see the lives of dogs the other way – and the way they learn to see ours.

For the first eighteen months at our house Stevie did it all.  He dug up the garden and barked hysterically.  And he was not house-trained – seven months, and not house-trained.  Thank you Boy’s Mother, I knew I didn’t like you. 

He was also afraid of everything, and the smell of his fear put him at risk of other dogs; one day at the park two hooligan Staffies jumped him with such ferocity even their owner wouldn’t intervene. I came out of the fray with a bite through the palm of my hand and my boy with stitches in his ear and a bleeding gash on the back of his neck. For years after we were both afraid of Staffies, alert to their distinctive shape.

In a thunderstorm he climbed under the doona.  If he sensed a human male was pitching the woo at me, Stevie climbed onto my lap and flopped down for the duration. 

He found a mouse in the kitchen and backed away as if he’d seen a cobra, and when on a sunset bush walk we saw a real red-bellied black snake on the path right ahead, the FLD turned instantly on his heel and walked back toward home.  But on the beach he was intrepid with other people’s cricket balls and made me chase him to retrieve them; embarrassment; disrupted games; annoyed players standing about with their hands on their hips, Stevie in the shallows running like hell. 

He always looked funny, like Stimp, a Comic Book Dog. With his white star and whispy white toes, fat round belly and the curly rug of back-hair  – a corgi x staffie x other terrier, the vet said.  My boy. The border collie x – not.

Thirteen years later, my Ruby developed cancer and died. Stevie suffered such shock I feared he would die too. He was two years younger than Rubes, but within weeks his muzzle turned grey.  For six months he was afraid, followed me from room to room, was nervy and territorial, lost his appetite.  He spent long hours sitting, sitting, sitting – the light was out, I feared the onset of dementia.  Dogs do get dementia.

Then literally overnight he came through it. One dawn I woke to see the brown eyes full of naughty knowledge, the muscular rat-tail wagging brightly.

So then we were just the two, me and my boy.

One day three years on from that we were having coffee in one of those funky village coffee dens where people talk to people sitting next to them, and dogs are allowed.  The man beside me gave Steve a pat and a chat and watched him waddle away.  He said, “I’m a vet, you know.  You’ll need to have tests done, but I think he has an endocrine cancer.”

My boy. My little chap. Felix. Joy. Stevie the Brave. In July 2012 my boy died, in the night he crept out of the room and into the garden and lay down beneath a bush near the bedroom. I weep now – but then I slept. In the morning he lay there on the dry leaves.

During the last long afternoon I lay on the floor and held his paw. Strange how a dog can be desperately ill, dying, yet continue to be himself, as if whole and well.  He wanted me to scratch his chest, kiss his forehead, hold his paw while made his usual grunts of pleasure.  Just as if he was well.

Science confirms there are more nerve endings to the heart than to the brain, so I see the heart as a metronome, marking the rhythm of our journey, internal and out. Mind only collates and analyses, but heart is our metaphysical keeper.

For the last two weeks I have been dreaming about Stevie. Joy. Felix. Funny Little Dog. Vale.