Dispatches

Shaggy Dog Tales

Stephen Osborne

According to a Writer’s Guide available on the internet, writing a story is much like walking the dog: you have merely to think of the story as the dog and the plot as the route along which you plan to walk the dog. While walking the dog, of course, the Guide says, you have some general idea of where you’re going, a direction to follow to avoid getting lost. You don’t want the dog to drag you around wherever the dog wants to go. You have to decide where to go and when; especially when the dog or the story wants to veer off the path into the underbrush—and underbrush occurs in cities as a matter of course in dog-walking neighbourhoods—where there could be something interesting waiting to be found. At other times the dog or the story tends to lunge one way or the other from lamppost to fire hydrant, hedge to curb, conditionally at times, even subjunctively, sauntering in the imperfect, breaking away into the pluperfect and sliding back again into the past—seeking a way through, no matter how helter-skelter, a way of its own, a path through the olfactory worlds of stories and dogs: you, the owner or proprietor of the story, and/or the dog, or vice versa—by now we are extrapolating from the parabolic text (which can be found via Google if it hasn’t been deleted by now)—you, as we were saying, begin to whistle and call out to the dog or the story and sooner or later, with time running out for you and the story or the dog, neither of which are anywhere near your intended destination, there can no longer be any question that restraint is called for: at this point the leash comes metaphorically out of the pocket, and control is regained.

Dogs in the end, like stories, must be brought to heel, as this useful parable demonstrates, with a singular advantage to the story writer over the dog walker, for, as the Guide points out, if the story leads you to a dead end, you can always back up and start again, whereas the poor dog walker can never rewind from being dragged off a cliff.

Until a few years ago, professional dog walkers constituted a rare sign of urbanity in Canadian cities: lightly garbed muscular creatures in smooth clothing, slipstream coiffures, silvered sunglasses, headbands and running shoes that resemble tiny automobiles or large cellphones, conducting in one hand dogs on leashes numbering as many as half a dozen and more, streaming along the sidewalk with their professional walkers amongst them striding, leaning back, at times loping gracefully forward with the pack—troop or squad might be a more dignified term for these assemblies bearing little trace of the untamed, the wild, the fierce in tooth and nail as implied by the figure of the pack. These troops or squads have dwindled in size in recent years and at times resemble flocks of pigeons or lambs since the fashion for pocket-sized dogs that can be inserted by their owners into bags and pockets and even, under firm rules of silence and continence, carried on buses, subways and here in Vancouver even on the SkyTrain, with the result that the profession of dog walker has been predicted recently by a columnist in the daily news as soon to be going the way of the dinosaur.

Official sanction of dog-walking culture can be seen in the emergence of dog parks designated by city hall for the running of dogs accompanied by human escorts equipped with the proper excrement-removal tools; an exemplary series of such parks in Vancouver can be followed through the West End, beginning at Sunset Beach Park and up Thurlow Street to Nelson Park, and then along Nelson Street toward Coopers Park past the stern facade of the Contemporary Art Gallery before pausing at the Walk–Don’t Walk signal at Homer Street, always careful not to disturb the streaming pedestrians strolling, sauntering, shuffling between the tall downtown buildings in which transpires so much urban business of a fiscal, administrative or sexual nature outside the scope of any single narrative let alone a single walk with a single dog.

For example, some years ago a visiting poet, well known in certain circles, returning from the site of the defunct National Grocery Museum in the 13 block of Homer Street, paused among the dog walkers at the corner of Nelson and Homer in August long enough while gazing toward the sky to observe a businessman framed in a window on the fifth floor at 99 Homer Street remove his jacket and cufflinks and blue dress shirt, and a slender woman lean toward him as she unbuttoned her cream-coloured blouse; together they sank from view beneath the window ledge visible five storeys down from the sidewalk across the street—and pedestrians, as we were saying, stepping along to the bars and cafés of Yaletown, Davie Street, English Bay, etc., tourists in search of the National Grocery Museum gone from its erstwhile home on Homer Street (gone with it the vintage oatmeal in round containers, lurid soap boxes, familiar tins of Spork, Spam, Flash Brand Salmon; Dîner Kraft Dinner: all gone, into the past).

Walking several dogs at once, experts say, can be less troublesome than walking one dog at a time, as singular tendencies of dog or story to meander and veer away at random intervals tend in the aggregate to cancel each other, with the result that each dog being a story of its own, or vice versa, according to the parable mentioned above, hustles along with little interference from other stories represented by the other dogs with their leashes of varying lengths. Such might be the case with plurality in general, any multitude of stories none of which are given a definitive weight in determining the final route, the so-called plot as defined by a well-known novelist in another online writing manual as events related causally and involving conflict leading to a climax and a resolution.

Implications of the dog-walking parable for writers can be extended from the world of amateur as well as professional dog walking into the world of sanctioned dog and story parks—always of course with the approved tools and skill sets as defined in the appropriate regulations issuing from city hall, the grassy grounds of which in most cities are dog-free seven days a week. Our useful parable can be seen as well to encourage professional story writers to keep several stories on the go at all times, while maintaining an eagle eye for new leads, new plot twists hidden in the underbrush. Another writer’s tip on the so-called World Wide Web suggests rather mysteriously, in terms perhaps more meaningful for writers well seasoned in the craft, that as a dog “conflates its pre-domesticated genetic memory of beating down the grass in the wild with its domesticated ritual of circling before it lies down, the writer typically must circle the narrative numerous times.”

A few metres away from the corner of Homer and Nelson, where our visiting poet stands looking toward the sky, a blood-stained kitchen knife fell onto the sidewalk from a balcony on the tenth floor at one o’clock in the morning in December of 22, as reported in a news item under the headline Trail of Blood Leads to Murder in Condo; the shiny Police Incident Van Command Centre Vehicle sat in the street for a day and half the night, and then the yellow crime-scene tapes disappeared and the Police Incident Van moved on to other scenes, other incidents. For some weeks the metallic aftertaste of violent death clung to the molecules of the particular air of the intersection of the two streets named for Homer and Nelson, two sawmill owners who achieved high office, one a lieutenant governor and the other a high sheriff, their stories long since subsumed into the grid and equally disremembered by residents of the West End and the city at large, who associate the intersection today with, if anything at all, the marble column erected in Trafalgar Square in London, England, in the 184s, or the ancient blind singer of the Odyssey.

As we allow the present narrative to circle around before settling down, we might notice a block farther north on Nelson Street the stubby twin towers of The Homer, an apartment block painted in the pastels named by expert colourists as Egyptian Sunrise and Harvest Cream, where they rise up bluntly before an immense facade of high-rise glass, steel and concrete. One of the towers is imprinted with the surname of the forgotten high sheriff mentioned above, and the other with the definite article elegantly inscribed in an elegant titling serif.

The two apartments in the The tower of The Homer were coveted at one time by another friend of ours, an ex-director of the Art Gallery, and ex-adjunct professor of art history, seeking wall space on which to display his collection of Group of Seven counterfeits and composite photographs attributed to William Notman (considered by curators to be the inventor of the National Photography as well as creator of the original Photo ID-Card). On the ground floor the Homer Cafe could, until recent upgrades changed its name to the Homer St Cafe and Bar, be relied on for bacon and eggs over easy, rye toast, orange juice, coffee and a pre-read copy of the morning news and its hoard of near-stories, such as the item I found there in 26 under the heading Body Parts Found, stating that on Saturday afternoon a citizen walking his dog in New Brighton Park, a dog-sanctioned green space on the east side of the city, had discovered a duffel bag containing what the police officer quoted in the item said may or may not have been human body parts. “It is certainly a suspicious circumstance,” said the officer in the item. “This is going to take a lot of forensic work.”

That same week, out on the west side of the city past Asthma Flats, sixteen garage fires had been set in a period of forty-eight hours: police in the news item were urging residents to watch for changes in the behaviour of family members. “So many things can trigger it,” said the officer, said the item: “physical, psychological, or alcohol abuse, as well as revenge or sexual excitement.”

(A Google run on the phrase “how to write” yielded 167 million hits on the second Monday of November 214.)

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Stephen Osborne

Stephen Osborne is a co-founder and contributing publisher of Geist. He is the award-winning writer of Ice & Fire: Dispatches from the New World and dozens of shorter works, many of which can be read at geist.com.


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