Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Charlotte's Web isn't a children's book

I'm getting ready to start teaching an online course on writing about animals and Charlotte's Web is at the top of the reading list.  It may seem strange to have a book we all remember from childhood on a reading list that is meant as an example of the complexity of our relations to animals.  Also on the list: the work of Vicki Hearne, essays from The New Yorker, My Dog Tulip, etc., all works that are ambiguous or even somewhat unsettling.  In other words, they are real.

But Charlotte's Web is real too, and a great example of how creative writing can take an idea, philosophy or problem and explore in an unexpected way.  In notes to his publisher's marketing department E.B. White said that he wrote the book after moving to the country and finding an unexpected ethical dilemma with life on the farm:  "A farm is a particular problem for a man who likes animals, because the fate of most livestock is that they are murdered by their benefactors."

I think our best writing comes from writing through things we don't yet understand.  Certainly, my own memoirs about my relationship with dogs comes from a place of "not knowing" rather than a place of expertise.  Part of the writing is solving the mystery of why this topic pulls at us so.  

For more information on the upcoming class, check out Writing about Animals on Ruzuku.  

Remembering Ellen Miller, still

My 20-year New Orleans anniversary got me thinking about other anniversaries, primarily this one: five years ago in December, my friend Ellen Miller died in a hospital in New York City.  A unidentified Jane Doe after collapsing in a bodega.  We had known each other for nearly twenty years.  We met, briefly, in a writing workshop in New York City, and I knew as soon as I saw her that she was a junkie.  Her skin was a yellow-gray and her demeanor so interior it surprised me when she called after the first class asking if I would take her spot on the workshop schedule.  I said yes, and then she kept me on the phone apologizing and explaining, vaguely, how she just couldn't make it to class that week and was so grateful that I was willing to make this switch for her.  It was a simple favor, but there was such a charged sense of drama to the call I felt there was a backstory that I would never know.  And I might not have ever known it, because she never returned to that class.  I forgot about her, left NYC for my own melodrama filled year on another coast, and then returned to the Westside Y for another class upon my return.

And there she was: sitting on the opposite side of the table, smiling at me like an old friend and looking like an entirely different, glowing version of herself.  At the end of the introductory session she said, "You probably don't remember me," and I said, "Actually I do."  We were friends immediately.  The next week she brought in a short story about a woman struggling with addiction who enters a sordid relationship with the plumber she calls to clear the toilet that has been clogged by the digestive troubles brought on by heroin.  But it wasn't a short story, it was mammoth, and the other students in the class, mostly older, proper Upper West and Upper East Siders were appalled, which left much of the conversation to be had between me and the teacher, novelist Dani Shapiro.

Years later, when her novel was published and then released in paperback, and my collection of stories was out, we toured the West Coast together, staying at one point, in the same Tenderloin motel as the boyband 98 Degrees.  Just after that tour, we had a falling out that was entirely mysterious and heartbreaking to me at the time.  In retrospect, I'm sure it had something to do with this:  her novel had received a small dismissive review in The New York Times and my stories had received a prominent, mostly positive review by the very same critic; it was foolish of me not to recognize this at the time.

Then things cooled off for both of us.  I got a dog.  Ellen and I were friends again, though it was increasingly difficult to get to see her, to get her out of her apartment.  And when I did hear from her, often it was when she called me in the midst of some crisis.  But when we did talk, we would talk and talk and talk.  One of our running conversations was a nonsense plan to put together a literary anthology called Fat and Bitter: Stories about People Who Are Fat and Bitter.

When I got an email in early January 2009 asking if it was true that Ellen was dead, I knew the answer was probably yes.  I called our old precinct in the East Village and said that I was calling about a friend who I was told had died on the street.  An hour later a detective called me back and let me know he had been assigned to the case.  "Did your friend have tattoos?" he asked.  I could barely get the two words out.  "Her pets," I said.  I must have been sobbing, because the detective wouldn't hang up until I told him I was going to be okay.

In February of that year, we held a memorial at NYU.  I flew up from New Orleans in the morning, and got a plane home as soon as the memorial was done so that I could be in bed with my dogs.  My mother had died the previous spring; my father would die a month later.  The dogs who comforted me have now passed on.  I still think of all of them--Ellen, my parents and my three original dogs--every day.  I don't think that will ever change.

Dani Shapiro recently shared her thoughts on Ellen Miller's work at her blog.