This is the Hugo House “How-To” series. Every week (give or take a few) we’ll share a short tip related to the writing life. This week’s post comes from Laurie Alberts. Her March 19 workshop, Writing About Animals, will explore the storied history of animals in prose and encourage students to write meaningfully and sentimentally about animals in their own lives.
1. Using animals as symbols
Literature is full of examples — the whale in Moby-Dick is the incarnation of all evil. How might you use animals in your fiction or creative nonfiction to serve a symbolic purpose?
One familiar trope is that dogs represent living life in the moment or fidelity as man’s best friend. You need to be more original. What might a dog or hamster or a flock of crows represent in your prose? Instead of a dog’s fidelity, think intractability; instead of a hamster’s mindless energy, perhaps the spinning of the cosmos; instead of crows and death, sociability? Make it new.
2. Animals as movers of plot
In Flannery O’Connor’s famous story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” the cat Pitty Sing, snuck into the car by the intrusive granny, jumps onto the driver’s head, causing the accident that culminates in the entire family being shot by The Misfit. The cat isn’t a character but a very effective device. Animals can serve your plot purposes — a dog hit by a car on the side of the road could catalyze a terrible argument between a married couple, for instance, or a deer crashing into a car could change the life of a young athlete.
3. Animals as carriers of theme
In the story “Geese” in Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine, the dead geese that Nector was carrying up the hill to the convent are the reason Nector gets both physically and emotionally entangled with Marie, who is running down the hill from the convent. Note: all of Erdrich’s symbols are also fitting concrete details. Let your animals be both carriers of theme and appropriate to the setting of your prose.
4. Animals as agents of transformation and transcendence
Here’s where we get into the really tricky territory. There’s been a glut of books in which animals teach humans to live in the moment, to love again, to find themselves, and so on. The language of many of these animal lessons has become cliché and devalued. Especially egregious are many scenes of animals dying in which the human holds his dear pet as it breathes its last breath.
Sentiment is fine, but sentimentality is the Splenda of prose. If you wish to write about how an animal has healed your pain or left you in tears, do it in fresh language and preferably with a fresh situation – rather than the veterinarian’s office or by the large animal’s dug hole.
Take a note from Tobias Wolff, who in his Vietnam memoir, In Pharaoh’s Army, describes the moment when he realizes his adopted pet has been deliberately served to him in a stew. Wolff writes, “I’d been fretting about his prospects. Now my worries were over. So were his. At least there was some largesse in this conclusion, some reciprocity. I had fed him, now he fed me. And fed me, I had to say, quite tastily. There was only one way to do him justice. I bent to my plate and polished him off.”
Laurie Alberts is the author of the craft book Showing & Telling as well as four novels, two memoirs, and a story collection. She and Abby Frucht, with whom she collaborated on the new novel, A Well-Made Bed, will be appearing at University Bookstore on March 20.