Wednesday, April 6, 2011
Noah's Ark: Penning About Pets
Several months ago I was browsing the submission guidelines for online literary journals and I came across one that caught my eye. The editors threw out terms like "out-of-the-box prose" and "non-linear thinking" which would "blow their run-of-the-mill fiction-dulled minds." It all sounded great. This was it, I was ready to submit my short story . . . until I came across the following guideline, the last on the list, written in large type and flanked with annoying little asterisks, emphasizing it's weight:
****PLEASE REFRAIN FROM WRITING ABOUT YOUR PETS, OTHER PEOPLE'S PETS, OR ANIMALS IN GENERAL. NO ONE CARES***
Get PETA on the phone! Alert the ASPCA! This is an outrage! I thought of the many books I had read as a child and into adulthood where an animal had been the main character, had conveyed a lesson about love, patience, loss, companionship, trust and perserverence, books I loved and will pass on to my children:
Old Yeller, Where the Red Fern Grows, Black Beauty, All Things Bright and Beautiful, Sea Biscuit, The Cat Who Came For Christmas, just to name a few. Animal Farm for crimminy's sake! Would they have given Orwell a "thanks, but no thanks," simply because there was a pig in his story? Disney/Pixar even got us to flip for a rat with a passion for fusion cooking. Log on to YouTube and you can choose from over 650,000 animal videos. So how could this so-called reputable literary journal say that no one cares about critters?
Just to piss them off, I sent in a story called "Mittens and Me", about a little girl who spends weeks coaxing a small abandoned kitten out of a hole underneath a garden shed, engendering it's trust with small bits of bread soaked in milk only to have the kitten's neck viciously broken by the family dog. The crux of the story really isn't so much about the pain the little girl suffers at the loss of the cat (and the betrayal of the dog), but the family drama that ensues as each member struggles with the decision about whether or not to keep the dog. Arguments break out, alliances are tested and a parental decision is made that may or may not have lasting impact on the relationship between the siblings. I had started the story as a joke, but in writing it, it became more complex, took on a different shape. Probably because it was true.
I named the cat "mittens" because she was grey with white paws and I was eight years old. And I wanted to give the dog away because he had destroyed something more important than the cat. With one primal, instinctual act, he had snatched away my innocence. This was of course not his fault, being a dauchsund and therefore a ratter. He simply didn't know any better. But at the time, I had assumed he was capable of a higher form of thinking and feeling. How could he? was all I could think. I took it personally. And though we never really talked about it, I will always feel guilty that, in the end, my parents decided to give the dog away. His banishment was an indulgent and shoddy trade-off for the pain that my brother and sister suffered, a resentment that hung like thick smog around our house until one day, it was all forgotten. Or maybe we just moved on, filing the event away as part of the fabric of our family's make-up. And that's where the story lies. But without the cat and without the dog, there is no story.
"Mittens and Me" was promptly and not so tactfully rejected with an adviso from the editor: "Next time, please take care to carefully read our guidelines." I had expected as much, but still defend the notion that what we consider good literature, or maybe just a good, sentimental read, can and probably does contain a few stories relating to animals. The human experience, from the beginning of time, has always been, and I hope always will be, accompanied and enriched by our four-legged friends. Just today, I read an article about a dog who had been separated from it's owner during the Tsunami in Japan and was recently reunited with her. Maybe, amidst all the human tragedy we face in the world, all the senseless rage and destruction, we can allow ourselves to take comfort in such a reunion.
All this has me thinking about starting a literary journal (or blog) soley dedicated to stories (fiction,creative non-fiction, poetry and photography) about or relating to animals in the wild or pets. What do you think? Do you have a story to tell?