Research Unleashed! And Leashed.

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German Shepherd in a cone.

I knew I had a problem when I started envying my dog’s cone collar.

Now, my dog’s problem was a hot spot. Allergic, itchy, hot, and double-coated, my German Shepherd had chewed her hind leg raw over the course of a single evening.

My problem was research. Engrossing, surprising, discomfiting and endless, my novel-in-progress was generating fact after fact, but very little story.

Neither of us could resist the itch of our obsessions, which were self-ruinous and spreading. For my dog, the vet imposed a “cone of shame”—a demoralizing, and mostly effective, plastic barrier denying her access. This is what sparked my envy, for what kind of restraint could I impose on myself, a writer whose project requires research—research that also derails the project at every turn?

Latest Findings: Novel Research Leads to Pornography

How does research become a problem? Well, for one, it’s larky. You wonder if your character’s pants would have buttoned or zipped, which means you need to know about the invention of zippers, and then, hours later, you’re pouring over sketches of Victorian pornography.

A surprising number of research inquiries lead to vintage porn.

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Writers and Their Pets: Nancy Welch

The ‘Writers and Their Pets’ series began with my own desire to celebrate my dog Sally, and since then I have also invited other writers to share with the rest of us the details of their lives with beloved pets. Today, please enjoy this essay by Nancy Welch.

You can also submit your own essay to the series. Read our guidelines here.

—Ladette Randolph, Editor-in-Chief

nancywelchFor years I cruised the websites of shelters and rescues. Established and well-trained. Mannerly. Mature. Such were the dogs—staid companions, their elderly owners bound for assisted living—that I tried to tempt my husband into meeting.

“No,” my husband said. “No dogs.”

His answer never varied, not in fifteen years. So why did I persist? For the same reason children press for ponies or mini-bikes few are likely to receive. Each time I tried to initiate a “What about this one?” conversation, I experienced the thrill of longing, my SEEKING system (as animal-welfare advocate Temple Grandin might put it) pleasurably engaged. When I asked him to look at a flop-eared pup with enormous paws, I expected him to snort. I thought he might alter his answer: “You’ve got to be kidding.” Instead, lingering over the website photo, he said, “Maybe …”Continue Reading

Writers and Their Pets: Andrew Ladd

The ‘Writers and Their Pets’ series began with my own desire to celebrate my dog Sally, and since then I have also invited other writers to share with the rest of us the details of their lives with beloved pets. Today, please enjoy this essay by our blog editor, Andrew Ladd.

—Ladette Randolph, Editor-in-Chief

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Photo: Maureen Cotton

Many of the essays we’ve featured in the Writers and Their Pets series have been touching accounts of lost or deceased pets—but when I sat down to write my own contribution, about my wonderful two-and-a-half-year-old cat, Jack, I wanted to strike a happier note. The problem was, happy is hard to do, the narrative arc less obvious—and while that was a nice problem to have it was a problem nevertheless: I just couldn’t find a good story to tell about him.

I got Jack with my wife Mallory—then just my fiancée—the night before Thanksgiving in 2011. He was about six months old and recently rescued from a hoarder, and at the shelter he was sharing a cage with so many other cats he’d resorted to sleeping in the litter box. He smelled like it, too, when the staff fished him out for us to take a look at, but he nuzzled so quickly into my shoulder—and showed such terrified resistance when we tried to put him back—that our hearts crumpled. (Besides, we figured: we could always give him a bath.)

He was a white-and-orange tabby and so his papers, predictably, said Garfield—but we quickly rechristened him Jack Meower, after the main character on the TV show 24. Like his namesake, too, he turned out to have boundless energy, improbable agility, and superlative cunning, and he often drove us to despair getting inside and behind and on top of things we were sure we’d fully catproofed.

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Writers and Their Pets: Nina Mukerjee Furstenau

The ‘Writers and Their Pets’ series began with my own desire to celebrate my dog Sally, and since then I have also invited other writers to share with the rest of us the details of their lives with beloved pets. Today, please enjoy this essay by Nina Mukerjee Furstenau.

—Ladette Randolph, Editor-in-Chief

elk 017Zee was his name. He had liquid eyes and a proud stance. He also towered over me at well over six feet—without his antlers. My husband raised Roosevelt and Rocky Mountain elk on our Missouri cattle farm from 1997 until 2009. Zee had lost his mother and we raised him on goat milk until his size and strength was too much for the goat even after we put her up on a hay bale.

I don’t want you to think I don’t do normal pets. We have dogs, we’ve had cats, my daughter had a gerbil once. My very own Pepe was the tiny toy poodle farm dog our children grew up adoring. But Zee, a charmer from the beginning, was something else.

When the second graders came out every year to visit the farm and all the other elk stayed back, Zee walked straight up to the fence to get his nose scratched. He loved the attention and would lower his head to the right height for the pint-sized visitors. We started calling him ZeeBee for no reason other than it suited him.

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Writers and Their Pets: Carolyn Creedon

The ‘Writers and Their Pets’ series began with my own desire to celebrate my dog Sally, and since then I have also invited other writers to share with the rest of us the details of their lives with beloved pets. Today, please enjoy this essay by Carolyn Creedon.

—Ladette Randolph, Editor-in-Chief

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I was raised in a chaotic household with many animals; my mother was a dog breeder. We always had at least one litter around us. I can remember our little pup Tripod with his proud three legs. I also remember my mother watching a pup birthed. He appeared lifeless and without breath. My mother calmly pre-heated the oven and put him in there. He came out gasping a few minutes later. We nursed him to health, though he was always the little guy—the runt, but tough.

In my adult life, my then-boyfriend of eleven years and I led a transitory, school-seeking lifestyle, so about five years ago when I was aching for a dog, he was trepidatious. I can remember touring the cages at the wonderful Charlottesville ASPCA. The eyes of the dogs and cats were heartbreaking, as anyone who’s been to a shelter can tell you.

There were treats outside of every animal’s cage. We stopped by one cage with a sleepy cocker mix-it-up breed inside of it. I held out a treat. She didn’t want it. Instead, she reached out her head for me to nuzzle and scratch between the steel bars. The kid craved affection. When we took her for a walk, we weren’t sure. She seemed twice the size of what we could handle in our apartment.

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Writers and Their Pets: Carol Keeley

The ‘Writers and Their Pets’ series began with my own desire to celebrate my dog Sally, and since then I have also invited other writers to share with the rest of us the details of their lives with beloved pets. Today, please enjoy this essay by Carol Keeley.

—Ladette Randolph, Editor-in-Chief

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It was a kill shelter, the kennels concrete and crowded. We’d visited shelters weekly since losing our first dog. My husband fell in love each time. I was still in mourning. It had been eight years.

This shelter was wretched—sickly dogs smeared with feces, frenzied barking, puddles of piss. A handsome mutt smashed his heart against the bars as we passed, as if he recognized us. We stopped. He had big polka-dotted paws and a wide smile. “One year old, not house broken, loves everybody,” said his slip.

I was finishing a novel and a degree. Brad was often traveling. An untrained older dog? With liquid green diarrhea? I resisted for two months.

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My Dog Made Me A Better Writer

is=Yup6aQQ-=up6RKKt-xxr=o-qpDPfX7RPfr=Uofrj7t=zrRfDUX-eQaQxg=r Two years ago next week, my dog died. I still miss him for many reasons, but what I miss the most is his companionship while I write.  It’s a strange thing to sit inside all day, not even on the phone or online, simply communing with the imaginary people in your head. But it’s a choice a dog can readily understand.  He never questioned my presence, my lack of motion, my seeming distraction. He accepted that important work can be done that is largely invisible and, perhaps, that this is some of the best work of all.

It’s perhaps a strange, contradictory desire to want companionship in a practice of a craft best pursued in isolation. But writers do seek companionship while writing, in myriad ways—through music, a favorite object, even an imagined or eventual reader.  I spent one winter listening to the same Bon Iver album over and over every time I sat down at my desk. Weird, yes, but as the notes of the first song rung out, I relaxed into my chair and felt welcome. I wouldn’t be alone at my desk as I began to pick out a story.   For a while, I was a member of the Writers’ Room of Boston, which provides quiet workspace for writers, no talking allowed. (The chalkboard in the bathroom is another story.) But still, being surrounded by others hard at work on their books, articles and other projects, even thought I could not talk to them, was both inspiring and cheering; the best of both worlds: companionship and quiet, community and contemplation.Continue Reading

Roundup: Traditions

In our Roundups segment, we’re looking back at all the great posts since the blog started in 2009. We explore posts from our archives as well as other top literary magazines and websites, centered on a certain theme to help you jump-start your week.

Food and family are the most common holiday traditions. For those of us celebrating, it’s easy to predict the Thanksgiving Day spread and which family member will show up late to the festivities. But it’s that comfort of familiarity, of pumpkin pie and your grandfather’s snores from the recliner, that gives us anticipation.

In preparation for the holiday, we’ve compiled some tasty offerings from the Ploughshares blog and around the Internet for you to enjoy.

2946395218_0a2860b0c9From Ploughshares

  • Caitlin O’Neil shares her writing recipe with a few helpful tips on cooking up a good story. Plus get a bonus recipe of Roasted Carrot Soup in how Writing is Like Cooking.
  • Thanksgiving time is often family time, with fathers everywhere settling into a post-turkey coma. But, while the dads of America are asleep, Ian Stansel has a couple replacements in the World’s Best (Literary) DadsContinue Reading

Writers and Their Pets: Enid Shomer

The ‘Writers and Their Pets’ series began with my own desire to celebrate my dog Sally, and since then I have also invited other writers to share with the rest of us the details of their lives with beloved pets. Today, please enjoy this essay by Enid Shomer.

—Ladette Randolph, Editor-in-Chief

photoBecause a large portion of my spine is fused, for the last nineteen years I have owned service dogs. Currently, I live with a seven-and-a-half-pound Papillon named Mink. Her job is to retrieve things on the floor or otherwise out of my reach. She even jumps into the clothes dryer to fetch stray socks.

When my doctor and his wife offered to watch her for several days so that I could travel to teach in a low-residency MFA program, I agreed. But I was nervous. I had planned to take her with me. But at her annual check up, a week earlier, I learned she was developing kidney and bladder stones and needed a radical change in diet. I had never left her in strange quarters. On the few occasions I’d traveled without her, she’d stayed at home with a sitter. Mink is my only live-in companion, and I didn’t know the Smiths well.Continue Reading

Writers and Their Pets: Nathaniel Frank

The ‘Writers and Their Pets’ series began with my own desire to celebrate my dog Sally, and since then I have also invited other writers to share with the rest of us the details of their lives with beloved pets.

We also ask contributors to the series to tell us about their favorite pets from literature. Here’s what Nathaniel told us: “The summer I graduated college I took a road trip across the country in my parents’ minivan, to discover in person what I’d been writing about as a student of “American Culture.” Reportedly this was also the impulse behind John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, a touching account of driving cross-country with his 10-year-old poodle as he rediscovered America. I read it on my trip as I discovered America for the first time. Who wouldn’t want a sounding board like Charley, trusted tour guide and guarder against bears?”

We hope you enjoy Nathaniel’s essay.

—Ladette Randolph, Editor-in-Chief

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Romeo was a rescue dog from a city shelter in East New York. He was all Brooklyn from the get-go. So it wasn’t hard to figure out where to scatter his ashes when he finally left us.

Every morning for years, we had started the day trotting through Fort Greene Park, which Walt Whitman helped create and Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison used as a writing perch. That seemed the obvious choice. Still, I had to spend some real time deciding. After all, Romeo was one of the most widely traveled dogs I know, choosing only the poshest destinations: he romped the beaches of Martha’s Vineyard, East Hampton and Fire Island; hiked the rustic roads and grassy hills of Sullivan County, enjoying nothing more than a wild back roll on the 15-acre farm he inspired us to buy; he lived with me in London, taking a weekend home in Notting Hill; he even spent a month in Aix-en-Provence, visiting cobbled plazas, daytriping to vineyards and fording the moats of medieval castles.

So where was his favorite place? For someone who’s not always great at making decisions, this was an easy one: because I came back to beginnings, to roots.

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