Monthly Archives: March 2014


trouble conformation

Best Puppy in Show: Trouble with her first owner, Pam Dunn (

The world of the dog show is as fascinating as the ocean floor and the things that live there. Trouble earned her Canadian Championship as a young thing, but last summer she set foot in the ring again as a Veteran Female at the National Specialty. She won an enormous ribbon for placing second. It was really just an excuse for me to catch up with the Toller people I’d met during my brief career as a dog handler, if showing one dog to a championship can be called a career.

Tollers are relatively easy to show: their coats are to be left natural, though everyone primps before entering the show ring. Those coats must be clean and smooth: waves which might impede a judge’s view of a straight topline may be weighted down with a damp cloth. Very thick fur behind the ears can be thinned, and paws neatly trimmed to reveal their shape. Henna shampoo may bring out the red of a coat. The use of chalk to brighten the required white bits is not unknown, but really, this is nothing in the world of the show ring.

grooming table crop

A rare sight — Trouble on the grooming table

Everyone has seen poodles with their bobbles and cuffs; afghans bagged to protect their comb-out, and yorkies with their ribbonned topknots. Wandering around the grooming tables at a dog show is an eye-filling view of weird and wonderful, and that’s just the handlers. A visiting alien might be forgiven for wondering if Poms and Saint Bernards, Chinese cresteds and Rhodesian ridgebacks are really the same species. All those breeds were developed to serve a purpose, whether to herd, hunt, protect or cuddle. The breed standard spells out the features and qualities that fit the dog for its purpose, and at the dog show, the judge assesses how well the individual dog conforms to the standard in structure and gait and personality.

Unless you actually read the breed standard, it’s not easy to see how all those canine variations are actually functional, but they are. A terrier’s forelegs allow it to dig, often in close quarters. A British bulldog’s face allows it to sink its teeth into a bull’s nose and hang on, while still being able to breathe. A lab’s otter tail and a Toller’s webbed toes obviously assist in swimming, and their double coats are the canine equivalent of a wetsuit. Even some of the apparent excesses of appearance have their origin in function: a poodle’s lion clip keeps the chest and vital organs warm, while leaving the legs free to move.

Genre is to writing as breed is to dog. A particular function is easier to perform if there is a recognizable, even a standard, structure and style, because reader and writer alike know what they’re dealing with. An apprentice writer, or a junior handler, may find some features peculiar, but the more they know about function, the more they come to appreciate the sense behind the standard – and to realize that conformation doesn’t preclude personality. Just watch my vintage bitch, I mean, my veteran female.



Squeaky toys and generalizations

squeaky toy cropTrouble is an inductive thinker: she notices specifics and makes generalizations out of them.  The clinking of tags on a collar means it’s time for a walk. The clinking of tags together with car keys means a trip in the car, possibly to the park. Trouble’s observations about Human’s writing are just that, observations: the description leaves it up to readers to figure out what, if anything, it means beyond the moment of the experience. In other words, if readers want to get anything besides amusement from the Underdesk perspective, they’re going to have to figure out for themselves why Human prints out her rough draft and what she does with it. When Human wants to explain something, she spells it out, and then gives an example.  That’s backwards, Trouble thinks. Who wants generalizations?

Readers who want to learn something want generalizations: the main idea, nice and clear, followed by enough specifics to back it up and make it real. If you want to teach readers something, it’s a good idea not to make them work too hard.  Quintilian said “We should not write so that it is possible for the reader to understand us, but so that it is impossible for him to misunderstand us.” It’s the writer who has to do most of the work.

Then what can we pull in the way of a general idea from what was left from last week’s efforts? It’s in the middle: “Human can’t just write something and be done.”  That sentence doesn’t, however, tell us Human does do, just what she doesn’t, so we’ll add “Instead, she writes a rough draft and then revises it.”  Everything else is a description of what that process looks like, mostly from Trouble’s perspective: Human scratches, sighs, throws out and begins again. Some of it is interpreted: Human prints because she wants “to see the whole thing – the whole shape of it.” For the readers’ sake, we’ll spell it all out.

revision spelling it outThat’s the result of revision – the yellow spells out the parts that then got deleted. Notice that when we’re revising we worry more about spelling it out than spelling it right. There’ll be time enough for getting it right later. You don’t paint your vase till it’s been fired in its final shape.

Trouble sighs audibly from Underdesk. All this revision is a bit like worrying a chew toy when its squeaker is dead – what’s the point? The With sighs too deep for wordspleasure’s gone out of it. And to Trouble’s way of thinking, a general idea is even less satisfactory than a real chew toy, even a soggy one with a defunct squeaker. Trouble, as we’ve noted before, is a contemplative canine. It’s the moment that matters.

She’ll never be an academic.

Wet clay

revision 2So this is what it looks like when Human starts to turn last week’s entry into something instructive. She starts by cutting all the irrelevancies. What’s left is highlighted.

Trouble takes issue with the cuts immediately, noting that they are all references to her. Whose blog is this?

Human points out that “Trouble” is only half the title, and this is a demonstration of how a written flight of fancy can be revised for a quite different purpose.

Trouble turns around a couple of times and settles Underdesk with a decided harrumph.

decided harrumph

A decided harrumph

It’s a common but erroneous idea that good writers spit out nearly perfect texts first time. In fact, good writers write first drafts (Anne Lamott minces no words, and calls them “shitty first drafts”). Then they work and rework them into something good. It’s a bit like making pots: you have to assemble a big messy lump of clay to start with. Sometimes you have too much, and sometimes you need to add more, but that first lump never looks like the finished cup or vase.  There’s a lot of moving and removing done to reach the final product. Sometimes there’s not much left. No wonder I sigh.

draftI print out what’s left, defying the limits of the screen. As soon as I reread it, I want to start tidying it up. Since I cut with something more like an axe than a scalpel, there are a lot of rough edges. There’s no point, however, in suturing the bits together, if the bits aren’t all in right places. So I sit on my hands (literally) and look at it again, trying to see the shape of a vase in a heap of wet clay.

Park bench

Trouble’s version of sitting on her hands


Trouble can’t help but notice that this writing stuff makes for restlessness. It’s not the nice sedentary job you might think, where a dog can lie peacefully in Underdesk and dream serious dreams about nothing.


Even on the days when Keyboard clicks steadily overhead, Trouble is jolted awake by Human’s getting to her feet to feed paper to Printer, and then to fetch it back. Human settles back in the chair, usually managing to disturb Underdesk, and instead of the rattle of keys,  there’s shuffling of paper, and sighing, and scratching, and tearing. Keyboard sounds can generally be tucked back into canine semi-consciousness, but the other sounds, being unpredictable, demand alertness. So it’s restless work, both below and above Keyboard.

It seems that Human can’t just write something and be done like dinner. (Is it time yet?) She has to write something and stare at it on the screen, scrolling up and down, and then print it and spread it out so she can see the whole thing – the whole shape of it – which usually results in sighs, and scratching (Human affects a fountain pen, which, despite its name, doesn’t seem to flow so much as furrow the paper.) Sometimes paper is torn from top to bottom; sometimes it goes through the machine that screams as it chews. (Some Tollers scream too, but that’s another story altogether, usually involving the near prospect of swimming. Trouble doesn’t scream, but the Toller scream means that people have to really like the breed in order to take them on, and that’s not a bad thing.) Sometimes paper gets crumpled into a ball, but not the sort that gets thrown for retrieving. Which is a pity. Trouble can tolerate a great deal if a ball gets thrown from time to time.

And then the whole process begins again: Keyboard, Printer, shuffling and sighing. Underdesk gets very uncomfortable. Does Human have to move her feet quite so much? There’s no discernible connection between feet and Keyboard. Trouble would leave, except she is sure that in her absence, the paper ball would be thrown across the room. Or Dish – and Dinner – might appear. It never has appeared outside Kitchen before, but Trouble takes no risks over Dinner.

Trouble is describing drafting and revision. If I were to revise her draft description above, I’d print it out so I could see the whole shape, not just one screenful at a time. Then I’d go through it looking for the things that belong to the topic of drafting and revision, and scratching out the things that have crept in that are irrelevant. That depends on my purpose, of course. If I want to amuse, bring on the irrelevancies; if I want to instruct, the delete key is my best friend.

chasing gulls crop

Removing irrelevancies from the beach this morning