What’s Next?

whats next 2In the end-of-term push, all but the essential duties sometimes get set aside. Writing time gives way to reading, and more reading. Students may dread the end-of-term deadlines for research papers and projects, but their faculty too are sometimes less than enthusiastic about tackling a briefcase full of papers or an inbox full of electronic essays. It’s hard to give each the attention it deserves, when its writer is waiting anxiously for evaluation, and the registrar sends polite reminders about deadlines to submit final grades.

underdesk 2 crop


Trouble doesn’t care. She is happy to curl up in Underdesk  for hours — as long as she still gets her walks.  And she does.  (See “essential duties” above.)



pussywillows 1

April 23rd

As the days lengthen and the temperatures rise (but slowly — it’s a late spring after a hard winter), snowbanks give way to mudholes in Point Pleasant Park, and the ground releases smells that intrigue a canine nose.

Silver grey pussywillows gradually turn to soft green plumes and then to miniatures of what Housman called the flambeaux of chestnut trees.

Meanwhile papers get read, grades are calculated and submitted, graduation day arrives … term is well and truly over, and with it, this experiment in blogging.

pussywillows 2

May 7th

What’s next? Trouble’s enthusiasm for swimming and retrieving is as predictable as the turn of winter to spring, but Troublewriting is going for the unpredictable.

There will, from time to time, be further instalments of this blog as Human continues to reflect on writing, Trouble, and Troublewriting.


There are draft entries on the “cone of shame,”  and on inukshuks. If your curiosity continues, click the follow button (look down the right hand side – it’s not obvious) and supply your email address. And comments are always welcome!

pussywillows 3

May 14th

Meanwhile, may your troubles be nothing that can’t be solved, or at least alleviated, by a walk in the park or a really good scratch.


Troubled Waters

troubled watersFor Annette

I feel the winds of God today

The wind is roaring up the Northwest Arm – not very cold, but strong enough that even in the shelter of the harbour, the pilot boat is tossing in a way that makes landlubbers feel queasy, even from a distance.

Today my sail I lift

We are leaning into the wind as we walk along the shore in the park: Trouble’s ears like Piglet’s streaming backward, Human’s chin sunk deep into her scarf. Waves are crashing onto the rocks, the wind ripping spray from their crests before they break. The air is salt.


Though heavy oft with drenching spray, and torn with many a rift…

I am going to a funeral this afternoon, to celebrate the life of a woman younger than I, who died from the ravages of cancer.

Yesterday, a young man, an invited guest, dropped in on a party to celebrate the end of classes at the University of Calgary, and stabbed five students to death.

Every day, the news from Syria, Ukraine, the Central African Republic seems worse, the scale of fear and hatred too large to comprehend, or tackle.

And it is Holy Week in my faith, when we walk toward a vile and shameful death with someone who was too good for this world, who wanted passionately to change it, and did so, though not quite in the way anyone expected.

If hope but light the water’s crest, and Love my bark will use…

humblest craftDown at the shore, we are acutely aware of every scrap of shelter, how even scrubby trees can break the wind, how in the lee of the old fortifications, the battering waves are muted. Instead we hear the trees sigh gustily overhead, and notice our own breath and heartbeat.

I’ll seek the seas at Love’s behest, and brave another cruise.

My dog’s name provokes many chuckles, affectionate recollections of puppy mischief. I may bring Trouble with me, but she brings joy. The world’s troubles are not like that. They are deep griefs, deep sufferings, and it is hard not to be troubled, hard to trust that hope does light the water’s crest, that there is a pilot boat – and a pilot – in every harbour, that the wind that knocks us sideways is the wind that lifts the sail.

Tomorrow Trouble and I are going to spend some time with college students who are writing final exams. Love uses even the frailest craft in the humblest ways.

I feel the winds of God today, today my sail I lift.


Jessie Adams (1863-1954) wrote “I feel the winds of God today.” It is sung to the traditional tune “Kingsfold.” I have taken some liberties with the original text.

Exam Time

therapyIt was pretty close to heaven. A whole room full of young people, all of them ready to get down on the floor and rub her belly. There was a certain amount of squealing – “so cu-u-u-te” – and a few moist eyes – “I miss my dog.” One young man approached in perfect play invitation posture – bum high, head and arms low. Trouble looked at Human for guidance – “is this guy crazy or what?” Then she rolled over and presented her belly. He obliged, though he clearly would have preferred to tussle.

An hour was enough. Apparently even heaven palls after a while. Trouble made one more round of the adoring circle, checking over her shoulder with Human between each person. Then she yawned. “She finds us boring!”

“No,” said Human. “She’s a little stressed. It’s a lot of strangers in one place, and there are other dogs here too. She’s ready for her own break.”

exhaustedWelcome to exam time, when almost any activity is more attractive than studying. Human remembers spending hours in the cafeteria, lunch long finished, carefully tearing strings of paper dolls out of folded napkins in an impromptu competition. There were no dog therapy rooms during exam period then. Today’s students talked about the sudden attraction of housework. They talked about their all-nighters finishing their last term papers. They talked about multiple choice exams and whether they were better or worse than essay-type ones.

Then they talked about Trouble’s fur, and how they missed their pets, and what kind of dog is this anyway?

Exam time, and spring – the reluctant Nova Scotian spring which is more like the retreat of chill than an inrush of warmth, more likely to show up in patches of mud than in patches of flowers. Heard in rushing water, seen in the creeping rise of snowmelt.

spring runSome of the kids are rushing toward the end of term, swept along in a torrent of caffeine and group panic. Others pile sandbags, in the form of colour-coded study schedules and special scribblers for review notes, to control the flood. Some huddle outside the exam hall, stoking their anxiety with last-minute questions; others stride purposefully past without a sideways glance, extra pens in hand, a spare battery for the calculator in their pockets.

Trouble has all the right strategies for exam time. Multiple choice exams are a bit like morning walks on garbage collection day: you sniff carefully around the possibilities, pass up the clearly undesirable bits, and assess the remaining options, quickly, knowing that it will soon be time to move on. An off-leash walk on garbage day would be even better: Trouble would move quickly from one bag to the next, getting the easy pickings, looping back later for things harder to sniff out. Dream on, Trouble. Garbage days are always leash days.

Essay exams are more like retrieving: there’s a human reader involved, not just a tally sheet, and humans, Trouble knows, are impressed by focus and drive. When the ball goes overhead, you go straight for it and bring it right back. You don’t dawdle off on a foraging expedition or meander around the field in search of sticks or a food wrapper. Answer the question right off, and you can practically hear the reader breathe a sigh of relief – here’s one who knows her stuff, one who knows what he’s doing.

Even when she brings back the wrong ball – it happens – Trouble gets praise because she’s shown she knows what to do, even if she hasn’t quite done what was expected. It’s called “showing your work” in math problems; it’s called making an argument in the humanities.

Focus and drive. Better than luck any day, whether in a field trial or an exam hall.

Trouble with ball

Photo credit: Eileen Donahoe

A truly chewed-up squeaky toy



If she likes doing it, Trouble easily finishes what she starts … whether it’s a dish of kibble or the systematic extraction of a squeaker from a toy. If a ball bounces unpredictably and she loses it, she’ll circle in search of it until she’s called away. When she misjudges a stick in the river current, Human is quick to call her back, for fear she will swim too far downstream after it.

If there’s something she doesn’t much like (teethbrushing, say), she can be brought by degrees to tolerate it, with very short periods of exposure and lots of rewards. A crumb of dried liver is very persuasive.

Human, by contrast, finds it easy to leave things unfinished – not a bowl of ice cream, maybe, but a blog post, say, begun last week, and set aside. It’s not just procrastination, because a draft set aside often looks quite different (sometimes even better) when it’s taken out again. If there’s no deadline to bring urgency or desperation to the task, however, it’s hard to pick it up again. Still it’s not very different from brushing Trouble’s teeth. “It’s only for a minute or two.” I don’t have to finish the thing; I only have to read it through and see if there’s a shape in there somewhere. Scribble some notes, jot down an “aha,” and see, that wasn’t so bad after all, was it.



So Human returns to that exercise in revision she’s been working on in several of these posts, promising herself a nice piece of dark chocolate with sea salt when she’s got another draft worked through. Again, she sits on her hands while she reads, resisting the temptation to correct. More important right now to think about how it might reach a reader … and that’s going to take some decisions. Is this meant to be a description or a prescription? Often the rhetorical situation is already given, though it still needs to be thought through a bit: if the purpose is to describe the process of revision, and the reader is, say, a student who is struggling with the whole process, who is the writer in this context? A wise and friendly mentor?
On the other hand, if it were to be prescriptive, choices would be different, even for the same reader. “We” might give way to “you.” The whole thing would be directive.

One of the differences between writing and squeaky toys is that a chewed-over draft eventually produces something better than the original. It may take several revisions, and then finally, we can make the editing changes and corrections that make the text a joy to read. Trouble’s basket of toys, on the other hand, is a sad collection of frayed edges, missing bits, and things that make moist squelchy noises rather than crisp sharp squeaks.

Here are two different results of the revision process – we’ve spared you all the in-between stages and the final editing. You decide if they’re truly chewed up squeaky toys, or something with a bit of life left.

chewed up results

Snowy squint

No comment


trouble conformation

Best Puppy in Show: Trouble with her first owner, Pam Dunn (www.karekennels.com)

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