The first storytelling rule: Get the name of the dog
Our dog Rex, a Jack Russell terrier, turned 18 years old this week. He was mentioned in The New York Times a few years ago; I was quoted as saying that my wife Karen and I loved that dog more than we loved each other. More on the consequences of that quote later.
For now, I will use Rex’s birthday to return to the first writing tool I learned at the newspaper previously known as the St. Petersburg Times. Reporters, I was told by the brass, must never come home from a story without the name of the dog.
Stated more directly, “Get the name of the dog.”
Such was my affection for this writing strategy that I wanted to use it as a book title. In the end, though, “The Name of the Dog” became “Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer.” Anticipating the literalism of Search Engine Optimization (SEO), my publisher decided that the title should reflect what the book was really about. Simple-minded bastards!
“Get the name of the dog” lived on only as a chapter title. Although it appears as Tool #14, it ranks as number one in my heart. Every strategic move I’ve shared over 30 years derives its existence from the Fido theorem. It stands, for me, as a synecdoche, the rhetorical device in which the part stands for the whole. In other words, if the writer remembers to get the dog’s name, he or she will be curious enough and attentive enough to gather all the relevant details in their epiphanic particularity.
Not long ago, I was reading Robert Fitzgerald’s dazzling translation of "The Odyssey," one of the two great epics that mark the beginnings of Western literature. Odysseus, the crafty Greek warrior, struggles for 20 years after the Trojan War to return to his kingdom in Ithaca. Things are not good back home. Suitors and slackers by the dozens plot to take control of his land, his household, his goods, and his faithful wife Penelope. He must sneak into his homeland in disguise. As he speaks to a shepherd…
“…an old hound, lying near, pricked up his ears
and lifted up his muzzle. This was Argos,
trained as a puppy by Odysseus,
but never taken on a hunt before
his master sailed for Troy. The young men, afterward,
hunted wild goats with him, and hare, and deer,
but he had grown old in his master’s absence.
Treated as rubbish now, he lay at last
Upon a mass of dung before the gates –
Manure of mules and cows, piled there until
fieldhands could spread it on the king’s estate.
Abandoned there, and half destroyed with flies,
old Argos lay.
But when he knew he heard
Odysseus’ voice nearby, he did his best
to wag his tail, nose down, with flattened ears,
having no strength to move nearer his master.
And the man looked away, wiping a salt tear from his cheek…
…but death and darkness in that instant closed
the eyes of Argos, who had seen his master,
Odysseus, after twenty years.”
I sit here at my keyboard just a Zoloft away from having to wipe a salt tear from my own cheek. Not only does Homer give us the name of the dog, the same name as a Greek city, but he offers what may be the first narrative of the power of dogs to bond for life with their human friends and masters.
On countless occasions over more than three decades I have asked writers at workshops to share with me the names of their dogs – and the stories behind those names. Each tale and tail is a revelation, exposing everything from ethnicity, culture, school or sports affiliation, family heritage, popular culture. The first kid to answer at Notre Dame said the family dog’s name was “Rudy,” named after the spunky undersized Notre Dame football player who became the subject of a feature film.
The name Rex has a bit of irony attached to it. He came to us in this adorable but ferocious package at a time when the Jurassic Park movies were popular. He had the heart of a T-Rex in a two-pound body. We also liked that Rex was a traditional name for a dog, and that it meant King, and that my name, Roy, meant King in French. I had three daughters, so Rex became the son I never had. My son, Rex the dog, named after me.
After Michael Vick was imprisoned for a dog-fighting scandal, I often lodged this complaint before large groups of writers. “I’ve read dozens and dozens of reports and stories on the dog fighting scandal, but have never seen mention of the name of a single dog. Did the dogs not have names? If so, I want to know that. Did they have names like Mauler, Killer, and Spike? Was there a Bruce or Fluffy in the group? If so I really want to know that.”
People did want to know the condition of those 51 dogs kept in the “Bad Newz Kennels.” (We had the name of the kennel, but not the dogs.) Several reports followed, including Jim Gorant’s book “The Lost Dogs,” which became a cover story for Sports Illustrated. It turns out that some of those dogs were being cared for by people who used their names or gave them names: Sweet Jasmine, Zippy, Little Red, Ellen, Google…
OK, time for the kicker. Travel back in time with me to the day I am quoted in The New York Times (accurately) as saying that my wife and I love our dog Rex more than we love each other.
“How could you say that?” a friend asked. “How could you even think that?”
My impassioned response? “Who greets me at the door when I get home, looking like he is really glad to see me? Who loves the smell of my dirty, sweaty socks? Who waits till I get out of the shower so he can lick the little droplets of water off my shin? Who is willing to defend me, to the death, against attack from possum, lizard, snake or squirrel?”
Alerted to the story in the Times, I called Karen at her work place and read the story from beginning to end so she could get the full context. It was a story about one powerful phenomenon experienced during the Hurricane Katrina evacuation. Many people refused to take life-saving action for themselves because they did not want to leave their dogs behind. I understood that impulse, and sympathized with it. Then came my statement that, in spite of almost 40 years of marriage, Karen and I loved our dog more than we loved each other.
Silence on the line. Then, Karen’s voice, at first tentative. “Oh…oh…oh WOW! Rex made The New York Times!”
See what I mean? Happy birthday, Rex.