Wednesday, March 4, 2015

A Catch in the Throat, a Sigh of Despair

A middle-aged man with shiny gray sidewalls spreads his script on the lectern, makes eye contact with the audience, clears his throat.  He begins to read a scene, describing his diagnosis with cancer, from his memoir to his classmates in your memoir course.

Those present already know the man to be an M.D.  Yet they think of him more by his first name than his M.D.-ness, just as they think of the Ph.D. in geology by his first name, and regard a Ph.D. in sociology by her first name.

Aspects of gravitas, humor, empathy, and accomplishment reveal themselves through the writings of these and yet others,including a J.D. and, such as yourself, mere civilians, in pursuit of one or more tangible goals.  These aspects escape with greater prominence than such outward tells as clothing, jewelry,or titles, standard signs in addition to vocabulary and speech intonations by which humans assess, then judge other human.

You are watching the editorial process at work, interested individuals telling others such as the M.D. at the podium details which, in their opinion, can make what he reads have even more resonance and staying power.  

In the course of the M.D.'s reading, you notice a catch in his voice, which could be a simple matter of embarrassment at reading in public.  But there could be more.  He continues in halting speech, causing you to look over at him, up from the notes you were taking on his presentation.  He, the M.D., has found material in his own work that touches him on a deep enough emotional level to cause this advance warning that he has approached territory he is sensitive about.  His senses are engaged, his emotions raw and spontaneous.  He is reliving an intense emotional memory.

The Ph.D. in geology has done such things, writing about a time in his life of intense focus at a remote outpost of the world, at once vulnerable, intrigued with the work at hand, and all too aware of the physical dangers about him.  Such moments are not all that rare; you've seen both genders get caught up in it, sometimes with the sweetness of sentimentality, other times in recognition of a monumental loss, other times yet in response to awareness of some epiphany and/or reward to accompany the epiphany.

You're no stranger to such things, your own voice choking in the telling of a tale or the awareness of a connection you'd not seen before.  Such things are like shooting stars or comets trailing across the night sky.  You are no astronomer; you do not by any means know when they will appear.  The sources of some are, on reflection, obvious, but others leave you unable to decode the tightly woven braid of emotions behind the feelings.

You often read aloud the fiction you're working on, hopeful your stumbles over a word or phrase will serve as a clue to revise or delete altogether the offending passage.  At times during these readings, your voice will choke up at something you'd hoped was dramatic and effective, redolent of your voice, written as a part of a larger awareness, by no means intended to be obvious as well-written.  When you realize this material is something to keep rather than to remove as an emotional hangnail, you are in effect getting the kind of response from writing you wish to elicit.

Yes, you had to learn that, too, how to take the good and useful with the derivative and showing off, but once you saw the truth behind the dynamic, you knew you could not contrive these places, they must come of their own, as a part of the muscle memory that is you telling story.

The ending of two stories, miles apart in intent, still bring a catch to your voice when you find yourself reading from these stories at readings.  In a thematic way, they both relate to dogs who appear in your stories and to dogs who appear in your life.  Tucked away in your memory is the vision of your late Australian Cattle Dog, Australian Shepherd mix, Sally, and the times when you taught at USC.  You brought her on the trip for company.  

Your last class ended at 6:40.  During Spring and early Fall months before Daylight Savings Time reverteed to Standard Time, Sally often waited for you by a grassy sward adjacent the parking structure where you were ticketed.
The evening light was sunny, not yet obscured by long shadows.

Your class, in the Social Sciences Building, was about the length of a football field away from the grassy knoll where Sally waited for you with your and her pal, Lizzie.  There was a moment when you approached, about half the football field length away, where Lizzie would see you coming, then nudge Sally with a "There he is."  You could see Sally spring to her feet, scanning the horizon until she saw you, identified your shambling gait, then started toward you, her run a fluid, rhythmic lope, her target you.

Of course you are anthropomorphizing when you conclude her pleasure at seeing you was reflected in the way she ran, but that vision of her spoke to you as she increased her speed in her joy at running and her eagerness to contact you.  The sight of her ranks in memory among the more beautiful things you have seen.  Writing about her, in full stride, bridging the gap between you, produces the catch in the throat of which you speak.

Writers live for such catch-in-the-throat moments.

When Sally met you, any pretense at decorum was gone.  Your briefcase was dropped, contact between dog and human was made.  In a moment, two creatures, a thirty-pound dog and a late middle-aged man were rolling about and playing on the grass, which was just the thing for them to be doing of a late evening.

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