Q&A: Janice Gary’s memoir Short Leash depicts healing & growth.
I was either going to claim my creative self or forever grieve what might have been.—Janice Gary
Short Leash: A Memoir of Dog Walking and Deliverance by Janice Gary. Michigan State University Press, 238 pp.
A traumatized woman and her traumatized dog go for walks. This is the spine of my friend Janice Gary’s new memoir of many layers. She’s conveying experience as it unfolds, trying to understand her past, and taking risks in life and in her story’s telling. At first I worried about Gary’s putting her beloved dog under the spotlight with her for most of the book—he’s difficult, and the book’s structure puts relentless narrative pressure on her voice, outlook, and experiences. But Short Leash soon had me collared.
First, the dog. Barney is a big, goofy, smelly, allergic Lab-Rottweiler cross. He was attacked by another dog when he was a pup, and he’s become terribly aggressive to other dogs. But Gary skillfully depicts Barney’s basic good nature and his mellowing as he ages. Gradually I found myself forgiving and then liking him. He’s already an older dog and Gary is in her mid-forties when they venture out. And soon you realize what a brave act it is, beyond his aggression, for her simply to take him for a walk.
Once ambitious, artistic, and headstrong, Gary was raped when she was 19, and has spent too many years feeling scared. So the book’s major setting, a lovely park on Chesapeake Bay near her suburban Maryland home, seems safe until you look at it through her eyes. Those lonely paths. The pools of dark shade. Other dogs that Barney might attack. The mysterious bend of a trail into the woods. That rustling in the bushes. We gradually learn, too, of an earlier trauma, the suicide of her manic-depressive father when she was 15.
Therapy having been a bust after her attack, Gary has used Buddhist meditation and centering practices to try to heal. As she makes real for us her fears, calming strategies, and spiritual disciplines, she also makes real, in passages rich in metaphor, her soulful experience of the natural world. This focus further tunes you into her psyche, and is admirable in a time when nature is so often taken for granted.
Here’s an example of how her inner struggle is interwoven with her lyrical response to her landscape:
There’s nothing ahead but a tangle of raspberry canes sweeping toward the sky, but what a tangle—branches lit at such an exquisite angle by the sun that they literally glow with light. The sight stops me as abruptly as an unexpected person or dog. It’s a dazzling vision—the soft, red fuzziness blanketing the canes, the fuchsia-red thorns crowned with tiny yellow flames, the flowers, white etched with pink, all so electric and alive that I hear myself say “beautiful” as the beauty enters me, becomes me, and suddenly there is no raspberry bush or me, there is only exquisite beauty. I take a deep breath, wanting to drink it all in, when a sharp voice in my head, says Beautiful? Why? It’s just a bunch of thorns.
Her memoir’s grounded five-year narrative entices you along Gary’s many-faceted path of discovery. It’s poignant and humbling to see her fight bravely to balance her wounded sensitivity with strength, efforts which blossom into an inspiring renewal. At age 48, she enters an MFA program. This phase lets us learn in a natural way about her youth and her years as a punk rocker—the topic of her thesis—and to cheer the rebirth of her artistic soul.
Short Leash is a moving story of healing, a woman’s and her dog’s. By the end I also felt inspired by its depiction of Gary’s growth, there on every page and manifest in the very book I held.
She answered some questions:
Why did you become a writer? Why did you want to tell the story in Short Leash?
Like most writers, I didn’t choose to be a writer. I’ve always been one, even as a child, but I grew up believing that I didn’t have a right to be heard. Over time, my voice became muted and what was left was a fierce need to express myself and a deep fear of doing so. There were lots of mangled attempts—as a singer-songwriter, a filmmaker, and a writer of intensely personal pieces that no one ever saw. Then I basically gave up. By the time I entered the park with Barney, I realized I was running out of time. I was either going to claim my creative self or forever grieve what might have been. Retrieving my voice meant taking the great risk of being heard. The story of becoming a writer, or rather, reclaiming that part of myself, is at the heart of the journey I took in the park as I began confronting the fears that held me back most of my life.
I gathered from your memoir that you wrote your MFA thesis on your experiences in bands in your twenties, and from your Acknowledgments that post-MFA mentors and writing partners were important for this book. What was the memoir’s genesis and your working method?
My first idea for this book was completely different. I was in the process of walking in the park and I knew something profound was happening, but I thought it could be crystallized in a bouncy little self-help kind of thing like “how to heal yourself by walking your dog.” Well, they say a book takes on its own life, and this one certainly did. It refused to be anything but what it was. It took me two years to find the voice, which at first was all lyrical and emotional, completely ungrounded. And I was still living the story, which was not finished yet. When I tried to find my way into the book, mostly what I wrote about was Barney. At one point, I attended a workshop and the instructor said, “You’re hiding behind the dog.” So I started over and began telling my story. I made sure I wrote or visited the pages every day to keep the thread going, which was in essence an act of faith driven by the hope that the process itself would lead me to the next chapter, the next revelation, the next right thing to do. It wasn’t until the first draft was done that I truly understood what the story was about. Junot Diaz says, “To write a book you have to become the person that can finish the book.” He is absolutely right. The writing itself provides an element of transformation. By the time I finished the book, I had finally become that person.
I’m interested in your book’s structure because you pull so many threads through it. While basically chronological, with flashbacks, you are dealing at once with nature and the seasons, your trauma, Barney’s trauma, his and your aging, your writing and your entering an MFA program, and your backstory. How did you layer in so much?
I wrestled with the structure for a long time. There were a lot of threads and I was unsure how to pull it all together. Worse than that, I kept struggling with how to start the darn thing. I kept reading other writers’ work and had a major breakthrough when I discovered Patrick Lane’s What the Stones Remember. Lane chronicles the first year of his recovery from a lifetime of alcoholism using the metaphoric and literal anchor of working in his garden. He was able to travel in many directions, but was always able to bring us back to earth through the garden. It was an “A-ha” moment for me. And his writing absolutely took my breath away. The other thing that helped was a chance encounter with my former mentor Lisa Knopp at a Goucher College reunion. Lisa is the Queen of Braiding. I was completely frustrated at the time and blurted out whether it was possible to have more than three threads in a braid. “Of course,” she said. “You just don’t give them all the same weight.” That was all I needed to hear.
There’s almost nothing on your day job and very little on your husband. Could you talk about those decisions?
The journey that this book chronicles is very much like that of a snake shedding its skin. The career I had spent years developing belonged to a person I no longer needed to be and it was already on the periphery of my life when I started walking in the park. You can see the progression. When the book begins, I am working full time, then part time, then not working at it at all. As far as my husband, there is more in there about him than I originally planned. When my peer readers reviewed the book, they were curious about what kind of man I chose to be with in light of what had happened to me in the past. I went back and addressed that, but not any more than I thought necessary. I believe in being fearlessly honest as long as it serves the story. This was not a book about my relationship with my husband. To me, writing memoir is a lot like being a sex worker. You strip yourself naked, but there some things you keep private for yourself. In this case—at least for this book—my marriage was where I drew the line.
What writers are models for you and why?
There are so many. I tend to gravitate to memoirs by poets or writers that write like poets. Lyrical language and musicality and the astonishing way a poet can make metaphorical connections thrills me in a book. While I wrote Leash, I turned to poet-writers such as Mark Doty, Richard Hoffman, Patrick Lane and Toi Derricotte. Meredith Hall’s emotional honesty and vivid descriptive passages in her memoir were an inspiration. Writers of place and the natural world like Scott Russell Sanders, Terry Tempest Williams and Annie Dillard have greatly influenced me. And I turned to Kathleen Norris for encouragement in not shying away from being meditative or of allowing spirituality to inform the narrative. Throughout the writing of this book, I kept Stanley Kunitz’s The Wild Braid close at hand. I still refer to it whenever I feel like it’s impossible to say what needs to be said.