Chris Kuhn

At first, it just frustrates you that, having committed to the dream of being a writer, you promptly take up dog walking for a paying job and, for about four months, neglect to write a single word. Perhaps, walking with your various charges at heel for eight hours and ten or more miles a day, you are taken in by the opportunity to get paid for roaming around New York City as a kind of werewolf flâneur; or, perhaps, you're intrigued by glimpses into the lives of your employers, some of whom you have never and will never meet. Then again, it may be that you commune with the animals, especially with Sober, the young Rottweiler who is your favorite and whose fearsome majesty widens the eyes of passersby as surely as Connor the puppy Irish Setter, contracts them. Whatever the truth may be, you know you like the feeling of power and control when an owner does happen to be present, and you are able to hide your amusement and listen unflappably as you're told what it means when old Eisenhower the Labrador barks at poodles—“He doesn't like their wet and nasty little eyes”—or that dachshund Max's hour-long walk is his leisure time and oughtn't to be too strenuous—“there's no need for a forced death march, is there?”—despite the fact that old Max does nothing of anything much the other twenty-three hours in his day either.
        In other words, your frustration at “being a writer” but never actually writing anything is easily modulated into a somewhat overeager appreciation for the irony of it all, this wordless “writerliness”; an irony you find conveniently reflected in the lives of the dogs who are held up to the standards of what their owners think “being a dog” entails (such as running, sniffing, goofing, marking, fighting, binge-eating, humping, and so on) but most of which behaviors the owners routinely prevent and require you to prevent, also.
        Upon reflection, you say your appreciation of the irony is “overeager” and your finding it reflected in these city dogs' lives is “convenient” because just as you had initially masked your frustration with a sense for irony you are now masking the irony with cynicism: it is the dogs' owners' faults that you aren't writing; if they didn't demand your services you would be writing that very moment; indeed, you and Cassandra, the high strung Chihuahua who's obliged to wear purple tutus and doggie shoes all year round, are equally the victims of the choices that others make. Of course, cynicism never does add anything much but cynicism to the conversation which you seem to be having more and more only with yourself (there's the regular opining of Earskin the beagle, in Tompkins Square Park, daily from 9 till 10, but his point is always the same) and your monologue quickly becomes less and less convincing and more and more tiresome, so that eventually, after some weeks of canine co-ambulation but still entirely sans story, you realize—somewhere on the Upper East Side, again surprised at the extent of the unpleasantness of ministering to the ablutions and subsequent coprophagia of Teetee, a gastrically challenged Cavalier—that there's no such thing as “being a writer”…there is only…writing.
        And yes, for a moment your heart sinks as you answer your own next question by thinking that it's true you can say the same thing about anything; a case in point, there is no such thing as being a dog walker either, only dog walking…and so on…and you know all this already anyway because when you say to new acquaintances, “I'm a dog walker,” they generally try to hide their rising eyebrows or even look away as if they didn't hear you; yet, if you say, “I walk dogs” they get all interested, like rat terriers on a rat scent: “How much can you make?”… “You ever been bitten?” … “How do you walk five at a time?” and, most famously, “I wish I could be a dog walker, also!”
        Indeed, whilst doing the laundry it might dawn on you, as you lift a strand of golden retriever belly hair from your freshly folded underwear, that over and above the received idea that a state of being acquires a quality that is greater than the sum of its parts, what's really interesting is that it's possible to conjure up a state of being without any parts at all, ending up with exactly what you started with: an idea. A fantasy. A state that is itself a fiction. Again, you're tempted to let the sense for irony infuse you (because that makes you feel so clever) but this time you resist. Can a fiction not be useful? Is life possible without it? Isn't it this magic of creation that makes you want to be a writer in the first place? Can that long retriever hair not be a filament of gold?
        You look down at the next underpants in need of folding. You smile…because at the same time as you've been doing your laundry and thinking about your being a writer and a dog walker and the state of being both, you've also been imagining, in some separate recess of your mind, a life, a time, in which it wouldn't be necessary to do any laundry. Or any work at all. A clean world. Unadulterate. And now that you're conscious of having been thus unconsciously indulging a fantasy, you project yourself into it further…you're walking naked there, just for kicks, with that hands-by-side, relaxed-shoulder gait that shampoo models use, except you are totally bald, of course, as are the three totally denuded English Sheepdogs trotting by your side, their light pink vela looking not like chicken-skin but just as thin as that, with blue veins pulsing. No hair, no shedding, exists. Which makes the concept of baldness vacuous. Indeed, the dogs and you are beautiful. And in this world you don't have to write. So when you do it's because you want to. You stand at an ergonomic titanium table to do it, your weight elegantly distributed, slightly favoring one leg, in accordance with the sacred ratio of phi, and the ink you use never stains your fingers and the paper you write on is brilliantly white without a drop of bleach having been used to make it so and not a tree having died for it in the first place; and the three sheepdogs, dishabille, sit or lie at your feet but do not stink, and their hot breath rolls sweetly from their bright red tongues and licks your knees and ankles.
        Which tickles and becomes cringe-worthy, so you snap out of your fantasy, back into your dingy New York apartment in which the mice play Hansel and Gretel with their droppings, the communal washers and dryers routinely eat your laundry and, if you have a mind to, you can sit with the old lady in the cool interior corridor on the third floor and watch the damp spread.
        Fortunately, it's time to get out of there anyway, off to the Battery, where your next five clients sit, stay and wait. And you realize that your little dream of what could be is about as useful as the Sound Investment For Dumb-Dumbs guide your aunt gave you last Christmas and a previous edition the year before. You remember that in preparation for your fifteenth (and eventually still unsuccessful) dog walking interview, you had fantasized also, projecting yourself into a state of utter professional being, having thought of yourself as David Livingstone happening upon the Victoria Falls with a pack of basenjis by his side; and, that when you're busy “being a writer,” you generally tend to picture yourself tossing, with one hand, page after page of riveting manuscript over your shoulder as, with the other, you don't stop typing your way right through an entire work of overwhelming luminosity in one perfect sitting without food, drink or pause.
        You realize that your imaginative projection always ends up being an image of being hired to walk, or even train, for example, Angelina Jolie's dogs (without your actually knowing whether she has any, or intends getting some); or, perhaps, you project yourself as the heralded appointee, the alpha employee, in Cesar Milan's new New York Dog Psychology Center.
        Similarly, instead of imaging yourself doing the hard writing hours of lonely bottom-flattening work, you spend easy hours with your feet up, composing in your head the answers to the questions that Oprah will ask when she interviews you for her book club on TV in the summer of next year, and, you imagine, depending on what kind of person and what kind of writer you are in so supposing (a type that is variable from one fantasy to the next, as necessary), exactly what you will wear, how you will enter Oprah's studio and how you will sit on her couch. You have witty and leading-up-to-an-appropriately-profound-climax answers ready for everything she wants to know. You blow “The O” away!
        Indeed, since you are being a dog walker and being a writer you wonder, of your first novel (acclaimed, of course, and winner of both the Pulitzer and Booker and, by some bizarre twist of fantastical possibility, the first ever debut to claim the Nobel), what will the photograph on its dust cover look like and would it be a visionary marketing move to pose on it with PoshOver, the Chinese Crested and three-years-running winner, of North America's Ugliest Dog Contest? Will you be smiling or looking serious? Will your tongue loll out? Will you be mysterious, shadowed?...in portrait?...or, perhaps, in a full length body shot, arms crossed, in front of your Connecticut country home, scrap the Chinese Crested and wing in instead several Weimeraners looking particularly handsome in their gray coats sleek against a summer backdrop of green foliage? Will you write under a pseudonym? (No.) Will you answer fan mail? (At first.) Will you employ an assistant from Columbia's MFA program or, even better, politely decline the university's request to offer a one-time, oversubscribed-with-students-begging-to-sit-on-the-floor-and-spilling-out-into-the-corridors master class loosely based on the point-of-view limitations in action depictions written in the first-person, present-tense? Will you give public readings? Grant interviews?
        By God, you will write a one word book with a one hundred thousand word title, won't you?...a book that'll make Michiko Kakutani shiver in angst; a book which will, at first, unnerve her to the point that she'll lay down, with her tapping pencil on her wooden desk, a trail of indentations like inverted brail as she realizes she will have no way of tearing this piece apart and then, in dawning recognition of the enormity of the work and in the full firm grip of beauty, the story will cause her, softly, to begin to weep.
        This period of your art will turn out to be important. In due course, but remarkably soon, considering your age (and ignoring for the moment that you're not Chinese), you're respectfully asked by the National Association for the Protection and Perpetuation of Chinese Achievement to allow your collection of short prose, your portrait and biography, to be etched in gold and to be buried in a time capsule under the Emperor Qin of Xiang's terra cotta army and, as an auxiliary program, to allow also a duplicate titanium pod to be launched, via missile and sophisticated Russian asteroid- planet- and star-collision-avoidance software, into the great deep hole of space without a view to stopping for anything ever. You will sit on your decision, of course, and reply only after a year has passed, and then via legal proxy, with at least five impossible-to-meet preconditions (all of which you haven't thought of yet but reserve the right, at any time, to stipulate, and one of which will definitely be the insistence that the space capsule must slow down and flash bright, alternatingly flamingo-pink and snake-green, hazard lights when flying past planets that might harbor life and another of which preconditions may be, subject to change, of course, the proviso that the buried pod under the emperor's soldiers will be promoted by a series of reality TV adventure shows with cash prizes large enough to draw the general attention but not so impressive as to give the impression of trying to outshine the object of finding the treasure of your mastery itself); and, all of which conditions, as they may be laid down or not, will also provide, unambiguously, in the event of breech, for imminent and unthinkably expensive suit.
        And after another three Nobel Prizes (they'll change the rules about how many you can get) the committee will disband in a great big scandal of clashing political and literary ideals (in response to which, assuming you are granting interviews at the time, you will say only “no comment,” unless you say “this question of recognition doesn't interest me”) and then the committees will reconvene, only weeks later, as two separate entities both of which will recognize you at least four more times each but now for different reasons, at which point they'll come to their senses, recognize the pointlessness of it all, and re-amalgamate as Nobel II, henceforth making awards strictly based on sales.
        In other words, you'll keep on winning.
        And you'll earn a handful of honorary doctorates from universities that people immediately recognize and some unrelated prizes, such as the Freedom of the City of Kuala Lumpur and the World's Sexiest Amateur Flyfisherperson, not to mention you'll twice be awarded the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to race full ball around the perimeter of Manhattan in Michael Schumacher's 2004 Formula 1 Ferrari (for which they'll have resurfaced the FDR at taxpayers' expense), and that they (whoever they are) will let you judge the Westminster Dog Show by your own rules and on your own terms which will, of course, ex post facto, entail an assessment not only of the dogs but what the people who own, handle and entered them for competition happened to have been wearing that day, how annoying and “dog-person-like” they happened to have stuck you as being, and whether or not any of them—need you say “disgustingly”?—at any point before, during or after the competition cheeked and subsequently swallowed their dog's liver treats.
        You will be lauded by seven countries' academies for arts and letters, be translated into all written languages (except Dutch, just because you enjoy annoying Dutchmen, generally); you will occasionally give a speech, you will endorse political candidates and swing elections when you feel it's worth the extra effort or if there's something in it for someone you currently like.
        None of this is a joke, or ironic, cynical or facetious, of course. It's all creative nonfiction—whatever that may be, as a state of being—and all true, if it turns out not to be something slightly, or largely, more or less. Who cares anyway, when people will, literally, be lining up to lick your literary feet?
        At about which time a messenger on a bike screams past you as you're waiting to cross Broad Street, south of Beaver, and you feel the cuffs on your pants move as his left peddle brushes past them and Sober, the eleven-month Rottweiler who's walking you lunges after him into the traffic—pulverizing, in an interminable close-up sweat-flinging cookie-crumbling instant, your imaginative excursion like the stale biscuit it really is—and you feel the leash tighten and hear the panel van squealing, standing on brakes and horn, and Sober comes up against the end of his tether like a dumbbell on a bungee cord and goes, due to his weight, a little further and you just know that the whole arrangement of dog and collar, leash and man will surely…just…like…snap…but at the very last twinkling of credulity you bounce him back with both hands, having almost to break his neck to save his doggone life. You shake your fist at the disappearing messenger, silently, feebly. Your lip trembles a bit. Sober waddles up, knobbing his stump of a tail to and fro; licks your hand and sniffs. For his sake, you pull yourself toward yourself. You hold yourself in check.
        And it takes you two days to remember that you are “being a dog walker” so that you can start “being a writer.” It takes a month to decide you need an appropriate qualification and two more months till you get accepted into an MFA program of your choice. It takes you a first second to give up the walking, a second second to accept the offer to once again become a student, and a third second to borrow twenty thousand dollars to begin to do it with. It takes a semester, at least, to study up what you think is “being a writer,” until you realize that you're not half…no…not even a quarter as good at writing as you thought you were. In fact, you suck. Your writing is seriously precious, preciously overworked, stupidly pretentious, and just plain silly. No one likes it. A waste of ink. Your sentences are too long. Your teachers, when they read your pieces, say things like, “What's the point of this?”
        It takes a year to realize that unless others think you're really good and tell everyone else that you're really good and that those others agree and tell yet others the same thing, your chances of success are nil. Then you cut a few adjectives and adverbs and realize that even if others think you're really good and tell everyone else that you're really good and those others agree and tell yet others the same thing or even something much much better and possibly also largely untrue, your chances of success are still niller than nil; they are the nillest. Which makes you improve yet a little further and you begin to cut whole sections of the three paragraphs you now have and, suddenly, you understand what it means when others say you're only as good as the last good verb you wrote which, in your case, happens to actually be the good verb “wrote” but even then, you know you still suck pretty badly and start to find it all unsatisfying and bitter tasting, so you delete your good verb and substitute what you think will be the hands-down winner, “indite,” which downright thrills you even if, upon reflection, you know it doesn't work at all and in defiance of which creeping, ugly knowledge, you go with all three of “etch,” and “pen” and “scribble.”
        You hate all other writers even if they too suck as bad as you suck or sucker.
        And it takes forever, in yet more words, since it's a realization you have to recurrently sustain, that it's important but also, ultimately, a little bit impossible to see your own writing the way others will see it and that it must be for them and not for you for whom you write, at least until you are, in fact, a little bit gooder…as judged by those other than your mother who always says, no matter what and breathily, hand on chest, “Chris!...you write fantastic.”
        And even then, after months and years of seemingly profound serial realizations you realize that all the realizations in the world are still just realizations and not capable of actually realizing themselves just because you've gone ahead and realized them; they are not, repeat not, self-realizable. It's up to you, you say to and of yourself. And at this point, you seriously think you'll quit.
        But you get your own dog which you walk for free twice daily, an hour at a time. You let it run in the park off leash and laugh at the denizens of New York City's biggest subculture when they stop you and tell you you're handling the damn thing all wrong. You don't bother arguing with them when they insist the Dog Whisperer is a fake and that there's no such thing as being a pack leader. You reckon they are bound to think this because if “you're not pack leading the view's always the same.” (This happens to be a bumper sticker you saw somewhere but you pretend it's your own.)
        And you wonder:
        What would it be like to carry a collar round the throat?
        What would it be like to be created, to be characterized, to be personified, but never written down?
        You wonder, why is it that you used to be so certain that Sober jumped into the traffic because he was just “being a dog” when now it seems so clear that you have no idea what being a dog really means; that all you or anyone can know is that he is a dog and hence “does dogness”…he “dogs”…and that's the difference.
        Perhaps, he was looking out for you. Perhaps, he was doing that only for himself. Perhaps, he just likes to play chicken with big and flashy metal things? Perhaps, you were so busy “being a dog walker” that in that potentially tragic moment, you forgot to walk the dog? It's clear now that you know that all you know for sure is that sometimes he ate poop. And that if it wasn't too stinky you let him. That he lived, inextricably, in the moment of doghood despite also being a pet and that he did it without ever having a choice in it.
        And it's still, sometimes, frustrating, this vocation of writing, but there's nothing cynical about it anymore, because you do this thing, you create it, and that's something. Even if it stinks.
        Because, if a choice is never either/or, or always “neither, and...”; if a choice is choosing to almost always being, at least partially, in some way, at some time, wrong; if writing is what's left when you subtract doing from believing, age from beauty and cost from freedom, then you will one day be old and ugly enough to make the choice to pay the price of fancying yourself as beautiful as the next guy; you will walk that word till it cries out “I've got blisters!”…you will word that dog till it comes snarling and snapping out the page.
        You're free to write. Please. You're free to stop.

Although having wanted to “be a writer” all his life, it was only upon arriving in America that CHRIS KUHN started to write. Before then, since then and besides, Chris has table waited, sold, marketed, tour guide operated, managed relocations, removals and continuing medical education programs, dog walked, assisted an optometrist, baby sat a baby and sat himself down and around a lot to read and think. He currently instructs at Columbia University, teaching freshmen in the core curriculum undergraduate writing course as well as creative writing in the university's Summer Program for High School Students. He is also studying for a Master of Fine Arts Degree in Writing at Columbia and expects to graduate in the summer of 2009. His short stories have appeared in PRSIM international and the South Dakota Review.To read more, please visit www.chriskuhn.net.

                                [copyright 2008, Chris Kuhn]