I initially found the story on the New Yorker fiction podcast, and later bought Sweet Talk—Vaughn’s collection in which the story appears.
“Dog Heaven” is narrated by Gemma, who is recalling a formative portion of her childhood on an army base in Fort Niagara, where her father is in charge of the missile batteries. The story follows Gemma, her family, her friend Sparky Smith, and Gemma’s dog, Duke.
Aside from it being such an engaging read, the writing lessons I could extract from “Dog Heaven” are many. Here are just a few I’ve noted thus far:
1. Use creative license, but know why you’re using it.
“Dog Heaven” begins with the narrator, Gemma, saying:
Every so often that dead dog dreams me up again.
The first time I read that line, I thought, “Shouldn’t that be, ‘Every so often I dream up that dead dog again’?”
The next paragraph goes on to say:
[...]that dog wakes from his long sleep and imagines me.
At first glance, these images don’t seem to make sense, but they’re no mistake. The more times I read the opening, the more I began to understand what Gemma is trying to say—it’s just that I can’t verbalize it.
When questioned about these lines in this interview at The Rumpus, Vaughn says:
You are as much an invention of your memories as you are the author of them.
Now, there’s a statement that could launch a discussion.
Vaughn could have written, “Every so often I dream up that dead dog again,” and “I imagine that dog waking from his long sleep.” Instead, she used creative license to give us a unique opening, make us think, and prepare us for the memory theme which is woven through the rest of the story.
As writers, we’re free to break ‘rules,’ but we should know how and why we’re breaking them, and be prepared to explain our reasons for doing so.
2. Breathe emotional life into a story that includes emotionally distant themes.
“Dog Heaven” does contain some passages about politics and the military, which have the potential to be a bit emotionally dry. At one point, Gemma says:
My father was in command of the missile batteries. In my father’s presence, no one spoke lightly of the defense of the United States of America—of the missiles that would rise from the earth like a wind and knock out (knock out!) the Soviet planes flying over the North Pole with their nuclear bombs.
On their own, details such as these could begin to feel a bit like a history lesson. Vaughn avoids this by keeping the main focus on Gemma while weaving in the military and political threads, so the reader remains emotionally engaged throughout the story.
Another way “Dog Heaven” appeals to our emotions is through vivid description. You get passages like this:
She [Gemma's teacher, Miss Bintz] clicked the slide machine through ten more pictures—close-ups of blistered hands, scarred heads, flattened buildings, burned trees, maimed and naked children staggering toward the camera as if the camera were food, a house, a mother, a father, a friendly dog.
Vaughn could have had Miss Bintz simply tell her students about the horrors of nuclear weaponry, but that wouldn’t have been nearly as effective at engaging our hearts. Instead, the image of maimed, naked children desperately staggering toward the camera as if it were something of comfort they might grab on to—that’s something we can almost feel ourselves.
A little humour can also go a long way, in an otherwise serious story, toward emotionally engaging us. For example, one day Gemma and Sparky Smith are sharing a school bus with some civilian kids who are making up obscene variations of a beloved military song. Sparky rallies the rest of the military kids to help him sing the real song, and then:
[O]ne of the civilian kids, a football player in high school, yelled, “Sparky is a dog’s name. Here Sparky, Sparky, Sparky.” Sparky rose from his seat with a wounded look, then dropped to the aisle on his hands and knees and bit the football player in the calf. We all laughed, even the football player, and Sparky returned to his seat.
“That guy’s just lucky I didn’t pee on his leg,” Sparky said.
It’s amazing how humour and seriousness can co-exist in a masterful story such as this. Never does the humour feel silly or inappropriate; never is it at the expense of the more profound issues at hand. The combination of humour, sweet childhood memories, and dark political undertones are what make “Dog Heaven” a well-rounded, emotionally engaging story.
When writing about subjects that have the potential to be emotionally distant, you can infuse life into your story by focusing on characters and relationships, using vivid images, and possibly adding a little humour to the mix.
3. Write endings that live on in readers’ minds.
Alice Munro once said about endings:
I want the story to exist somewhere so that in a way it’s still happening, or happening over and over again. I don’t want it to be shut up in the book and put away – oh well, that’s what happened.
Without giving away the ending of “Dog Heaven,” I’m sure you’ve guessed there’s some sadness toward the end. But, Vaughn doesn’t leave us on a sad note. In the very last scene, she describes a memory of Gemma, Sparky and Duke together:
We skated across the darkening ice into the sunset, skated faster and faster, until we seemed to rise together into the cold, bright air. It was a good day, it was a good day, it was a good day.
These final lines prevent the ending from feeling static. They leave us with a sense that—for Gemma—those days may be gone, but they were beautiful and life-changing. And don’t we all have precious memories like that?
The best endings are the ones readers continue to think about long after the story has ended. “Dog Heaven” shows us how an ending can be both sad and hopeful at the same time.
I’m so excited to have discovered Stephanie Vaughn and her stories. If you’re looking for an engaging story which can teach you more about writing than some writing manuals can, head over to the New Yorker now and listen to this free podcast.