Autobiographical writing (something written by someone about themself and events in their own life) and biographical writing (something written by someone else about another person and events in that person’s life) can be useful for fiction writers to read because fiction is just like writing as if writing autobiographically or biographically about a fictional character. Stories with a first-person narrator (a narrator tells a story about themself) are like a fictional autobiography and stories with a third person narrator (a narrator tells a story about another character) is like a fictional biography.
I picked up A Three Dog Life to see if it looked like an interesting story. I read the blurb:
“When Abigail Thomas’s husband Richard, was hit by a car, the accident left him brain damaged and facing life in an institutuion.
This tragedy is the ground on which Abigail had to build a new life. Forced to adapt to a life alone, she finds solace at home, discovering that friends, family and dogs (Carolina, Henry and Rosie) can reshape a life of chaos into one that, while wrenchingly sad, makes sense – a life full of its own richness and beauty.”
That sounded potentially interesting, so I opened the front cover and found the following recommendation from Stephen King:
“The best memoir I have ever read… sad, terrifying and scorchingly honest. This book is a punch to the heart.”
I have enjoyed Stephen King’s fiction, his memoir On Writing and novels he has recommended so I decided to strap myself in for the ‘heart punching sadness, terror and honesty’.
The book is prefaced with a quote which sheds some light on the meaning of the title:
The Australian aborigines slept with
their dogs for warmth on cold nights,
the coldest being a “three dog night.”
Before anyone comments on the unreliability of referencing Wikipedia: in the context of the meaning of the book’s title, it is not important whether the reference is accurate; what is important is the concept of a “three dog night” and, by extension, the concept of a “three dog life”.
I found A Three Dog Life an engaging and memorable read. In the following excerpt, Abigail recounts the moments following her husband Richard’s accident:
Monday, April 24, at nine forty at night, our doorman Pedro called me on the intercom. “Your dog is in the elevator,” he said. The world had just changed forever, and I think I knew it even then. “My dog? Where is my husband?” I asked. “I don’t know. But your dog is in the elevator with 14E. You’d better go get him.” I stepped into the hall in my bathrobe. The elevator door opened and a neighbour delivered Harry to me. “Where is my husband?” I asked again, but my neighbour didn’t know. Harry was trembling. Rich must be frantic, I thought. Then the buzzer rang again. “Your husband has been hit by a car,” Pedro said, “113th and Riverside. Hurry.”
Impossible, impossible. Where were my shoes? My skirt. I was in slow motion, moving underwater. I looked under the bed, found my left shoe, grabbed a sweater off the back of a chair. This couldn’t be serious. I threw my clothes on and got into the elevator. Then I ran along Riverside an when I saw the people on the sidewalk ahead I began to run fatser, calling his name. What kind of injury drew such a crowd?
Abigail tells in intimate detail her experience of coming to terms with Richard’s accident, his difficult-to-manage personality change following the accident, and the new life she built around these new circumstances. The following gives a taste of the problems she faced:
Here is how I get my husband in the car: I lie.
“I’m going to buy us something for dinner. Will you come with me?”
This Rainy October afternoon I stick a fake log in the fireplace and light it and we spend what Richard used to call the shank of the day in each other’s company, dozing and waking to firelight. It is like being married again. But he can’t stay. Sooner or later I have to get up from my chair and disturb him. I have to coax him out of his warm chair and into the car so I can drive him back. “I’m going to get us something for dinner will you join me?” This is what I hate: that he nods and so willingly gets to his feet. That it works every time.
The dogs allow themselves to be corralled in the living room and Rich and I go slowly down the back steps, my arm under his left arm, his right hand on the bannister. I am carrying a box of cookies and once he has gotten into the passenger seat and I’ve stretched the seatbelt across and he has buckled it, I give them over. “Chocolate chippers! I might have to have one,” he says, opening the box. We are headed back to the Northeast Centre for Special Care. I am trying not to feel anything. Now that we are on our way, I want to get it over with. I want to get him there and safely up to his room, then I want to leave as fast as I can. “Are we going to two markets?” Rich asks and I nod. But we drive past the Black Bear Deli and the Hurley Ridge Market without him noticing.
Reading A Three Dog Life, it was interesting noting the things Abigail chose to write about. She told about the hardest moments she faced in the circumstances of Richard’s accident and post-accident care but also about everyday activities such as moving house and weeding the garden. Even such seemingly mundane actions took on an intensity with other concerns occupying Abigail’s mind and looming over her daily activities.
A biography like this can be great for writers to read and consider how a real person has chosen to narrate a story about their life and keep that in mind when thinking how a fictional character might choose to narrate a story abut their life.
When writing a first person story, just think as if you were a real person in a real situation and narrate the story as they might.
More on Abigail Thomas and her writing can be found at www.abigailthomas.net.
The Australian Literature Review