Good Advice Unheeded

Category: Crafting Life Stories

Crafting Life Stories is a memoir-writing workshop designed to help people discover and tell the stories only they can tell – and to do so in a supportive environment that encourages even beginning writers. With a background in journalism and fiction, instructor Joan Motyka offers journalistic tools and literary techniques to help people explore the significance of people, places, and events in their lives. Using readings, prompts and writing assignments, she helps students draw stories from memory, organize them into a narrative and polish them through revision.

Joan Motyka is a writing coach and former longtime New York Times editor. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, the International Herald Tribune, the Boston Globe, the Westchester Review and other publications. She has been leading memoir writing workshops in Westchester and New York City since 2007.

These are some of the stories written by students in her classes at Greenwich Library.


“What do you want another dog for?” the voice on the phone asked. “They’re expensive, you can’t travel, you have to take them out in all kinds of weather. They tie you down.” It was my friend Sarah telling me what I already knew to be true. “Uh uh”, I said, and changed the subject.

My last dog, a miniature poodle, had died the previous November. It was spring now and when I drove through the park and saw the dogs and their owners walking briskly around the pond, I yearned to join them. I called the local animal shelter to find out what dogs they might have available for adoption. The asked me what I was looking for. “A small dog, non-shedding, around 7 or 8 years old,” I told them. I wanted to resurrect my poodle.

I did not hear from them for over a month and thought my request was unrealistic. It is the larger, younger dogs that more often end up in shelter, I thought. Then, unexpectedly, a shelter employee called to say he had heard from a man who needed to find a home for the family’s 9-year old Shih Tzu/Poodle mix female named Angie. His two year-old son had teased the dog and she had snapped at him. She was now boarding at a vet’s. “We can’t trust her with the baby and will have to put her down if we can’t find a new owner,” he told the employee. The dog’s owner and I exchanged emails. It was obvious to me that he lover her and was reluctant to give her up. We agreed to meet at the shelter. My teenage grandson went with me. The owner drove up with a little white dog seated on his lap, her face with its big black eyes and snub nose, peering out of the rolled-down window. She jumped out of the car and ran to greet us. I told the man, “Yes, I want her.” And we drove back home with the dog on my grandson’s lap.

It has been almost two years since I adopted her. She adjusted quickly to my routine. Not as regal, independent and good with other dogs as my poodle, she is instead a people dog, crazy to be petted by everyone she meets on the street; she is hard to resist. She rolls over to be patted on her stomach. “So cute, you lucked out,” people often say.

Her previous owner and I keep in touch by email, almost like a divorced couple still bound together by their love of a child. He sent me a box with all her old toys and clothes and once had delivered from Amazon a stuffed toy dog almost her size. I send him pictures and rely on him for information about her past behavior, the commands and tricks she learned.

Yes, she is expensive. An operation to have a kidney stone removed was costly. And she ties me down – I can’t just take off and be gone all day in the city or take a longer vacation without making expensive arrangements in advance to board her. During this past winter’s snow storm it was hard to get her out. Without the booties I fastened onto her paws she couldn’t bear to walk for long on the frozen ground and I had to walk gingerly, fearful of slipping and falling when she pulled on the leash. I did not mention this to Sarah. I could imagine her response. “See, I told you shouldn’t have gotten that dog.”

What Sarah doesn’t understand is that we are both old, the dog and I, and I need her as much as she needs me. I need her to give structure to my days, to get me up in the morning and out for a walk when I might otherwise fritter away the early hours of the day. I need her to help me remain socially active spending time with the people (and the dogs) we have come to know. I need her to protect me. What intruder would know that the strong, loud bark he hears is coming from a tiny dog who would jump all over him in joy once he opened the door? And I need her to be my companion, someone I can  (yes!) talk to in the silence of my apartment. She doesn’t understand but she looks at me with those big black eyes and head cocked like she is trying and that is enough.

-Barbara Martin