Eight months ago, under the heading “As Good as it Gets”, I posted on this blog the last part of an article by Ann Patchett called “How to Practice: Learning to Let Things Go”, which had appeared in the March 8 New Yorker. It ended with a wonderful story about typewriters.
Today another typewriter-related Patchett story, “Just My Type”, appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Weekend magazine. Sub-headed “Comic timing: how Snoopy mapped out one writer’s life”, it came a week or so after I’d been sorting through my own “Snoopy’s Typewriter” collection. “Happiness is a Warm Typewriter” was one my first posts here, in March 2011, and I started gathering typewriter-related Snoopy items at about that same time.
The Good Weekend go-first with this latest Patchett’s article is, “The canine star of the Peanuts comic strip taught novelist Ann Patchett about the power of imagination, handling rejection - and co-opting coolness.” Below it is an edited extract from To The Doghouse, which appears in Patchett’s latest collection of essays, These Precious Days, to be published by Bloomsbury on Tuesday. The story goes:
I first found Snoopy in Paradise, California, the tiny town in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains that was later erased by fire. As children in the late 1960s and early ’70s, my sister and I spent our summers there with our grandparents. We found it to be perfectly named. “We’re on our way to Paradise,” we would say, and “We’ve been in Paradise all summer.”
After the fire, which swept through 45 years after my grandparents left for Nashville, my sister searched the net to see if their house had been spared, but the street was gone. Everything was gone. The sharp detail with which I can remember that house is overwhelming to me now: the room where my grandparents slept in twin beds, the room where I shared a bed with my sister. I remember the cherry trees, the line of quail that crossed the back lawn in the morning to the ground-level birdbath my grandmother kept full for them, Family Affair and the Watergate hearings on TV.
My grandmother had a stock of mass-market Peanuts books she’d bought off a drugstore spinner. Titles like You’ve Had It, Charlie Brown and All This and Snoopy, Too were exactly my speed. I memorised those books. I found Snoopy in Paradise the way another kid might have found God.
Influence is a combination of circumstance and luck: what we are shown and what we stumble upon in those brief years when our hearts and minds are fully open. I imagine that for Henry James, the extended European tour of his youth led him to write about American expatriates. I, instead, was in northern California being imprinted by a comic strip.
When the morning newspaper came, my sister and I read the funnies together. Always Peanuts was first. My formative years were spent in a Snoopy T-shirt, sleeping on Snoopy sheets with a stuffed Snoopy in my arms. I was not a cool kid, and Snoopy was a very cool dog. I hoped the association would rub off on me.
That was pretty much the whole point of Charlie Brown’s relationship with Snoopy: the awkward kid’s social value is raised by his glorious dog. Anyone could see what Charlie Brown got out of Snoopy, even when Snoopy was blowing him off - he raised Charlie Brown’s social stock. But what did Snoopy get out of it? I’m guessing it was the loyalty, the dog-like consistency that people want in a pet, which of course makes Charlie Brown the dog. I had no problem with this. I would have been thrilled to be Snoopy’s dog. I was already his student. Snoopy was a writer, and it was my intention to follow in his path.
Did I become a novelist because I was a loser kid who wanted to be more like the cartoon dog I admired, the confident dog I associated with the happiest days of my otherwise haphazard youth? Or did I have some nascent sense that I would be a writer, and so gravitated towards Snoopy, the dog-novelist? It’s hard to know how influence works. One thing I’m sure of is that through Snoopy, Peanuts creator Charles Schulz raised the value of imagination, not just for me but for everyone who read him.
Snoopy was a famous World War I flying ace who often found himself in dogfights with the Red Baron. He quaffed root beer in the existential loneliness of the French countryside, then was Joe Cool on campus. He pinched Charlie Brown’s white handkerchief to become a volunteer in the French Foreign Legion and was a leader of the Beagle Scouts, a motley flock of little yellow birds. He was a figure skater and hockey player in equal measure, an astronaut, a tennis star, a skateboarder, a pugilist and a suburban pet whose doghouse contained oriental rugs, a pool table and a van Gogh.
This wasn’t just a dog who knew how to dream, this was a dog who so fully inhabited his realities that everyone around him saw them, too. Snoopy heard the roar of the approving crowd as clearly as he heard the bullets whizzing past his Sopwith Camel. Having ventured fearlessly into the world, he could come back to the roof of his doghouse and sit straight-backed in front of his typewriter, to tap out the words that began so many of his stories: “It was a dark and stormy night.”
Wait, am I seriously discussing Snoopy, a cartoon dog, as a writer? Am I believing in him as he was drawn to believe in himself? I am. I did. I do.
“Theoretically, my older brother should be my role model,” Linus’s brother Rerun says. “But that blanket business takes care of that. Which forces me to look elsewhere, and maybe ask the question. Can the neighbour’s dog be a role model?”
The answer is yes.
I once published a long essay in The Atlantic and found myself at the mercy of a smart, zealous young copy editor who told me that it went against the magazine’s style manual to use “it” as a syntactic expletive that has no meaning. “Are you telling me Dickens wouldn’t have been allowed to write, ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’ ?”
“That’s what I’m telling you,” he said.
“You wouldn’t let Snoopy say, ‘It was a dark and stormy night’ ?”
“Not if he was writing for The Atlantic.”
Why wouldn’t Snoopy be writing for The Atlantic? The first time I’d ever heard of War and Peace was when he performed a six-hour version with hand puppets, just like the first time I heard of Christo was when Snoopy wrapped up his doghouse.
Snoopy didn’t just write his novels, he tried to get them published. In those dark days before electronic submissions, he taught me what it would mean to stand in front of a mailbox, waiting to hear from an editor. He taught me - I cannot emphasise this enough - that I would fail. Snoopy got far more rejection letters than he ever got acceptances, and the rejections ranged (as they will) from impersonal to flippant to cruel.
Later, I could see we’d been building up to this. It wasn’t as if he’d won all those tennis matches. The Sopwith Camel was regularly riddled with bullet holes. He was willing to lose, even in the stories he imagined for himself. He lost, and he continued to be cool, which is to say, he was still himself in the face of both failure and success. The whole writer’s life had been mapped out for me.
First, the importance of critical reading: Charlie Brown to Linus: “I’m sorry … Snoopy can’t go out to play right now … he’s reading.”
Linus: “Dogs can’t read.”
Charlie Brown: “Well, he’s sitting in there holding a book.”
Snoopy in his chair: “There’s no way in the world that Anna Karenina and Count Vronsky could ever have been happy.”
Then, imagination, work, rewriting, being alone, realising that all the good titles had already been taken - A Tale of Two Cities, Of Human Bondage, Heart of Darkness, Snoopy came to all of them too late - sending your work out into the world and facing rejection, which Snoopy internalised and used to his own advantage. He lived through all of it.
Linus rings Charlie Brown’s doorbell and says, “Ask your dog to come out and play ‘Chase the stick’.” Snoopy comes out and hands him a note: “Thank you for your offer to come out and play. We are busy at this time, however, and cannot accept your offer. We hope you will be successful elsewhere.”
Snoopy taught me that I would be hurt and I would get over it. He walked me through the publishing process: being thrilled by acceptance, ignoring reviews, and then having the dream of bestseller-dom dashed: “It’s from your publisher,” Charlie Brown tells Snoopy. “They’ve printed one copy of your novel. It says they haven’t been able to sell it. They say they’re sorry. Your book is now out of print.”
There was more work to do, other books to write. What mattered was that you knew how to love the job. “Joe Ceremony was very short,” Snoopy types. “When he entered a room, everyone had to be warned not to stand on Ceremony.” At which point Snoopy falls off his doghouse backwards, cracking himself up, only to climb up again and look at his typewriter lovingly. “I’m a great admirer of my own writing.”
Oh, beagle, isn’t it the truth? That moment when you write a single, perfect sentence is worth more than an entire box of biscuits. When I didn’t get into the MacDowell Colony [artists’ residency], I remembered Snoopy telling his bird friend Woodstock, “I think it’s an illusion that a writer needs a fancy studio. A writer doesn’t need a place by the ocean or in the mountains: some of our best books have been written in very humble places.” It was enough to send Woodstock back to his nest to type, and to send me back to the kitchen table. Snoopy dedicated his first book to Woodstock, “My friend of friends.”
I probably would have been a writer without Snoopy. I know without a doubt I would have loved dogs. What I don’t know is if my love of writing and my love of dogs would have been so intertwined. Snoopy wasn’t just my role model, he was my dream dog. Because he had an inner life, I ascribed an inner life to all the dogs I knew, and they proved me right. I have lived with many dogs I considered to be my equals, and a couple I knew to be my betters. The times I’ve lived without a dog, the world has not been right, as if the days were out of balance.
“You know what my grandfather says?” Linus tells Charlie Brown’s sister, Sally. “He says every child should have a dog … He says that a child who does not have a dog is like a child deprived.” To which Snoopy, lying on the roof of his doghouse, adds, “The actual term is, ‘Living without benefit of beagle.’”
I’ve never been able to name a dog Snoopy, in the same way I couldn’t name the piglet I got for my ninth birthday Wilbur. It would be to set him up for failure, because no matter how great he was, his ears would never turn him into a helicopter. I did, however, name the dog I have now for Charles Schulz, whose nickname was Sparky.
Sparky has exceeded every expectation. A small, grey-and-white rescue, he comes with me to the bookstore and stands straight up on his back legs to greet customers. Surely he has the talent and the patience to write a novel of his own; I’m just glad he never wanted to. I’ve accepted the fact that my dog is cooler than I am, but it would be hard to deal with if he were also a better writer.
The girl I was in Paradise could never have imagined what life would look like a half a century later: how much would be lost and how much gained. I learnt how to shape myself into who I was going to be with the guidance of a dog in the funny papers. People ask me about my influences, but really it was just the one: Snoopy was my aspiration, my role model. I heard the dog whistle, silent to everyone around me, and followed.