Dispatches | February 10, 2012


On the coffee table in our meeting/conference/hangout room, there are several back issues of Ploughshares scattered about. One of these issues was Jean Valentine’s issue, the Winter 2008-09 issue, which was one of the last issues with Ploughshares old look, two issues before their redesign. I picked it up and flipped through the table of contents, and remembered that I had read the stories by Andrew Altschul and Fan Wu before, but that I hadn’t read the Megan Staffel story “Salt.” While waiting for coffee to brew, I sat down and read the story.

A few days later, one of our office assistant’s was flipping through the same issue. I told him he should read the Staffel story.

“You can tell it’s by a mature writer,” I said.


I frowned. “You just can. There’s a richness to the narrative. Just something about the first two pages screams Confidence. You know?”

He nodded. I nodded. Neither of us really knew what I was talking about.


I don’t know where I first heard the phrase “in the doghouse.” When my friend asked me where I got the phrase, I had no idea. I wanted to say, who doesn’t know what that means? But, obviously, she didn’t know where it came from, and trying to answer her question, it was pretty clear I didn’t either.

I said my parents. I said my grandparents. I’m sure we’ve all said “You’re in the doghouse” to suggest that someone is in trouble. No, not just in trouble: it’s not for something immediate, something that just happened, like catching a child who has just accidentailly thrown a baseball through your living room window. “In the doghouse” suggests a state that you’ve been in for a while and will remain in for the foreseeable future. Doghouse stats has been earned over the course of days, weeks, even, and a current doghouse resident is not getting out of there anytime soon.

Where did that phrase come from? I asked our audio editor, Kevin McFillen, about this. Had he heard the phrase “in the doghouse”? He said, sure. When I asked where it came from, he didn’t know either. He said he remembers seeing a couple of old black and white cartoons from the 1930s where people were finding their tents occupied by dogs, and that, maybe, he wasn’t sure, the etymology of the phrase had something to do with Tent Cities all across the country, when people found that had to literally live in the doghouse.

With Kevin’s help, I looked up the cartoonist A.B. Frost and found these images, which when you think about it, are pretty vicious: teasing the homeless, the downtrodden, literally sending the dogs after them.

More searching. One website suggested this was from the old custom of banishing a bad dog outside to is doghouse, which probably is, for words, fairly new: once we started living mainly in cities, we brought our pets indoors with us. Banned to the doghouse, then, is a bit bougy!

Two more from this website, which I’m just going to go ahead and fully crib here:

Alternative: The story of Peter Pan – in which Mr. Darling treats the beloved pet dog badly and his children fly off with Peter Pan. Mr. Darling feels so guilty that he lives in the doghouse until his children return home.

Alternative: This expression is a railroad term dating back to the era of steam locomotives. The railroad unions mandated that a head-end (front of the train) brakeman be so positioned. However, there was no room for another person in the engine cab (which housed the engineer and fireman). The railroads then built a small windowed shelter on top of the engine tender (where the coal and water was stored) behind the engine. It was called a doghouse since it was small, cramped, smoky, cold and generally miserable. Thus, the expression ‘he’s in the doghouse’ referred to the brakeman in his uncomfortable moving shack.


I was re-reading one of my student’s stories, and came across a description of a cafe that was troubling me. The narrative was describing the way the waitstaff was moving from the kitchen to the front room. The word “room” came up three times in two sentences. The phrasing, while struggling to be clear, lost its rhythm.

From working in bars and restaurtants, I knew that restaurant staffs referred to being up front—where the customers are, rather than in back, which is the kitchen—as being “on the floor.” But, of course, the entire restaurant is on a floor: it doesn’t float in space or something (digression: I would love to go a restaurant where everything floats). Floor has many conotations, but the right one, for the scene, can be a bit confusing. You can’t say the staff is moving from “the kitchen to the floor” because it sounds then like the entire staff is diving to the ground to avoid machine-gun fire.

Of course, one could call the front room “the floor.” It’s not just a matter of the word choice. It’s a matter of all the sentences and images and actions and characters around the word “floor.” What the story lacks, what the writer is still working out, is how to sink fully into the world of the story with words that make it seem effortless. Any arresting phrase or image or moment needs to make the reader dig deeper into the story, not instantly claw one’s way out.

But how do I explain all that?


Recently, a writer-friend posted on Facebook, asking all of us—that old collective “we”—about a dispute she was having with her editor. She wanted to know what we thought of the word “tweaker” and what it means. We were asked to not look it up. Just post what we instantly thought of the word. I thought “Meth!” (hey, I live in Missouri …) which is what, for the most part, everyone else said, with one or two exceptions. At least one person, perhaps several, pointed out that it entirely depended on the context.

This is true! And not. The word is loaded. Full clip and one in the chamber. If you sat and thought about it, there are dozens, hundreds probably, of words divorced from their original meaning to become something entirely unintended. Maybe because we’re all pals on Facebook, all of us were too like-minded to give a fair response, for all of us to represent the Intended Reader.

Let me try now to bring this altogether. I’m going to fail. Which is, actually, the point that I’m after. How does the full awareness that I’m reading a confident storyteller like Megan Staffel, the etymology of phrases that doesn’t seem to have any clear genesis, and consideration of how to use the words “floor” and “tweeker” all come together? Looks, to me, like I went from big (story) to medium (phrases) to small (word choice).

Focusing on choosing the right word is not a mistake. Looking for the specific word, tearing through the dictionary and thesaurus, pondering the syllables, the rhythm of the word, what images the word conjures for the reader: yeah, that’s what writers do. However, there is something else here that is bigger than examination of a single word.

There is also that larger quality of the work that seems to absorb everything else the writer has seen or heard, osmosis I guess, and sponged it into the story. You tend to know when you are reading a Southern writer, right? Same thing here. We can learn from other writers about how to make shapely fiction, the art of fiction, how burn down the house, bring the devil to his knees, all that good stuff, but in the end, we can’t mimic someone else entirely. “What’s the word” starts becoming “What’s my vision”—and that small change of possession makes all the difference.

Other than on weird celebrity reality shows, doghouses are quite small. Their closed off, contained. No one likes being there. Outside, though: that’s your world. Our world. Taking ownership of that vision, and speaking of it with the kind of confidence that blends the best word with the distinct phrasing of your vision is what takes the work from pretty good to unforgettable.

Follow Michael Nye on Twitter: @mpnye