Memoir Writing Tip: Remembering a Character Using Writing Alchemy

by Kendra Bonnett on April 13, 2012

catnav-alchemy-activePost #42 – Memoir and Fiction, Writing Alchemy – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler

With his thick mop of red hair, a split ear from fighting and broken right incisor, Angus was probably not the one I would have picked to fall in love with. But he entered my life and my heart at a particularly vulnerable time. My father had just died, having fallen off a ladder in a freak accident…joining my mother who had died unexpectedly just nine months earlier.

My childhood friend Jack first introduced me to Angus who padded as he walked over to greet me. He really wasn’t much to look at…overweight and looking, I thought, like a prime candidate for diabetes. He was young, too, although he never would tell me his exact age.

His eyes. They were disarming. Whenever I surprised him, he’d look at me with eyes as big and round as saucers. I could lose myself in those eyes. I had no doubts about his soul. One look deep into his eyes, and I knew there was no malice. Nothing to fear. And unconditional love.

I think it was his quiet, unimposing demeanor that I found so appealing. Angus was low maintenance, and that’s what I required–someone who didn’t need to be the center of attention or demand too much from me. At the time, I had very little left to give.

While my sister liked Angus, unusual in itself, he was not an immediate hit with everyone. My girls, Sabrina and Samantha, didn’t like him. More than once, I witnessed his aggressive behavior toward them. But I never let him get away with it, and in time, he settled down and just ignored the girls. There was peace in our home, and our relationship blossomed. What I liked in him from the beginning matured into a much deeper affection. Love.

In the days after we first met, I was busy working through my parents’ estate and getting their homes ready to sell. It took me a year, but by June 2003, I was ready to move on…a journey that took me to Maine. Angus joined us. He loved the outdoors, but given the proximity of my new home to Route 1, I discouraged him from going outside. I also put him on a strict diet. He lost the extra weight, his health improved and we fell into a pleasant rhythm of living. I knew Angus was happy because he lost interest in bolting for the door and escaping every time someone opened it.

For a big fellow, Angus never occupied a lot of space. As I got to know him better, I realized he kept a lot to himself. As his health issues increased, I saw just how strong and brave he really was. Angus had been in a car accident sometime before I knew him. Not having the benefit of a family and living on the streets of New Britain, Connecticut, he’d taken care of himself alone and allowed his pelvis to knit itself back together, never once seeing a doctor. I still don’t know how he managed to survive.

When he finally found his way into the medical system, Angus was diagnosed with Immune Virus, kidney and urinary tract infections and even had surgery to remove most of his lower intestine. I’m told he never complained. He was happy to be alive. The nurses and medical techs all talked about his positive attitude. No matter how much he was ailing, he focused his attention on the others around him. He just made you smile.

I understood that feeling and felt lucky to have him in our home. By paying attention to his drinking habits, I also managed to get Angus’ urinary tract problems under control. Ice. He loved ice so much, he ended up drinking more water. All I had to do was put ice cubes in his water all day long.

About a month ago, I noticed that his beautiful thick red hair was thinning in spots. I assumed his Immune Virus was catching up with us and going to be the next medical problem we’d have to face. I encouraged him to take fish oil capsules, too, thinking that might improve his skin and, in turn, his hair.

I noticed too that his face was dirty. He looked as though he never used his napkin after eating. I didn’t think anything about it at first. But then it dawned on me that this had become a regular state of unkemptness. Something not typical of Angus.

On Easter Sunday, I started my drive to Austin for the Story Circle Network conference. A friend offered to take Angus to the doctor on Monday. That afternoon I received the phone call. “I’m sorry I don’t have good news for you,” Dr. Rees said. “Angus has a large tumor under his tongue. I suspect it’s a pretty aggressive sort.”

I was quiet at first. I’d been expecting a tooth extraction or abscess. “Oh, Jenny, this is awful. And I’m not nearby. I’m in West Virginia and driving to Texas.”

“We can give him pain killers and antibiotics. But I’m not sure he’ll last until you get back to Maine.” I didn’t say anything. “Look, you don’t have to decide right this minute. I’m here all day. Call me back.”

I drove on in silence, thinking about Angus and our 10 years together. I hadn’t recognized the signs of his illness…signs he had borne in silence. He never complained until Friday when I tried to look into his mouth. And even then, he just tried to brush my hand away. The brown spots I’d noticed on his back paw where I thought he’d dragged his foot through the litter box were from blood mixed with saliva. And as the vet explained, the reason he was losing hair was because his tongue was compromised; he couldn’t keep his coat clean so he was pulling his hair out.

That Friday, I had been lying on my bed reading. Angus came over to my side. He made a point of getting my attention. He sat. He stared deep into my eyes. I know in retrospect he was telling me that the time had come for him to leave. I just hadn’t read the signs correctly at the time. Instead, I looked into his big saucer-shaped eyes, kissed him on the top of his head and kept reading. He lay down beside me. He never cried from the pain in his mouth.

I pulled over beside the road and made two calls. The first was to my friend Jim who had taken Angus to the vet. He agreed to go back over and be there for Angus since I was hundreds of miles away. Then I called my vet back and told her that Jim was on his way and she should put Angus to sleep when Jim got there.

memoir writing Women's Memoirs Angus ChristmasWhen I get home, Angus will not be in his usual spot by the glass door waiting and watching for me. He’ll be in the shade of two little apple trees in the backyard. Rest in peace, Angus. Thank you for your strength, perpetual good humor and unconditional love.

With bright red hair, Angus just looked like a fighting Scot.

With bright red hair, Angus just looked like a fighting Scot. In fact, he was all gentleman.

Cats Have Characters Too

In Writing Alchemy: How to Write Fast and Deep (Memoir Edition), one of the essential elements of writing Matilda and I discuss is character and character development. A memoir is about people; it’s critical that you bring your people…your characters…to life. This is your strongest link to readers.

As a pet owner of many years, I can assure you that cats, dogs, hamsters–even my brother’s pet frogs–all have unique characters. While Angus was strong, brave, uncomplaining…and his only motivation to love and be loved…Sabrina is deeply attached, a constant “talker” and the first one to complain when anyone comes between herself and me. Her motivation is simple…to have 110 percent of my attention.

In Samantha’s case, the love is hers to dole out. She is affectionate but on her terms. You don’t pick her up; she decides when to crawl into your lap. When she wants to be petted, she taps your hand with her paw. Samantha is motivated by her need to control every situation around her.

If cats can have motivation, imagine what you will find when you delve into the personalities, behaviors and motivations of the characters in your memoirs.

Writing Alchemy memoir book, memoir writing book, how to write a memoir, memoir edition of writing book, how to tell a storyWe’ll post more articles about Writing Alchemy in the coming months. Have you placed your pre-order yet? Until May 1, you can save $10 by clicking here.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Ronda Armstrong April 17, 2012 at

Kendra, what a heartfelt tribute to your dear friend, your guardian angel with fur. Angus looks so much like Morrie, one of our cats who died almost ten years ago. I bet I’m not the only reader who shed many tears over this very real life furry guy and his human friend. Bless you as you heal from your loss and treasure your stories about him.

Donna Fusco April 17, 2012 at

I cried as I read this to Jack. Ang was a great cat and I’ll miss him watch guarding the door too!

Kendra Bonnett April 17, 2012 at

Thanks Ronda and Donna. The full impact hasn’t hit me yet. It will when I get home. Right now I just focus on the knowledge that he’s not suffering.

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