What Comes Back Sometimes you throw a stick and get a branch in return.

In Writing
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I am on the water’s edge at Avis Dam just outside Windhoek. A fleeting shower of rain is dragging its watery curtain into the distant Auas Mountains. The early evening air is momentarily fresh, a reprieve from the day’s punishing heat. I am with Ocho and Tolkien, my two Staffordshire Bullshit Terrorist puppies—nine months old, chunky chests, big and adorable heads with floppy ears, perpetually sad eyes, an eagerness to please, and an adventurous disposition for disobedience. There is plenty yet to train out of them, there is even more of which to let go because doggos gonna dog.

It is time for our routine: attempted fetch.

I spy with my little eye something beginning with the letter s.

A short stick with a comfortable weight in my hand and a bend in its middle, perfect for throwing.

The puppies tense, tails and ears upright as I pick it up. I plant my feet for purchase, cock back my arm, and fling it as far as I can along the shoreline towards the shallows so they can splash in the water. As the stick leaves my hand they dash away, tracking its trajectory, anticipating where it will land. They are excellent at chasing and abysmal at retrieving; what they catch they will shred. That is why I have stopped buying frisbees or tennis balls—minced toys are not a vibe. No matter. We are here for their exercise. I need to return home with two tired puppies so I can write in the evening.


Ocho and Tolkien dash towards the splash.


I turn to greet another walker—he is with his much older Staffy. We have met each other a couple of times and shared commiserations. Nibbled floor skirting, wooden shelving with missing corners, slippers with suspicious bite marks, late night tussles—“It gets better—they calm down after seven years,” he once said.

Seven years.

We trade light and fleeting pleasantries. The heat. The rain. Our dogs. That kind of thing.

“Dude,” he says, looking behind me, “your boys are wildin’.’

I turn back to my terrorists.

They are pulling a branch out of the water. Actually, it is a small tree. Dead, grey.

Then a strange thing happens: they drag it towards me. This is the first time they have fetched anything. They stop a metre or so away from me and sit with their tongues lolling in the wind like pink flags of triumph. They are clearly happy with themselves.

“Ja neh,” the other guy says. We share a laugh before he moves off with his dog.

The terrorists circle the dredged-up tree expectantly.

Look, I lift but I cannot throw a tree.

I search for another stick to throw.


Some months ago I looked at the latest revision of my forthcoming short story collection. I needed to make some revisions for my editor. The tracked changes sheared excess words from sentences; paragraphs shortened and gradually tighten. The comments contained pertinent observations I was required to consider carefully; there were poignant suggestions about speeding up the narrative pace in certain stories and clipping characters out of others.

—What if you…?

—How about we…?

—Why don’t you…?

—…perhaps consider rephrasing.

Even though I had been working on the short stories for a while—some were even fortunate to be published—the recommended alterations were welcomed. Like all edits, they were not prescriptive chastisements; I had the option of not complying with those I did not agree with provided I had a good reason for not doing so. That caveat is more demanding than one thinks, thus there are few instances in which I have not played ball with an editor’s corrections.

Each editor I have had the good fortune to work with has done for me that which editors do best: seeing the blind spots in my writing, ironing out the wrinkles in my stories, and showing me alternative paths for reaching the same destinations. Because our goals have always been similar—we want to make my stories the best versions of themselves—it never hurt to look over my writings past the point I had considered them complete.

The new edits were being thrown out like a stick; chase or chill—the choice was mine to make.


I am told every dog owner winds up with the dog they deserve.

More than once I have looked at my puppies and wondered whether Staffies and storytellers are not the same animal in different guises: the stubbornness, the constant need for attention and validation, the penchant for destruction when left unsupervised. Same-same.

So: the chase, then.


This is true for stories as it is for trying to play fetch with my Staffies: sometimes the stick you throw is not the branch you get back.


My forthcoming collection, now, is quite different from the draft that was considered by my agent and bought by its publishers. In implementing certain edits, some stories and scenes had to be left on the cutting room floor (necessarily so); the rhythm of the writing changed (every conductor has their particular way of waving the baton and coordinating the orchestra in front of them, editors are the same in that way); and new truths were unearthed even as lesser wisdoms were shelved (in the end, only the puissant and resonant can remain, the weaker or common must be shed). Despite the changes, though, the work remains true to the original vision.

Such is the way of writing: what comes back is not what went out.


I understand my Staffies.

The stick was small.

The tree was better.

POSTSCRIPT:The misery that is now upon is but the passing of greed.”—Charlie Chaplin, The Great Dictator (1940).

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