Thursday, July 16, 2009

Cats and Writers

What is it about cats and writers? Think about Hemmingway’s famous six-toed kitties and Cleveland Armory’s "Best Cat Ever." Cats and writers have a connection. Why?

I’ve always had a cat hanging around my desk. A feline is usually laying on the laptop, trying to drink from my water glass, or swatting at my pen. Sometimes we have disagreements. Sometimes we have full-blown arguments, like when my official office cat, Baby, decided to start spraying in the house. (After a stint on house arrest in the office, he’s been released, although he’s definitely still on probation. More about that in a moment.) Cats tend to be both stubborn and mysterious, little four-legged conundrums. Their moods and behavior can flip unexpectedly. When a cat decides that the belly rubbing session is over, he may quickly transform from an affectingly purring pet to a cranky creature with teeth and claws. I believe it’s that independent, unpredictable, inscrutable nature that draws writers to cats. If we could interview a cat, I think they might say the same about us.

Writers are almost as enigmatic as cats, at least to non-writers (and perhaps dogs). Think about it. There you are, working on an idea, mapping out that essay or story, when the phone rings or someone asks you to pass the salt, snapping you back into present time. Do you sweetly respond, or do you snarl, “Can’t you reach the salt yourself?” See, you’re acting just like that cat who has had enough belly rubbing. Just as you don’t know why Mr. Cat’s had enough, the unsuspecting person who wants the salt doesn’t know that you’ve just lost a piece of your plot over a condiment.

Study a cat’s behavior and personality, and you’ll find loads of material for characterization. Don’t get me wrong—plenty of dogs are overflowing with character (take Marley in Marley and Me, for instance)—but dogs are generally people pleasers. They want their people to be happy with them, but most cats couldn’t care less about making their people happy. They’re only a step away from being wild again, and if they could talk, I’m sure they’d tell us that on a daily basis. “Just fill my food bowl, human, and I won’t be forced to eat the poodle.” In many ways, cats remind me of the writing process itself: sometimes difficult, but ultimately rewarding. You know how your cat looks after he’s found a sunny spot by the window, after a good meal and the appropriate amount of petting? He’s purring and watching the birds, utter contentment on his face. To me, it looks like the feeling a writer gets when the story is done, when all the pieces have come together and the words are as close to perfect as we can make them.

Sometimes, however, the writing process doesn’t work out in such a sunny, happy manner. Sometimes it’s more like the day Baby Cat sprayed all over my bedroom curtains for no apparent reason. Even animal lovers have limits about acceptable behavior, and this totally crossed the line. No way could I cope with this, not with three other critters in the house (one of them sick), an almost-out-of-work spouse, and the pressing need to find writing assignments. Nope, that was it—good-bye Baby! You might know the feeling from a writer’s perspective; the story has gone hopelessly awry and you’ve no clue how to get it back on track. You’ve spent days (or weeks, months, or years) working on it. The descriptions are too thin, the plot is weak, or—even worse—it’s just wrong and you don’t why. You crumple up the paper, toss it into the trash, and mutter, “I can’t! I can’t fix this! I don’t know how!” Then the story has a few days to sit. That which seemed unfixable starts to come into focus. An idea pops into your head. You remember how much you wanted to write that story, how much it has burrowed into your soul, and solutions begin to emerge.

I’ve been ready to chuck plenty of writing projects. I’ve resisted the urge to delete my book from my computer, although at the time I contemplated it, it sure seemed like a good idea. After his misbehavior, I was ready to give up on Baby Cat, too, but I realized that urge was born out of frustration. After calming down, I took the time to sit with him, give him lots of love (and a heartfelt apology for threatening to send him to the animal orphanage), and contemplate what might be causing him to misbehave. The answers aren’t always obvious, for either cats or stories. Pushing beyond our limits, whether those limits are on our abilities as writers or as companions to our felines, can make us a little crazy. Accepting the unacceptable and fixing the unfixable is difficult, even painful. But when we move past our previously set limits, we grow.

Afterwards, we can grab that spot next to window and watch the birds.
Picture information: Baby Cat in the den. Check out that big belly.

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