The Writing Life: Oh, For the Love of Cats by Lisa Ahn

cat in square of sunshine

Where’s your square of sunshine?

Hemingway and Twain adored them. Edward Gorey liked them more than people. For Colette, they were, every one, extraordinary. Admired by Jorge Luis Borges, Doris Lessing and William Carlos Williams, the darlings of Stephen King and Neil Gaiman alike, cats have claimed a special shelf inside the book-strewn writer’s heart.[i]

There’s no simple explanation. After all, cats show scant respect for paper, pens or keyboards. Any manuscript they find is likely to be shedded-on or shredded. They sprawl across the desk, scatter note cards in their antics and chew the edges off of favorite books. My own three kittens, 10 months old apiece, pace across my open laptop, inserting strings of random letters onto every page. They stick their faces in my coffee mug, then plunk down to lick their paws before the monitor. Inscrutable, blasé, they are uninterested in deadlines, tangled plots or characters who have fallen out of line. If they find me stuck for words, they simply stare. And blink.

Yet, for all their disregard, I suspect my cats have writing cornered in ways totally unique. Nothing seems to phase them. By twitch of tail and crook of claw, they have given me a fresh tutorial in putting stories to the page . . . .

 

lesson #1: watch everything that moves (and even things that don’t).

My cats spend hours sitting on the long, narrow table in our living room, looking out the windows. Tails twitching, they track birds perched at the feeder or rustling through the berry bushes. They mark pedestrians on pathways, bounding dogs, the rare fox or raccoon and less-rare skunk. While the curiosity of cats is legendary, I can’t explain their patience, given that they never go outside. Still, they stay intent. Nothing gets past cats.

If the same were true of me, I’m sure I’d be a better writer (and mother, wife, and friend). Too much escapes my frazzled, scatter-brain. I know that there are stories in the underbrush, if I only pay attention. The problem is, I’m much more likely to be distracted by the dishes or the Internet. I am more apt to be impatient with the way my life unfolds. Faced with the intractable problems of chapter seventeen, I fold the laundry, take a nap, bake banana bread. Gifted with the fortitude of cats, their boundless curiosity, I’d take that second look — and then I’d look again, sit still, endure. Like a paw inside a mouse hole, I’d grab hold and not let go. Chapter seventeen would be complete.

 

lesson #2: life is an adventure. play it. pounce.

Cats watch, and then they pounce. There’s no uncalculated hesitation — and no respect for rules. For them, nothing is off limits. Defiant, undeterred by warnings, our kittens jump into the kitchen sink, leap with unaffected grace onto cutting boards and pancakes. In the name of exploration and adventure, they climb the doorframes and scale the window screens. They chase each other up the Christmas tree, scattering candy canes and ornaments. Anything, from seltzer tops to hair bands, becomes a toy. In quieter moments, they bask in squares of sunlight. Despite the steady sangfroid gaze, cats are never bored. Their glass half-full to brimming, implicitly immune to doubt, they’re always ready for a revel.

In stark contrast to my kittens’ daring-do, I am cowered by blinking cursors, empty pages, deadlines. I know the harsh injunctions: kill your darlings, put your characters through the wringer. But, fingers poised above the keyboard, I fret about the endings, afraid to jump into the nitty-gritty where the truest stories wait. In my hyper-focus on accomplishment, I neglect the fun, the play of words, the quirky flair of unexpected characters and plots. Tapped into a cat’s more playful mindset, I take creative leaps. I invent the kissing frog, the sassy ghost, the blackbirds who can talk. I stitch the sagging plot, add the crystalline detail that makes the story sing. Remembering that writing is a joy, I claim my square of sunshine, dust motes spinning in the air. Ready for the game.

 

lesson #3: you’re never quite done grooming, but sometimes you have to sleep.

Cats are tidy creatures overall, and mine are no exception. Meticulous with inner ears and toe-pads, they can groom each other and themselves for hours. The calico likes to polish up my youngest daughter every morning, pinning down her shoulders and licking at her sleep-webbed chin, indifferent to protests. Cats groom and groom and groom . . . and then they doze. Notorious for their scratchy tongues, they are infamous for their naps. Ours can sleep perched on tottering laundry baskets, wedged between the couch cushions, or tucked in cubby holes. Cats, in general, have no problem letting go.

This is rarely true for writers. Typical of my breed, I cling to every draft like limpets, revising until words swim across the page. I comb through sentence combinations while I vacuum, drive the kids to lessons, take a shower, sleep. After the forty-seventh rewrite, I still come back for more. The cats remind me that, eventually, I have to let the fur lie where it falls. Over-grooming leads to hairballs, and no one’s fond of stories mangled, lumps of clotted words.

 

lesson #4: that dog may be big, but he’s no match for me

Before we got the cats, we got a dog. He’s not enormous, but he’s bigger than the cats — large paws, large teeth — and he likes to chase them. Yet it’s the dog who has to watch his back. Despite the difference in their size, kittens rule this house. They have razor claws and needle teeth and tails with attitude. They do not acknowledge disadvantage. Their golden, watchful eyes don’t register the shape of fear.

Again, I’m falling short. Rejection notes have sent me, whimpering, to the corner. But all writers get rejections — there is no other, easier way. “No” is part and parcel of the process, like ABC’s or commas. I write a story, send it out, gather up the pieces, revise and send again. The cycle can get painful, even with a thickened skin. Some rejections have the teeth of dogs, irreverent and brutal. Sometimes they come in packs, like wolves. To face them down without becoming mute, I need the sure ferocity of cats, their refusal to be tamed.

 

Some will claim that dogs, not cats, are a writer’s truest friend — think of all the long, meditative walks, the unconditional approval, the comfort of a wagging tail. Still, cats bring sass and moxie to the page. They bring an element of mystery. After all, we can explode an atom, land Curiosity on Mars, sequence genomes and track the migration of a butterfly, but no one knows exactly how or why cats purr. They are, like the best and brightest stories, not entirely transparent. And that’s a sure-fire fuel for writing. If you can get the fur balls off the keyboard and clear the paw prints from the screen, then there’s a tale in every twitching whisker, just waiting to be told.



[i] Credit to Summer Ann Burton, “30 Renowned Authors Inspired By Cats.” BuzzFeed. 12 September 2012. Web. 11 January 2014.

Lisa Ahn, Columnist emeritus

Lisa Ahn's writing has appeared in Quiddity, PANK, Limestone, Prick of the Spindle, Toasted Cheese and Literary Mama, among others. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband, two spunky daughters, three cats, and a dog who steals everybody's socks.

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  • Kathryn Dyche Dechairo

    There is so much truth in your writing. Having both cats and dogs I found myself nodding in agreement as each line unfolded. Oh to be like a cat . . . I’ve got the napping part down but I think I need to work on the rest. Loved this so much.

  • Joe

    At our local SPCA, there are two sections, an adoption center for cats and one for dogs. The dogs spend 23 1/2 hours a day in a kennel alone or with a dog or two or three… depending on the social behavior. The cats however, stay in an air conditioned room, filled with toys, things to climb, and a wonderful 7 foot high clear cylinder that runs the a/c room to and large caged in play room, with more toys and items to keep them curious and content.
    One day, walking under the cross way, i looked up to see a large orange cat standing ” guard” in the middle of the cylinder; not allowing other cats to cross over either way. Each time a cat tried, the orange monster ran it back. I watched this for several minutes. Thinking it was unfair, especially in keeping cats in the play room from returning to the cool air conditioned presidential suite, i reached up and tapped the cylinder directly underneath the culprit
    You got it; the guard cat looked down at me with distain, and went back to running off “intruders” from either direction.

  • Patrick Ahn

    Amazing how you take our kittens behaviors and relate them to writing! Love it! Those kittens do rule our house! I’ll have to be more observant and see what the cats can teach me!

  • Marina Sofia

    Love it, love it! I’ve always been a cat lover, but was not allowed to keep cats as a child (other than feeding random strays) because my mother didn’t fancy having her house ruined. Then we kept moving around. But as of last week I’ve adopted a lovely, sweet-tempered adult female… or should I say she owns me? And she seems keen to sit on my and dictate the latest revisions to my WIP.

  • Brenda

    What a fabulous tribute to felines! I am allergic so can’t have any of my own but I certainly enjoy watching the antics of my daughter’s two kitties via Facebook photos. I love how you have taken their behavior and related it to the creative writing life. So many lessons to be learned.

  • Damien Galeone

    This is great. Well written and very enjoyable! I have always thought that cats were writers’ best friends. At the very least they guard your doorway while you work and wake you up with a butt in the face to get you to your desk.

  • Melissa Crytzer Fry

    Oh, Lisa … this is BRILLIANT. I once wrote a post about cats vs. dogs as the preferred writing pet (50/50 split on the reader survey), but you’ve encapsulated all that I feel right here — and with such eloquence. This is why I tolerate the cat-butt in my face as I type, the extra lines of inserted gibberish from paws over the keyboard, the distracting antics as the two cats square off with arched backs before playful pouncing, etc. I’m going to take some lessons from my two cats, which you’ve noted with such beauty: I am going to claim my square of sunshine today because, unlike the cat and its uncanny fearlessness, I’m licking some rejection wounds. The warmth of that sunlight is a reminder that I need to get right back up and fight the fight.