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'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.