Writing is the thing I do the most, and it’s probably the thing that I’m best at. Which is not a boast about how great my writing is, but a testament to how terrible I am at other things. Even so, writing is hard for me. For two chief reasons:
- Writing is hard. Period. To pull things from the ether, and from your life, and say exactly what you mean about them in an interesting way is notoriously challenging. I think just about every writer I’ve ever heard or read on the subject, with the exception of Stephen King, struggles to confront a blank page.
- Writing is generally a stationary, solitary business. It requires sitting, in a chair, with little besides your own thoughts for company or diversion. What does that sound like? Oh yes – time out. Choosing to be a writer is basically consenting to spend most of the rest of your life sitting in timeout (Pro tip – make sure to hide some biscuits in your pocket).
There is one thing that makes this hermit’s life tolerable, and indeed delightful. And it isn’t any combination of booze or muse. It’s my cat.
Writers are well-known for being eccentric, anti-social weirdos. Many of the notorious ones have been drunks and or smack-heads, with poor social skills and/or suicidal tendencies. What is not as often brought up is that, more than any of these things, they are also prone to be cat-freaks. If you Google ‘writers & cats’, you will find no shortage of images of famous writers with cats:
- Jean-Paul Sartre
- Jack Kerouac
- Ernest Hemingway
- Mark Twain
- Edward Gorey
- Philip K. Dick
- Charles Bukowski
- William Burroughs
- Jean Cocteau
- Jorge Luis Borges
- Hunter S. Thompson
- Stephen King
- Kingsley Amis
- Raymond Chandler
- Truman Capote
- Herman Hesse
- Joyce Carol Oates
- Neil Gaiman
- Allen Ginsberg
- Ray Bradbury
- Doris Lessing
- Aldous Huxley
- Edgar Allan Poe
- TS Elliot
- WB Yeats
- Charles Dickens
- William Carlos Williams
- Julio Cortázar
- W. H. Auden
- Jacques Derrida
And these are not photos where the author is in the foreground, looking clever and composed, and a cat just happens to be wandering through the background. Oh no. There is Sartre, penning down some piece of stony existentialism at his desk, cuddling a very fluffy pussy to his chest. There is Herman Hesse crawling on his hands and knees and giggling as he trails the feline of his fancy. There are Ray Bradbury, Bukowski, Kerouac, and Hemingway, cradling full-grown cats in their arms like babies. And there are Edward Gorey and Mark Twain, going about their brilliant business with cats riding on their shoulders.
You can find many quotes in which these writers speak in wit and poetry about the glories of the feline species. Burroughs was an gun-nut junkie who shot his own wife in the head, but he wrote an entire book about how much he fucking loved cats. Whether these writers’ words of praise acknowledge it explicitly or not, their affection for the species is rooted in the fact that cats are the only common creatures thoroughly suited to be friends with writers, the ones who can best cope with the anti-social, curmudgeonly lifestyle. Apparently, Aldous Huxley once advised an aspiring writer;
“if you want to be a psychological novelist and write about human beings, the best thing you can do is to keep a pair of cats.”
Hear that kids? If you want to write, the answer isn’t an MFA or a bottle of scotch – it’s cats.
You know mindfulness? It’s that thing about finding zen through being fully present in the here and now. Writing is an anti-mindfulness exercise. Writing asks you to totally detach from the moment you are in. Cats, however, are always in the moment. They don’t come with any other setting. They are a more straightforward species, and grounding influence – sort of like how The Doctor always travels with a companion, only wonderfully fuzzy.
So I write, in my little chair, at my little table, in my little room, and Aífe snoozes by my side. We nibble little snacks, take little stretches, and look out the little window. The writing comes, word by word. The longer I stay at it, the more reluctant I am to break away, and the less I believe that there is anything out in the world worth breaking away for. My inertia swells, leaves me heavy and lopsided, like my cyst-laden ovary. And it’s always the same pattern from there;
Motionlessness -> lethargy -> anxiety -> depression -> despair
Suddenly, I’ve not left the flat in three days, and WHY WOULD I? WHAT COULD POSSIBLY BE OUT THERE THAT WOULD MAKE IT WORTH PUTTING PANTS ON? IT’S NOT LIKE ANYBODY CARES THAT I’M HERE.
I know this pattern, but sometimes I let it get the slip on me. And when I realize that this is what’s happening, there’s only one thing for me to do – go outside. Go anywhere. Preferably by foot. Walking is the best way to get the whole self moving, and engaging with the world around it. To unlock cramped-up brain and knees. I’ve certainly found this to be true, and apparently, so have others. In the wonderful Wanderlust, by Rebecca Solnit, she quotes a 1902 essay by Leslie Stephen, “In Praise of Walking”;
“Walking is the best of panaceas for the morbid tendencies of authors.”
I found the whole essay online, and it’s very good. He adds that it is “as good for reasoners as for poets.” And when he looks back on his memories of his own walks:
“the picture of some delightful ramble includes incidentally a reference to the nightmare of literary toil from which it relieved me.”
One of the things that has made me reluctant to leave the flat, historically, is Aífe. Throughout my working hours, Aífe is always with me: sometimes snoozing, sometimes giving me the stink-eye for ignoring her, other times rolling over on her back, paws tucked under her chin, her considerable belly on display to temp me. Eventually, she decides that enough is enough, and comes and sits on my notebook, or lies across my keyboard. This is cat for “PLAY WITH ME.” It always seems unfair at that point to reward her camaraderie by abandoning her to solitary boredom while I go out.
This used to feel like a difficult dilemma between her sanity and mine. But this, as with so many other issues in my life, has been solved by my adoption of cat-schlepping. There need no longer be a choice between her health and mine. We can both get our much-needed stimulation and exercise at the same time. Sometimes, we walk for a while. Other times, we go just a little ways, and then I read on a bench while Aífe watches the birds and passersby. Sunlight, fresh air, change of scene. She’s no longer an additional incentive to stay in, but an additional incentive to get out. Dog owners will be familiar with this effect, but for a cat-lady, it’s a revelation, and one which has greatly improved my work and my spirit (which are, of course, closely linked).
So, while I certainly wouldn’t claim to be as accomplished a writer as Huxley, I feel vindicated in amending his advice on writing: If you want to write, get a cat; and for pete's sake, train that cat to schlep!