(I recently wrote a book on writing call The Glorious Grind: Meditations on Crafting Fiction & The Writing Life and have decided to simply publish it in installments here.)
My cat Frenchie is sleeping on my bed right now. I have my big Ikea desk tucked into a recess in my bedroom so I’m facing away from her as I type but I can hear her softly snoring, my little furry tortoiseshell muse with the impenetrable coat of a Russian bear. She likes to sleep on books—she cuddles them as if they’re pillows—and she likes the big hardcover ones best since they give her the best value for her snuggling dollars. Right now she’s sleeping on Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Biography by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I wonder if she hears the chirping birds of the prairie and the lonely wolf cries of the past seeping up through the pages and into her tiny cat brain. A plump housecat with a sweet disposition, I don’t think she’d fare well on the open plains. I don’t think she could beat up a frog.
Why do cats and books go so well together? Why do cats like to sleep on loose pieces of paper so much?
You never hear about a dog cuddling with a book. Eating a book: yes. Dogs have been eating books since time immemorial. Every fuckhead with a face knows that. Dogs also like to eat paper so much they’ve become a fallback excuse for not doing your homework: “Mitzy-poo ate my assignment, I swear!”. Okay, we get it, dogs: you’re good at chewing. Time to give it a rest, Arfy. We’ve got serious writing to do here.
My first cat wasn’t really my cat. He was an orange tabby stray we named Leonardo (after the leader of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, of course) and let sleep on the porch of our house beginning when I was nine or ten years old. Leo wasn’t allowed in the house but we had a litterbox and a makeshift cat bed on the porch and we left out food and water for him. This arrangement seemed to work nicely for Leo and a couple of times I snuck him into the house when my parents were gone and let him run around. We had good times, Leo and I, and he lived on our porch for many years. One day we found him badly hurt in the backyard with his hind legs badly torn open. My mother, sister, and I wrapped him in a towel and sped fifteen miles in the family van to an animal hospital in Mankato. We all cried during the drive and thought he was going to die but the tough outdoor cat pulled through surgery and came out all right, his only real permanent injury a bent tail which eventually fell off a few weeks later and left a happy, twitchy nub.
Leo came and went from his porch home like a proper gentleman loafer but when I was around fourteen he disappeared for good, leaving a pet vacancy in my heart as well as a foreboding sense of loss. We lived right off a four-lane highway and we could only assume he’d been hit by traffic, but no trace of his body was ever discovered so his ultimate fate remains, to this day, a matter of pure speculation. I think he probably ran for kitty Senate and had to move away to properly represent our neighborhood in kitty Washington D.C. He always did have an amiable, crossing-the-aisle air about him.
My second cat also wasn’t really my cat, at least at first. His name was Opie and he was my girlfriend-at-the-time’s cat. Also an orange tabby, Opie was already seventeen when I met him and as grumpy as a wounded badger. I turned on the Dave charm, however, and slowly won him over as we got to know each other, going so far as to sleep on the bathroom floor with him one yowling night during a cross-country move from St. Paul to Boise, Idaho. Opie was one of those animals who have a ton of character, a certain fuck-you attitude, and I admired this about him as one admires the toughness in an ally during wartime. We became good pals, Opie and I, and when my relationship with his owner eventually ended Opie moved in with me.
For a while it seemed like old Opie would live forever, even if his don’t-fuck-with-me strut had grown a bit rickety, but a few months after his twenty-second birthday he stopped eating and began to waste away despite my repeated attempts at food bribery. On the third of July I went to party at my cousin’s house and returned home to my apartment quite drunk. I held Opie in my arms and felt how light and skeletal he was and tearfully told him it was okay, it’s okay Opie, you can let go now and die. Sometime in the middle of the night Opie, who needed the help of a stool by this time, tried to jump up on the foot of the bed for a late night cuddle and I heard him thump back to the floor, his attempt a failure. Then, with an effort that felt heroic in my deeply inebriated state and I still regard as one of the few rock solid arguments in my favor as a decent soul, I jumped up and picked him up, helping him onto the bed. We had a good cuddle, like we always did, and I fell back asleep.
The next morning, on the 4th of July, my girlfriend-at-the-time found Opie lying stiff on the bathroom floor, his favorite place to lounge. His eyes were open but he looked at peace, like he’d stared death down and remained unalarmed. We buried Opie the next day outside of River Falls, Wisconsin, on the grounds of my college roommate’s family farm. It was an ungodly hot, steamy day and the sun beat down on my hungover skull with mean spirited ferocity. I dug Opie’s cat-sized grave and lowered him into the grave myself while two sad women looked on and the moment felt continuous, as if I’d tapped into something that had no true beginning and or end. One of Opie’s legs, gone stiff with rigor mortis, stuck out at an awkward angle, forcing me to tamp it down with my foot—one final friendly fuck-you from the Governor.
I lasted for about a grief wracked month before I decided to get another cat, the first I’d ever chosen myself. I went to a couple of cat shelters and looked around with baleful eyes until I found Frenchie, with her beautiful tortoiseshell fur and sweet disposition, residing in a no-kill shelter only three blocks from my apartment. Frenchie came up to me amid the chaos of the forty cats frolicking in the shelter’s main room and sprawled onto my sandaled feet like a dog, offering me her soft white belly for a scratch.
I guess I didn’t really have a choice this time, either.
Cats and the writing life go so well together. As long as you give them some attention every now and then and feed them they’ll leave you alone to write for as long as you need to write. They don’t need to be walked, like dogs, and they don’t thirst for fresh blood, like vampires. Whenever you need to have a restorative nap they’re always ready to assist—cats keep their schedules relatively clear. They don’t mind if you work very late or get up very early because time is nearly meaningless to them, one long flowing sea they’re always swimming in. They might puke on your manuscript or walk on your keyboard like they’re hot shit but they’re just messing around and trying to enjoy themselves—it’s nothing you should take personally.
I’ve often marveled at my cat’s calmness during periods when I personally feel very excitable or distraught. Cats possess a serenity that every writer should pay attention to and study as a model for their own inner life. Unless they hear a loud sound, get a piece of tape stuck to their heads, or just plain decide to take off like a missile and fire across the room, cats don’t let shit rattle them. They just keep on being a cat, day after day, and they don’t give much credence to their critics—in fact even the loudest, most vocal criticism doesn’t seem to hang around in their brains much longer than the time it takes them to widen their eyes and scamper a few feet across the room. They live in the moment—everything is show, nothing is tell—and they serve no master except the inner voice every cat is born with, telling them string string string.
Cats, unlike humans, don’t need to write anything and they don’t care about posterity. Their very whiskered lives are a work of art in of themselves, their every impulse arising from a blessed transcendence.