For the past 22 years, I’ve had kitty friends keeping me company while I write. My first kitty Molly took up residence on an ottoman next to my desk while I painstakingly constructed my first novel, now my book-in-a-drawer, and since then, there’s always been a feline companion around to keep me on track.
Whenever I travel, I look for them, too, and they always seem to be looking back. Travel and creativity and cats have become a sort of natural trinity for me; whenever I’m out of my element these four-footed magical mascots seem to check in to see how things are going. They offer a sort of continuity and familiarity between solid ground and the ether of creativity.
In Tuscany where we stay for our retreat, my feline friend is Occhi Verdi—Green Eyes. The first year, in our writing circle near the end of the retreat, he joined us and settled into my arms, a farm cat but also an agritourismo cat; he knew how to welcome guests. The second year, we arrived and he marched up to me as if to say you have been gone an awfully long time. The following year, he greeted me during a breakfast sunrise, waiting not-quite-patiently for me to share my yogurt bowl.
A few years ago a friend and I decided to take a winter trip to Key West. We went, marginally interested in Hemingway but more so in the six-toed cats, supposed descendants of his original companions.
We were entranced by the kitties, often named after famous people, that occupied the house and the grounds. We stood at the graves of Kim Novak and Willard Scott. We followed one confident feline who seemed to take over the tour. We explored the grounds. We said hello to cats perched on fence posts and lolling in the garden. They seemed bored with tourists but mostly tolerated our affection, except for the seven-toed Greta Garbo, who really did want to be alone.
The proper term for cat with more than the usual number of toes is polydactyl.
My cousin, a victim of spellchecker, once sent out a message that informed the family we got a new cat and she is a pterodactyl.
Hemingway isn’t alone. Lots of writers have shared their writing space with cats, and some like William S. Burroughs, Charles Bukowski, Joyce Carol Oates, and Nobel winner Doris Lessing have written books about them. For me, a cat’s special (and often weird) behavior provides metaphors for the creative process:
1. Cats are like ideas. You can’t force them to come to you. When they do come, they’ve chosen you for a reason, and it’s best to pay attention. Nurture the relationship.
2. Cats would rather sit. Writers sit. Writing is a solitary activity and sometimes we write for a long time and forget until we emerge from our bat caves and wonder where everybody went. Now you’re not alone, and you’ve got the best kind of company: One who gets you, and one who’s quiet.
3. Cats are creatures of routine. A cat you live with will learn when you should be working. If you’re not where you’re supposed to be, he or she will often stare expectantly and incessantly or resort to meowing and nudging. My Maine Coon kitty Hazel was insistent that I sit where I was supposed to when I was supposed to. Writers need that: A reminder to sit down and focus.
4. Cats also remind you when it’s time to take a break. There’s food, you know, and you do have to eat.
5. Cats go directly to the source of pain. On a particularly painful day when a relationship ended, my sweet brown tabby/Siamese mix Molly curled up on my chest, finding the exact place where I felt the physical pain of emotional separation. As writers, sometimes we need to follow cats directly to the wound.
6. Sometimes they know where the story is going before we do. Perhaps you’ve read about Oscar, the cat who could predict the deaths of hospice patients and sit with them in their final hours. This cat had an extraordinary sense. So do our characters. Let them tell the story and lead you to what’s happens next.
7. They operate on instinct. My newly adopted 14-year-old lynx-point Siamese cat, Rocket, a darling who likes to lounge in the sun and drape himself on warm laps, nonetheless is an efficient mouser. There’s no moment of hesitation or thought – it just happens, and you find yourself with an unexpected and unsettling gift waiting for you. Writing can do that, too, offering up twists you really didn’t see coming.
8. Sometimes they turn and scratch the shit out of you. The best characters can be those who don’t do what you expect them to do. Predictability is boring. Also, we each have those hair-trigger pain bodies that set us off – what are your narrator’s raw nerves? What is the moment, person or action that gets your character’s goat?
9. Sometimes they tell you to just hunker down for now. The aforementioned Rocket prefers to curl up under a blanket. Sometimes the writing process can make us feel that way, and sometimes it’s okay just to stay in bed and regroup.
10. Cats are naturally curious, and so are writers. Wandering is good for our souls. Come wander with us in Mexico, Maine, Tuscany or Costa Rica. There’s room for you, and maybe you’ll even meet a friendly feline guide on your journey.