May 11th, 2010
From the archetypal library/bookstore cat, to the poems that inspired the Webber musical, to the thumbed specimens that Hemingway gave his name to, books and cats just seem to go together. Certainly, there are those writers who prefer their dog, horse, ferret, or what-have-you, but in my mind, if I was going to put a writer and a critter together together, my first assumption is that the critter would be a cat. And I’m hardly an exception to the rule — it’s no accident that Ozymandias fell in with Brigid and Greg, nor that Michael Macbeth chases stray moggies. While I grew up with dogs, I have a much stronger natural rapport with cats, to the point where I occasionally jokingly refer to myself as The Cat Whisperer.
The writers+cats phenomenon has not gone unnoticed, but articles on the topic tend to be a rather pointless list of writers who owned cats (Twain, Poe, Chandler, Lovecraft, etc., etc.), or cutesy “Look what my cat wrote about writers!” pieces that induce stomach pains. So in an effort to discuss a topic that interests me without cluttering the internet with more such junk, here are some thoughts on the possible origins of writer/cat sympathy.
Cats Are Low-Maintenance
Dogs, lovable scamps that they are, require a lot of attention, whether it’s direct (“Feed me!” “Pet me!” “Play with me!” “Feed me again!”) or indirect (“Oh look, he knocked over another lamp with his tail and now appears to be attempting to dig to China in the middle of the living room.”) Cats, by contrast, spend most of their time sleeping, and they often consider sleeping somewhere in your general vicinity to be affection enough for anybody. This is not to say they don’t occasionally want love, nor that they don’t demand food or knock over the occasional lamp. But it’s nowhere on the same scale (or with the same enthusiasm) as the average dog.
This is good for writers because, let’s face it, we tend to be a pretty self-absorbed bunch. When “The muse has taken us!” (or, more commonly, when we have half an hour to crank out 1,000 words and won’t be able to sleep unless we get it done) writers pretty much can’t be bothered with cleaning up another mess or tossing that damn Frisbee again. Of course, by that standard, the best pet for writers should probably be something like the average tree sloth, but there are other factors at work.
Cats are Companionable Without Being Needy
Despite their reputation for being aloof, cats can actually be very affectionate and loving companions, but they have an understated way of showing it that often goes way over the head of those used to huggy humans or lick-happy dogs. And it’s not when they’re rubbing against your legs either, despite what people may think. Cats rub up against things to mark that item with glandular secretions — i.e., they’re claiming territory. That’s one reason cats often rub up against the legs of people preparing their food. They’re not going, “Thank you for the food, OMG I loves you!” They’re saying, “This food generator is MINE, the rest of you other cats bugger off.”
No, cats show love by showing trust. A cat that looks at you and gives you a sleepy-slow blink is specifically telling you that he trusts you so much that he’s willing to close his eyes when you’re around because he’s confident you won’t try to catch and eat him. A cat that shows you his belly is saying “See? I’m willing to expose the most vulnerable part of my body in your presence.” Cats, while supreme predators, are also prey — so a cat that curls up in your lap and goes to sleep is actually giving you a very profound compliment in his own feline way.
This is how cats communicate, and other cats understand it instinctively, but it’s all pretty esoteric to most humans. Humans tend to like vocalization, they like gestures; a dog that can’t get enough of telling you he loves you by licking your hand for hours on end is speaking a language that is much clearer to most people than the cat who makes a point of perching himself on the arm chair next to you just to take a nap, even if they’re both saying basically the same thing.
This is also good for writers, because tapping away at the keyboard for hours can be a lonely business, even if you don’t really want to be interrupted while you’re doing it. Many of us literary types are pretty strong introverts, and while we don’t necessarily want to be alone, introverts usually find those who constantly want to go on and on about anything (even if it’s how wonderful we are) to be wearying at best and extremely irritating at worst. The low-key companionship of a cat is a terrific compromise. We’ve got somebody, but they’re not making a big deal about it, and neither do they expect (nor want) us to.
Cats are Mysterious
This one is a bit more esoteric than the other two, but it’s just as important. Even somebody who has a pretty good grasp on cat behavior only knows as much as the cat is willing to tell, combined with what can be deduced. While it’s not really true that cats are smarter than dogs (depending on your definition of “smart,” I suppose, but by this I mean pure cognitive ability rather than their willingness to do tricks), my experience suggests that cats probably do more actual “thinking” than dogs. Dogs tend to have pretty short attention spans and are motivated by the moment (“If I do this, I’ll get a treat! If I do that, I’ll get a swat on the nose!”); cats on the other hand seem more likely to come up with self-directed goals and work towards them, even if the goal is something as mundane as “get to the top of that bookshelf.” Cats also do things like plot revenge (“Change my brand of litter, eh? Let’s see how you like a little surprise in your shoe!”), and while I’ve seen dogs be mean, I’ve never seen one be sly about it.
This is good for writers because it makes for a more dynamic relationship, which in turns leads to more creative thought. Also, because you never quite know what a cat is thinking, even if you can make an educated guess, you may find yourself filling in the gaps, which keeps your creative juices flowing. The expressive nature of dogs makes it pretty easy to tell what they’re thinking (at least in vague terms) most of the time; with a cat you have to figure it out, which means looking for motivations and piecing together behavioral clues — all skills that any writer worth their salt needs to keep honed if they’re going to write characters who are true to life.
So there you have it, my theories (such as they are) about the unique kinship between writers and cats. I’d be curious to know your own thoughts on the matter. (Oh yeah, curiosity! That’s another thing…)
Forget Toby McGuire, this guy shoulda played Spider-Man!
From rikoshi's Twitter feed.
Almost bang-on target, with only one major scene still to be written and a bit of stitching bits together. Beta-readers (you should know who you are), prepare to see a link to first draft sometime this week. After a supremely unproductive past several days, this evening’s progress has really perked me up.