What Writers Can Learn from the Housecat

(c) Copyright Fennec the Cat. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

It is October. Dark and light chase each other as they battle for supremacy,  a conflict which the dark is pre-ordained to win at this time of year. A potentially paralyzing ennui has a tendency to sit in and take its grip on some of us during this time of year. There are many ways to break this, such as turning on every light in the house, reading that backlist of your favorite author, blasting music, binge-watching a television series on your favorite streaming service, or all of the above, sometimes at the same time. Still, for writers, the flow of ideas with the transformation to sentences occasionally tends to ooze like syrup rather than flow like water. At such times we would be wise to consider the housecat. 

Yes. The housecat. It has so prestigious a title, yet so little to do. Its brain cannot conceive of us as anything other than giant cats (so we are told) which possess opposable thumbs, placed on earth to do their bidding on demand, even if we are doing something more important (such as listening to The Complete Prestige 10-Inch LP Collection by Miles Davis) or otherwise. Fennec, my own black-and-white cat, occasionally interrupts his eat/litterbox/sleep/repeat cycle to request entry to my attached garage. Herein lies the lesson. 

The garage for Fennec is what the mind is to writers. We search our minds for ideas. Fennec, particularly at this time of year, goes into the garage in search of mice. Rodents find the garage to be attractive at this time of year due to its (relative) warmth. It took me a while to figure out why Fennec, immediately after entering the garage, rolls around on the garage floor. I figured out that he is masking his scent. Once Fennec is sufficiently garage-odiferous he waits patiently for a mouse — the idea, if you will — to manifest itself. Sometimes Fennec waits on the floor. He at other times sits atop the car, like a vulture on a branch. A mouse eventually appears. Fennec pursues. Sometimes he comes up empty. When I open the door and he comes in empty mouthed he appears to be forlorn, the same way that we do if an idea fails to bear literary fruit. If Fennec catches something, however, he runs into the house triumphantly, with the mouse — his completed novel — in his mouth. He tosses it up in the air and catches as he runs from room to room without missing a beat as I — his most avid reader — chase after him, hoping that 1) the mouse is squeaking in the Choir Invisible or 2) the mouse is stunned enough that I can get it into a plastic bag and dispose of it before it scatters off into an inaccessible corner of the house where it will no doubt bear a litter. 

We’ve gone through this Mr. Punch routine several times in the past two weeks. To paraphrase Yogi Berra, I’ve learned a lot by watching. I’ve been taught that ideas will come and will be transformed into sentences. I just need to wait patiently. I also need to be ready to pounce when they manifest themselves. And yes, I am allowed to throw them in the air, juggle them, and catch them if the mood strikes me. As are you. 

Enjoy October and Halloween. I hope you catch what you seek. In the interim…what have you learned about writing, life, or anything, from your or someone else’s pet? Thank you for stopping by, as always.

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About Joe Hartlaub

Joe Hartlaub is an attorney, author, actor and book and music reviewer. Joe is a Fox News contributor on book publishing industry and publishing law and has participated on several panels dealing with book, film, and music business law. He lives with his family in Westerville, Ohio.

17 thoughts on “What Writers Can Learn from the Housecat

  1. Cats are so complex and interesting, which is part of the reason the “cute cat picture” meme on Twitter and elsewhere bugs me. I get tired of scrolling through the cat tweets.

    I like the lesson you draw for us writers from cat behavior–patience and alertness and being in the right place at the right time.

    There’s also the parallel between the way the cat displays its trophy and the way we want people to read our trophies.

  2. Like Terry said, dogs teach you to take breaks and move. Dogs also teach you to love the writing you do. I know we talk a lot about not just writing to market but finding a balance between writing what the market wants and the story you want to tell.

    Dogs are the ultimate Popeye “I yam what I yam.” I’m going to do the best I can to write a professional, polished manuscript, but in the end, I’m going to write the stuff I want to write so I can enjoy doing it. Just as dogs are always curious, I’m always curious and have a million ideas. I don’t want to be shut in a cage. I want to be me when I write.

  3. Loved this! Cats rule.

    Our 5-year-old female German Shepherd, Hoka, has a PhD in picky eating. Her food preferences are, at present, the bane of my existence as a dog mom. But, from her persnickety habits, I have learned something. Persistence, with a capital P.

    If Her Highness does not like the cuisine I offer her (even though she scarfed it down in two seconds flat yesterday), she will wait until I offer her something else. Now, I know better than to give in to this-just like I knew better than to let my youngest toddler refuse to eat her peas. She always had to eat at least one.

    So Hoka walks away and doesn’t eat. And doesn’t eat. Until tomorrow. And still doesn’t. Her melting brown eyes look at me with disdain. If she could speak, I’m sure she would say, “Really, Mom? Don’t you get it? I want the turkey and sweet potato food today, not the beef.”

    Yeah, I know better, but she always bests me in the Persistence Dept. (PhD, remember?)

    I must persist at writing. At learning the craft. At cultivating ideas until they become a book. Persistence.

    I’m thinking of hiring an English tutor for Hoka so she can just tell me what she wants.

    • Hoka, meet Fennec. The cat food that he would climb up my leg for yesterday gets me a “WTF?” look today. Reminds me of some editors (heh heh). Thank you, Deb. I don’t feel so alone anymore.

  4. Thanks, Joe. Enjoyed your observations.

    What I’ve started learning about are the housecat are its instinct for survival, honed and evolved over innumerable generations.

    I tried to capture some of that in a short fiction piece I wrote for my grandchildren, featuring their two pet cats as characters and their home and yard as the venue:
    “Quasi-Tame Shrinking Felines vs. Throwback Expanding Canines”:
    Evening Street Review, Number 20, Spring 2019, pp. 61-67,
    https://eveningstreetpress.com/review-number-20.html

    • Thank you for your kind comments, David, which I greatly appreciate. Does the housecat’s instinct for survival include the well-known “kitten face,” which it shows when confronted with otherwise inexplicable damage to a family heirloom or the result of some midnight regurgitation in the middle of the room? And thanks for sharing the link to Evening Street Review, which looks quite interesting.

      • Thank you, Joe, Yes, what I think of as the housecat poker face, helps the housecat stay above it all and avoid any consequences for its actions. How can you punish or be angry with an animal that doesn’t recognize it did anything wrong, as if it were saying, “when you adopted me, you knew or should have known these antics are part of my nature.”?

  5. When my husband was a kid, his cat loved to explore the roof of their house but couldn’t get up there by herself. She would meow and stare at the roof until he tossed her up there. When she was finished with her investigation, she would come to the edge and meow again. He held out his arms and she’d jump down into them.

    As a writer, sometimes I’d like to explore new territory but need a little help from my critique group or beta readers to get up on the roof. They also keep me from breaking my neck when I jump off.

    Learned another lesson from a guy named Joe–that a hearty laugh improves a dreary, drizzly day.

    • Debbie, thanks for that terrific story and the great metaphor it provided. I wonder what was it about the roof that was attractive to the cat to begin with…

      • My observation of cat behavior leads to believe cats sometimes like perches (a roof?) because it gives a better lookout for prey. But, here, I agree it seems off in that the cat needed help to get off the roof, by which time any prey would likely have vamoosed.

  6. And our animals can become our writing subject either as a minor character or the heroes of our stories. It’s a rare cozy mystery, these day, who doesn’t have a cute pet on the cover. The “Chet and Bernie” mysteries by Spencer Quinn andr the “Miss Murphy” mysteries by Rita Mae Brown even have animal narrators.

    From my own experience, my animals have kept me anchored in the real world when it would be so easy to disappear into the fictional black hole of my works. Molly, my golden retriever, was the most extroverted of extroverts so she was always dragging introvert me into interactions with other people. At the beach in particular, I talked to almost everyone because Molly wanted to meet them and play with their kids. Day to day, Mr. Kitty was about sitting on the back porch on my lap while nature unfolded in front of us. I’m no longer owned so I have to fight my inclanation to settle in front of my computer, but my animals left me well-trained in the advantages of connecting with nature and other people.

  7. Those are great stories, Marilyn, both on the beach with Molly and watching “Cat TV” with Mr. Kitty. I’ve been owned almost continuously for 68 years and don’t know what life would be like if I weren’t. Thanks for sharing.

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