Apr 7, 2012

What can a little black cat teach you about writing?


My black cat died of leukemia this week.[1] Today I come to you offering to share some of the things he taught me about writing, focus and attention.

No, my cat wasn’t famous. He didn’t play the piano or anything, but he was dear to me. His sudden, unexpected death was the last lesson he imparted.

I named him after a bird. Parakeet. In my family, we tend to give pets whimsical names. Parakeet joins the roster of weirdly-named cats in my life: Gogol, Pwcca, Gorecki, Little Ears, Smartie, Popcorn, Nugget.

Cats are a unique combination of gentleness and ferocity. They adopt us and adapt to us but won’t ever let a human into their world. Once, Parakeet climbed down a tree with a wood warbler in his jaws. Do you know what impressed me the most? His eyes. There was a sharp clearness to them, a merciless hunger that never really went away. Indoors he was a sleepy furball, but outside he was a stealthy, spring-loaded murderdeathkiller of blackbirds and wall lizards.

Parakeet never looked at people in anger or fear. It was around human beings, other cats and also dogs that his talent for public relations won him the most favor. An old lady down the street asked her adult daughter to adopt him. Parakeet also made friends with the fearsome Siberian Husky next door and, I suspect, enjoyed the freedom of every dog-owned backyard in the neighborhood. Everyone knew “the little black cat.” Basically, he was a charmer.

So, what can a little black cat teach you about writing a novel, story or play?

The only thing Parakeet ever uttered was “meow,” so I have to draw from the corpus of his actions and the nature of his being.

Consider an alien being in a science-fiction novel.
1. It was born with a sophisticated sensory network that includes vibrissae, specialized hairs growing on either side of its muzzle and above the eyes. Some members of the species have vibrissae growing out of their heels. These hairs detect subtle changes in air pressure, allowing them to track unseen prey in motion.

2. The alien’s eyes see the world in shades of green. Color is of no consequence -- relying on tactile, pressure and olfactory data, the alien develops an accurate projection of the world around it.

3. Its vocabulary can include words created to communicate with a different species. Words that only have meaning within a given household. The alien educates these others, teaching them to recognize and react to its specialized vocabulary. When words won’t do, it turns to gestures. The alien brings gifts of food, hoping that the others will understand the value of proper nutrition. But they are strange animals that act without purpose.

Yes, I have been describing cats.
Learning about animal behaviors is something I would recommend to any writer, especially writers of fantasy and science fiction. Animals are clearly minded, but not exactly as we are. They anticipate rewards, avoid punishment, take revenge, bear grudges and more. They have emotional palettes. There was an octopus in a research centre that loathed a voluntary research assistant. That one girl, a college undergrad, was the focus of its hostility. Every time she walked by its tank, the octopus would squirt water out of the tank, trying to hit the girl.

Think about this for a second -- that octopus may have figured out that people don’t like to get wet.

Books and stories are the mind’s ultimate playground. You don’t need a million-dollar budget to imagine a unique alien, to envision that which is truly nonhuman. That said, I agree that it is hard to imagine an alien mind. The good news is, alien minds are all around you! Wild and even domestic animals provide excellent templates for alien species.

Click here to see the video on YouTube.

Animals, having personalities, force us to realize that mind and individuality aren’t exclusively human traits. Conversely, not all personalities are human-like. Your brain is fine-tuned to deal with your environment; some city people will never adapt to the countryside, the opposite being just as true. Take a species thriving in a radically different environment than ours, Bryde’s whales. They surface at irregular intervals, and often change directions in a way that puzzles marine biologists. However, no movement in Nature is ever wasted. I’m sure Bryde’s whales have their motives.

Crazy animals die quickly. There’s no “crazy” in the wild. Death is Nature’s way of restoring balance. Have you noticed? Death always leads to new life. One day time will end but then, so will death.

Which brings me to the last lesson my cat taught me: Not to fear attachment for the hurt it may bring, but cherish the precious moments you’ve been given. And recognize them for the privilege they were.    


[1] The feline leukemia virus is transmissible among cats. It is a retrovirus which causes a cancer of the blood.

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