My cat died yesterday. She turned up in my life 15 years ago, and has always been attached in some way to my creative self, the familiar of my Muse. Her personality, her character, the way she approached living, not only endeared her to me while she was alive, but remain as reminders of how to approach my own life, and in particular, my writing.
Molly’s most obvious trait was tenacity. Some might call it stubbornness. As a kitten she would bat mercilessly on my bedroom door until I let her in. There was no question of ignoring her or sleeping. Her persistence persisted throughout her life. If I patted her distractedly, when she needed more she would head butt me until I started again, and if I stopped again, she continued. When I moved into a house with an enormous, murderously angry diabetic cat, she stood her ground, even when my other cat moved out down the street to another house. He was a full kilogram heavier, and an excellent ambusher. I found clumps of her fur with skin attached in the carpet, and the sound of cat fights often woke me, but she never let him win. In the end, he and his owner moved on, and Molly remained, rightful in her place beside her human.
It’s quite obvious that tenacity, that sheer bloody mindedness in the face of adversity, is a necessary trait for a writer. You need to face the demons and not have them shoo you out of your rightful place. You need to scratch endlessly at something until you get the result that you want, until it can’t help but give itself to you, even if only to get some peace (might work on editors!?!). Showing what you want and persisting until it comes in the consistency that suits you are compulsory actions for any writer who wants success.
But Molly was more than that, and a writer needs to be more than that. She was also adaptable, and stable, a paradoxical but winning combination of qualities. In our time together, we moved house an enormous number of times – at least 20 – and it never phased her. Even after 13 hours in a cage under a flapping tarpaulin on the Prince’s Highway to Melbourne, drugged to the eyeballs and meowling the entire way, she simply stepped out of her cage when we arrived at our destination, sniffed the room a bit, found her food bowl, and in a matter of hours was playing a cheeky game of bait and dodge with the resident 20 month year old. I guess if the editor tells you to change the main thread of action in your story or it won’t be published, it’s good to have a yowl at someone about it, but when push comes to shove, you’ll get a longer contract if you take a moment to assess the unwanted newness and make yourself at home with it. And then play that game of bait and dodge – enjoy yourself with the change.
She was a natural performer, a clown, and aware of having an audience. She had a knack for jumping on precariously balanced boards, and knocking herself and everything on it askither, and even once performed a circus routine – yes, a routine – over the couch, along a low boy and into an empty drawer on top, back down onto the floor, running the whole circuit complete with a short sit down in the drawer, three times in quick succession before disappearing and re-entering for her applause and curtain call. Her sense of timing was impeccable. The ability to wander between upsetting the apple cart and entertaining for the sheer joy of it, while being true to your own inner impulses and getting your pacing right – not to mention being able to face and be aware of your audience – is probably the hardest, and the most necessary, juggling act of a writer’s career. A sense of humour is vital.
She was also sociable, never one to remove herself from parties or visitors. Molly was often alone, and enjoyed being alone, but when there was a gathering she was in the heart of it. An artist or writer who can’t socialise and get herself ‘out there’, is losing out on a networking opportunity, but more than that, a writer who can’t socialise is going to be very lonely. And missing out on the experiences that create stories. My moggy would sit smack bang in the middle of a group having a conversation and follow it from person to person. But a writer doesn’t just listen to people. A writer listens to life, and just like a cat, sits in the centre of it, observing, ruminating, meditating, entertaining stories in her mind. A writer needs people.
And a writer needs to make believe. Her favourite game was chasing shadows. She originally learnt to chase light from an old boyfriend of mine with a laser pointer, then a few years later spontaneously started chasing shadows, but only the shadows of hands. What would writing be, without those shadows? What do we imagine, from the sparks of light and the thrashing shadows of our minds? They are the winnows sifting experience into ideas of ‘what if…’.
Molly was also, naturally, a hunter, although her prey were never that excitingly exotic. In her younger years she managed a good few rats and one sparrow, but her coup de grace were the pigeon presents she left me. I usually found them at the bottom of the stairs leading up to my bedroom. Their headless, heartless torsos made great food for the worm farm.
But what, you ask, do the pigeons have to do with writing?
And it’s this. Use what’s available. We lived in urbia, for most of our time together, and rats, sparrows and pigeons were it. The crows were too big. She had no other stories.
And then there’s the manner in which she butchered them. She ate the best and chewiest morsels, removed with surgical precision. The story of the corpse was far more graphic for having them removed.
Hemingway proposed that a story is stronger because of what you leave out, even if that means leaving out the heart of the story, or cutting off the head. The art of cutting – the incisive editing needed to tell the best story possible – is sometimes the precise brutality that we lack.
But what a gift for the the audience, to have a perfectly executed story placed at their feet?
I doubt Molly ever realised her role in my creative life, but I’m happy that she decided to reach up out of the cage that random day when I was poking around in a pet shop. I gave her a home. She loved and entertained me, and in her love for life, gave me writing wisdom.
What a damn fine cat.