Last week, Cathy and I went to our local humane society and adopted a cat, an eight month-old orange tabby we named Stella. As we understand it, female orange tabby cats are rare, so Stella is special indeed for all sorts of reasons.
Our poems, stories, essays, novels, memoirs are all special as well, marked by how unique they are, coming as they do from our own particular visions and styles. In other words, the things we write are special because they can only come from us. Give everyone a single premise, for example, and invite them to put it to use in the form of their choosing. We’d surely end up with a variety of spins on that premise because it would intersect with each individual writer’s experiences, attitudes, perspectives, and aesthetics. To get to the point, we all have rare gifts to offer because of who we are. Our writing should come from the parts of ourselves that make us different from those around us.
Cathy and I, as per the advice of our vet, are keeping Stella confined to our master bedroom and bath for a few days so as not to overwhelm her. We plan to gradually introduce her to the rest of our home. Keep in mind, most of her time these past few weeks has been spent inside a cage at the human society. She was surrendered by her previous owners because they decided they had too many animals.
As writers, we sometimes have too many “animals” as well—too many ideas for things we want to write. I’ve known young writers who often suffer from overstimulation when it comes to the work they want to do. They start out gung-ho with one idea—maybe they write a few lines of a poem, maybe they begin a narrative, maybe they start an essay and then have no idea where they want to go, so they jump to another idea and soon they have pieces of a number of things, but nothing finished.
Here’s what I’ve learned by watching Stella these past few days. When she came into our home, she was uncertain. Even within her fairly well-defined parameters of bedroom and bath, she stayed in her carrier for some time. It must have felt familiar to her. It must have reminded her of her cage at the human society. We had the blanket that had been in that cage, and Stella clung to what she knew as “home.” Little by little, she ventured forth. She expanded her space, taking to exploring the bedroom, spending time under the bed, napping, or playing with the toy we’d given her, Mr. Mouse. She came out from under the bed so we could pet her. She got bold and started running from bedroom to bathroom and back, a fireball of energy, just being who she was born to be—a cat.
We have to be bold ourselves when we set out with a new piece of writing. We can’t be afraid of what lies ahead. We can’t consider the various ways we might fail. On one occasion, Cathy and I couldn’t resist seeing what Stella would do if we let her out of our bedroom. She slunk through our living room, keeping to the borders, afraid to venture out into the middle of the room. Suddenly, everything was too large for her, and she went back to the safety of what she knew, the bedroom, the bath, her carrier.
The lesson for those of us who write? When we set forth, we shouldn’t think about the space the piece will require. We should focus on what we know, those smaller spaces we can control. Let’s say we tell ourselves, okay, we’re just writing this one scene, or smaller still, okay, we’re just describing the things in a character’s room, and once we’ve done that, we move on. In this way, little by little, we expand the piece of writing, and before we know it, we’re at the end. We’re far from where we began, and we’ve forgotten whatever fears we may have had, and we’re able to run with instinct, and abandon, and joy.