I remember many years ago reading this passage from Muriel Spark’s A Far Cry from Kensington:
If you want to concentrate deeply on some problem, and especially some piece of writing or paper-work, you should acquire a cat. Alone with the cat in the room where you work … the cat will invariably get up on your desk and settle placidly under the desk lamp … The cat will settle down and be serene, with a serenity that passes all understanding. And the tranquility of the cat will gradually come to affect you, sitting there at your desk, so that all the excitable qualities that impede your concentration compose themselves and give your mind back the self-command it has lost. You need not watch the cat all the time. Its presence alone is enough. The effect of a cat on your concentration is remarkable, very mysterious.
I’ve loved cats all my life and have found them, in my adult years, to be instructive to my work as a writer. Like the writer in Muriel Spark’s novel, I’ve found a cat’s presence to be enough. Our current cat, as many of you probably know, is an orange tabby named Stella—Stella the Cat, if Cathy and I are being formal. At some time each morning, Stella makes her way into my writing room, jumps up on my desk, circles my computer monitor, and finally settles down, either between my keyboard and the monitor or else in the circle of light cast by my desk lamp, where she just is for as long as she desires. By so doing, she reminds me not to worry so much about a problem I’m trying to solve in whatever I happen to be writing. When we hit those challenges, we have a tendency to try to rush to a solution. Stella, with her calm presence, tells me to relax, to slow down, to just be in the moment. Usually, when she’s on my desk, something will catch her attention. Maybe the way sunlight moves across the wall, maybe a paperclip left on the desk, maybe her own tail, and she gives it her utmost attention. She’s telling me to look closely at the details of what I’m writing, to see what’s there to be put to use in moving things along.
Like all cats, she can’t resist her own curiosity. She flattens herself and burrows under bookcases or beds. Any open drawer is an invitation. She finds her way behind couch cushions. More than once, she’s ended up closed up in a closet because she sneaked in while the door was open and didn’t let us know she was there when we shut it. Such is the way of the writer. We make ourselves curious and we poke around trying to satisfy that curiosity. I love this encouraging quote from the American Tibetan Buddhist, Pema Chödrön: “Let your curiosity be greater than your fear.” What sage advice for writers. We have to have the courage to follow our curiosities and our obsessions, to go down this trail or that one, even if we eventually find ourselves at a dead end or maybe shut up in a closet. Have faith, Stella the Cat, would say. Eventually someone opens the door, and usually they feel so guilty for closing you in they give you plenty of head rubs and treats and you feel like the Queen you really are.
Victory awaits those of us who are brave and who persist and who are genuine. That’s the other thing Stella reminds me of each day. Watching the way she reacts to everything around her—with pleasure, with displeasure, with temper, with curiosity, with play, with contempt—I note how she’s incapable of hiding how she feels. “A cat has absolute emotional honesty,” Ernest Hemingway said. “Human beings, for one reason or another, may hide their feelings, but a cat does not.”
Stella reminds me to be patient, thankful, curious, observant, fearless, genuine, and honest. I don’t think she’d mind that I’m sharing this advice with all of you.