My family used to have a house cat named Charlotte. She was an unassuming tabby cat, not incredibly good-looking but not ugly. She wasn’t big or small, fat or thin. She was an average cat. Average length hair. Average coloring. But we loved her, and she lived to be ten years old. Eventually she got an abscess and died, but not before she completed a decade of good work. In her lifetime, Charlotte ate hundreds of mice out of our cupboards. We lived in a house that was built in 1918, and the cupboards were alive with mice all winter long. So most evenings, we’d shut Charlotte in, trapping her in the dark with the food and the mice, and out she’d come a few seconds later with a prize between her paws.
In a way, most successful writers I know remind me of Charlotte. They might be balding or have an average coat of hair. They might not be incredibly good-looking, large or small. They certainly won’t exude sex appeal in a bikini, and they might even have a hidden abscess that gives off an unpleasant odor, but they get their work done. They write every day. They write every morning or evening. They’re working on something all of the time. And they don’t care if they’re shut in, trapped, in the complete and utter dark, because no matter what, they’re coming out of that cupboard with a mouse in their hands.
House Cat Advice #1: Do Work –
According to a University of Georgia study, housecats in the United States kill roughly 4 billion animals per year. They kill voles, mice, moles, snakes, bats, squirrels, rats, flies, moths, birds, butterflies, lizards, newts, and frogs. Once the average cat goes outside, it starts to hunt. If it sees something it might be able to catch, it goes after it until it either finishes the job or has no chance of being successful. In the latter case, if the prey leaves, the cat will wait for it to come back, still hunting what is no longer there, still working, still hoping, and ready if it returns. Housecats do not give up. They pursue and they pursue and they pursue.
Successful writers are like that. They write their articles and books, their short stories and their poems. They revise and edit and complete manuscripts. And that is the biggest difference between successful and unsuccessful writers. Successful writers are the ones who are willing to write quality, revised, complete drafts after getting serious, critical feedback. They finish what they start. And when they ship off a manuscript, they start writing something new. They write and they write and they write.
House Cat Advice #2: Survive –
Why are there 74 million house cats in the United States? Because they’re survivors. They breed and eat where they can. They find a place to lie down and then they sleep. They move when they have to move. They stay warm and dry if possible. Cats are simple beings, and, in a way, writers should be simple beings too.
Jane Austen wrote in a sitting room while people walked and talked right behind her. Cormac McCarthy wrote in an old barn. Ernest Hemingway wrote in the field in Africa and the mountains in Spain. Take a lesson from those somewhat talented writers who’ve come before you, and write wherever you are. Get your work done. Don’t complain or make excuses. Don’t overcomplicate things. If you catch yourself saying something like, “I can only write in total silence between the hours of 9:00 and 1:00, while well-rested, wearing my lucky pair of sweatpants and a shark-tooth necklace, drinking a nonfat, half-caf, vanilla cinnamon latte with a dollop of whipped cream on top,” just stop yourself right there. Think, Thoreau. Think, Simplify, simplify. Write where you can. Write when you can. Be adaptable.
House Cat Advice #3: On Petting and Purring –
Writers could learn a lot about friends and professional critics from a cat’s purring practices. If a cat finds someone who loves her work, she’ll stick around for a while and let that person pet her. The cat is happy in the moment. But it doesn’t stick with her. Cats always move on to the next thing. A dog, on the other hand, will follow a person around for an entire lifetime asking, “Do you still love me? Are you sure?” But not a cat. A cat moves person to person, relatively unaffected by outside influences. Cats are intrinsically motivated (some may even say selfish), but they do their cat thing. They don’t let people mess them up too much. They don’t let people affect their work.
A cat says:
“Oh, you want to feed me? Alright then.”
“Oh, you want to spray me with water? I’ll just hop over this fence right here…”
Writers should be that way with harsh friends or critics:
“Oh, you gave me some good critical feedback? Alright. Thanks.”
“Oh, you said my book reminds you of a bad, Sally Fields, made-for-T.V. movie? That’s fine. I’ll just hop over this fence right here…”
Writers shouldn’t go around begging for love, but they do. They internalize every piece of criticism, be it from friend or foe, getting all worked up by a bad review, a sister’s criticism, or a blurb that doesn’t say what it should. Writers tend to freak out. Instead, a writer should think: “If they pet me, I’m gonna purr. If they don’t pet me, I’m gonna keep writing.”
House Cat Advice #4: On Texting and Facebook –
According to a study by the University of Nebraska, housecats have caused the extinction of 33 bird species worldwide. How do house cats – little and earth-bound house cats – kill so many birds? Birds are still able to fly, right? How do house cats get such impossible work done?
Well, it’s simple. They make the time. They hunt for hours every day. And while they’re hunting, they really hunt. Sometimes they’re successful and sometimes they’re not. They might be unsuccessful for three straight hours, but then they keep hunting. And eventually, they get something.
House cats sleep, eat, and hunt. Sure, there’s a little bit of grooming and mating thrown in, but most of their waking hours are devoted to hunting. They don’t lose the plot. They stick with it. I’ve observed cats for 36 years now, and I’ve never seen a house cat spend any time online. I’ve never seen a house cat “liking” pics on Facebook. I’ve never seen a house cat Tweet. I’ve never seen one texting other cats back for half an hour.
If you want to be a professional writer, it’s okay to have an online presence. Have a Twitter or Facebook account. Network on Linked In. Email. That’s fine. But don’t get caught up. Don’t spend more than a few minutes a day on those sites. Don’t write two hours of emails in the morning. Limit yourself to fifteen minutes each day. This will be tough at first, but then you’ll be amazed by how much time you have.
The same goes for cell phones. If possible, break the phone. Throw it out. Waterboard that iphone 5, then throw it off of a bridge. Or smash it with a hammer, then tell your friends that it got stolen and you just don’t have time to get a new one right now. You won’t believe how much time there will be for thinking and writing once you don’t have a phone and don’t go online.
Or just limit both. At the very least, turn the devices off for two hours while you write.
House Cat Advice #5: You Can’t Stop Me –
If a house cat isn’t getting fed at one house, it moves on to the next. If it breaks a leg, it limps it off. If it loses an ear in a fight, it makes do with the other ear. If it’s driven out into the country and dumped by a creek, it learns to fish. House cats are the epitome of adaptable, and writers have to be that way as well.
The novel isn’t working? Write nonfiction.
Now the nonfiction isn’t working? Go back to the novel.
Your agent needs an article for a magazine? Write three drafts and send it off.
Someone hates your poetry collection? Write another poetry collection.
Writers can’t waste their time thinking about past failures. Jack London had over 600 rejections in his writing career, yet some of his books are still selling well to this day. As the immortal Jay-Z raps, “On to the next one, on to the next one.”
Don’t let anything stop you.
Six years ago, my wife and I bought a house in a neighborhood on the other side of town. We’d never spent much time in that area, but the little house was nice, and the yard was perfect. The seller gave me one warning. “I probably should tell you,” he said, “the neighborhood is teaming with cats. Hundreds of cats. Thousands of cats. Feral and domesticated.”
“Oh,” I said, and bought the house.
The seller wasn’t kidding though. There were cats everywhere. Some neighbors live-trapped them. Others tried to shoot or poison them with anti-freeze. But the cats kept multiplying. They ate squirrels and mice, moles and the occasional rabbit. They hunted and ate off of porches, called and mated and multiplied. And nothing anyone did affected their work.