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Writer’s best friend

Meows or muse, cats have provided many a writer with the much-needed inspiration

Writer’s best friend

“…when I am feeling

low

all I have to do is

watch my cats

and my

courage

returns. 

I study these

creatures. 

they are my

teachers.”

There’s a certain confidence with which these famous lines were stated by the phenomenal Charles Bukowski in his poem, ‘On Cats’ all those years ago. Bukowski understood then, what most are still having trouble coming to terms with; i.e. the undeniable power of cats over humans. However, what really is it about cats that draws writers in particular so close to them?

The deep, inexplicable rapport between the two is now known for long. Of course there are exceptions, but with most literary giants bowing down to the eminence of these creatures, who is to argue? Apart from Bukowski, Edgar Allan Poe, Ray Bradbury, T.S. Eliot, Neil Gaiman, Ernest Hemingway, Joyce Carol Oates, Charles Dickens, Judy Blume, William Carlos Williams, Mark Twain, Haruki Murakami and many more are known for their obvious preference for cats. Authors like PG Wodehouse and Ruth Rendell were also close to their cat pals.

Canadian novelist, journalist and playwright Robertson Davies tried to explain this friendship between writers and their cats: “Authors like cats because they are such quiet, loveable, wise creatures, and cats like authors for the same reasons,” an explanation that partly suffices, but somehow leaves a lot to be desired.

The companionship of cats and writers is only natural, as cats constantly remind them of who they truly are, i.e. observers and introverts. “The cat does not offer services,” William S Burroughs wrote. “The cat offers itself.” Although for anyone who has ever had the pleasure of having a cat as companion, the animal offering itself to anyone or anything is an idea that is preposterous, to say the least — for this is an animal known for its huge ego.

Ernest Hemingway once wrote and I wholeheartedly agree: “A cat has absolute emotional honesty. Human beings, for one reason or another, may hide their feelings, but a cat does not.” Mark Twain was another cat lover, well-known for a sketch where he is holding a pipe in one hand and a cat in the other. He once famously said, “A cat is more intelligent than people believe, and can be taught any crime”.

If you have noticed, cats hardly respond to their names. Fiction writer Neil Gaiman thinks it is because cats do not need names. ‘Quoting’ his own cat Gaiman wrote, “Now, you people have names. That’s because you don’t know who you are. We know who we are, so we don’t need names.”

The question still remains, what is it that authors see in cats that they have remained unable to find in dogs or for that matter other animals? Despite their notorious arrogance and evident lack of interest in their humans (read: slaves), cats — being the low maintenance creatures that they are — are perfect to accompany writers in their often tedious pursuits. Deeply habitual, cats also bring discipline to a writer’s otherwise disorderly life.

Cats are great companions while writing as they are brutally honest, and a bit reproving. To get their cat’s appreciation after a day of cool disinterest could serve as a much needed ego-booster for the writer.

Writers have always been besotted with a cat’s ability to act as a muse of sorts. “If you want to concentrate deeply on some problem,” Muriel Spark wrote, “you should acquire a cat. Alone with the cat in the room where you work . . . The cat will settle down and be serene, with a serenity that passes all understanding.”

This is extraordinary, keeping in view the fact that cats do not really take nicely to commands and will react only when it is absolutely necessary for them to react. However, one thing that all cat lovers seem to have noticed is the uncanny ability of cats to magically appear at their desks at precisely the moment they’re needed. Just like the perfect muse — ever present, ever inspiring.

Perhaps writers are drawn to cats in the same ways the non-writers are drawn to people-watching and travel. There is something there to garner, to learn. Aldous Huxley wrote, “‘My young friend,’ I said, ‘if you want to be a psychological novelist and write about human beings, the best thing you can do is to keep a pair of cats’.”

Quite a lot has been written in praise of cats but a personal favourite is undoubtedly On Cats by Charles Bukowski — an anthology of short pieces and poetry depicting his love for cats. Like all his works, it is simple but brutally honest and says all that there is to be said about these wonderful creatures.

“Having a bunch of cats around is good. If you’re feeling bad, just look at the cats, you’ll feel better, because they know that everything is, just as it is.”  Perhaps writers don’t see cats as their equals but their superiors. And maybe that is why Hemingway kept so many cats—  to have a room full of tough critics.

As I type away these words in the dead of the night, I suddenly realise there’s a lot I need to appreciate in my life— especially these feline creatures roaming around me; quietly but confidently reassuring me that everything will eventually be alright.

Wajiha Hyder

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The writer is a member of staff. She can be reached at [email protected].com and tweets @wajihahyder

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