5 Writing Tips I Learned From My Cat
Let me start by getting one big thing out of the way: My cat can’t write. She can’t even read. On a good day, she can catch the mousy toy I toss at her on her first try. But only on a good day. She sleeps constantly, eats more than she probably should, and bites my toes if I’m not up by 6 am sharp (she wants her breakfast WHEN SHE WANTS IT). At base, she’s an unproductive jerk.
I’ve learned a lot from her. Every time I watch her nap or play I feel a small twinge of envy — she is just HER. How can I be more like her? Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to be a cat. Despite its many challenges, I love life as a full-time, freelance writer. But by adopting some her more idiosyncratic behaviors, I became a better writer. Here’s what I learned from my cat.
Hyper Focus for Short Bursts of Time
My cat can go from sound asleep to wide awake and chasing a bug in .5 seconds. And as long as that bug is alive and in the house, she will zero in on it with claws extended, never once letting it out of her sight. Me, I can’t wake up that fast — and I prefer to ignore bugs or gently move them outside rather than kill them with my fingers. But when it comes to writing, I find I do my best work when I adopt the cat’s hyper-focus behavior, even if just for 10–15 minutes. Sometimes it helps to set an alarm. I’ll write without distraction — no email, no internet search, no phone time, no playing with the cat (sorry, babygirl) — until the timer goes off. The words I write may not be beautiful, but they always — and I mean ALWAYS — get the creative juices flowing and leave me with something to edit into something beautiful. For me, that’s always been the hardest part — just getting something on the page. But with some cat-like hyper-focus, that problem is solved.
Take Time to Play, Even When Busy
Burnout is real and can last anywhere from an afternoon to weeks on end. It hits me hardest when I’m overwhelmed with work and deadlines, as well as family obligations. And when I’m burnt out, I can’t get any writing done, which just exacerbates the problem with deadlines. Honestly, some days, it all just seems like too much. But my cat, however — she never experiences burnout. I know, I know — it’s a silly thought to even consider. It’s not like she WORKS or anything. (Unless you count begging for food working.) But no matter how she spends her day, whether batting at my arm for treats or staring out the window, she always, always finds time to play. I find that incredibly inspiring and have tried to make more time to play during the day. Sometimes play comes in the form of playing a game on my phone, sometimes reading a book or article for fun (instead of for work). Sometimes I play with my cat, which is a win-win for us both. No matter what form play comes in, it always helps to reset my brain and my focus and to keep the worst of my burnout and overwhelm at bay. I always do my best writing after a few minutes of play.
Take Fake Naps
I can’t take real naps. I wake up feeling worse than before I fell asleep: groggy, grumpy, and mad at myself for “wasting” time when I should have been working. But fake naps — the kind my cat takes when she lays on the couch with eyes half open, totally relaxed but not really sleeping — are the best. I prefer to call them “meditation,” which is basically a nap while awake. For just a few minutes a day, I turn down the lights, turn off my phone, turn away from the computer, and try to quiet my mind. Just a few minutes a day lowers my heart rate and stress level, and helps me to better focus on the writing projects at hand.
Observe the World Around You
My favorite kind of writing is that which reflects real life. But some weeks I get so caught up with deadlines that I forget to even eat lunch, let alone get out there and take in the world. My cat, meanwhile, doesn’t have this problem. At the slightest noise, she’s in the window checking things out. And you know what? What she sees is always interesting. Sometimes it’s a garbage truck picking up our trash. Sometimes it’s an argument over a parking space. Both instances might not seem that interesting on the surface, but when you take time to observe, you can learn a lot about human behavior and the ways in which we interact with machines and each other. When I take time to watch the world, I notice small details I’d missed before, details like the color of my neighbor’s car, the music my trash collector listens to (it’s really good!), the way the sun comes through the trees at lunchtime. These details make my writing richer, and I would have missed them if I hadn’t taken a moment to stop and observe.
My cat fails at almost everything she does (except being cute!). She fails to jump from the coffee table to the couch (it’s much farther than she anticipates), fails to get extra treats no matter how much she begs (I have her on a diet), fails to catch that red dot no matter how hard she tries (the day that cats figure out lasers we’re all going down). But she keeps on trying, no matter what, and through that persistence, has figured out ways around her obstacles. The little jerk. For example: She has figured out where I keep the treat bag and how to open the drawer from INSIDE THE CABINET BELOW IT. She still can’t make the jump from table to couch, but she’s learned that if she leaps onto the book shelf first, she can make it with no problem.
Me, I’m terrible with obstacles. I feel defeat easily and give up quickly. Especially when I encounter them in my writing. The moment I’m blocked I feel like a failure. But the more I think like a cat, the better I am at pushing through writer’s block. Can’t figure out what the character does next? Turn her around and have her approach the plot point from another direction. Can’t figure out what an editor wants? Bat her inbox gently until she responds with an answer (editors are actually very nice people who want to help — they’re just busy, and your emails tend to get lost in their inboxes). By being persistent, I solve a lot of my writerly problems.
Looking at all my cat has taught me, I realize she’s a lot smarter than I give her credit for. Thanks, kitty — you little jerk.