Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net
Holly Lisle's Vision

Cats and Writers, One Cat's Opinion

By Aristophenes Mr. Robert's Cat Sloan

Translated by Robert A. Sloan

© 2002, Robert A. Sloan

Cat civilization began when we first domesticated some big primates living along the Nile in Egypt. Humans are useful food givers who build good housing for us, care for our medical needs, love, adore, and even worship us. Intelligent and easily trained, humans can become like a member of your family.

Writers are one of the best breeds of humans to get, because writers already have civilized, catlike habits. Most writers don't like being disturbed, either. They have an uncanny, almost feline, focus on their work that's very much like a hunter's patient stalk. They sit still for long periods of time, and have warm, comfortable laps. Quiet, undemanding intimacy is possible with a writer that a cat might not find with the more frantic types of humans.

Then there's the fiction aspect. Cats appear as protagonists in genres as varied as mystery, fantasy, science fiction, or even mainstream.

My own literary career began with a review of some scented scoop sand when I was only six weeks old Robert, my brown-maned, copper-eyed human, was already well trained by many previous cats. He understood exactly what I meant when I jumped in that sand box, sneezed, jumped back out and hissed at it, then pawed it and walked away angrily with my tail in the air. I picked a spot right next to his bed where he could not fail to see it, so that he would not mistake my intentions. That stuff was vile!

He was good. He cleaned up and went out that day to get me unscented scoop sand. We had an understanding.

Together, we explored websites where I could post my review. I curled up on his mouse pad. They should make those a lot bigger; kittens grow fast. Occasionally I ran across the keyboard tapping out Kitten Code. My paws were smaller then, and I could hit just one key at a time. Now, I mostly use the mouse buttons to express myself online and let him do the typing with his clever monkey fingers. We reviewed my cat sand, old and new, my Science Diet Kitten Formula, and feline culture in general. We found fans, humans and cats who liked my writing and my pictures. Robert documented my entire kittenhood with his QuickCam, and to this day I'm very photogenic, often posing deliberately in good light or going under the desk where it's too dark if I'm not in the mood.

This is something to remember in writing about cats. Notice that I've felinomorphized Robert throughout the foregoing. Cats do not usually think of humans as better than we are. We know humans are different and larger, but they're either part of our family or they're not.

Robert's not a cat, but he speaks fairly good pidgin. Language for cats isn't just verbal. Communication is holistic: gesture and scent and posture. For a human, Robert is very expressive. Most of all, he can recognize the need for a moment's casual greeting as different from a long affectionate snuggle. Untrained humans often become as over-affectionate as dogs. Then they feel rejected at the kind of hiss or swat any kitten would respond to! They don't understand what a human would call the word No.

This is also the most common complaint uncivilized, or feral, humans have about us: That we cats don't understand the word No. Writers, who are used to defending their physical and intellectual territories as much as cats, know that sometimes we just disagree. Understanding what you mean is not the same thing as following your orders. This is why dogs, horses and elephants wind up domesticated by humans, but cats more often wind up taking care of the humans.

For human writers who know little of the feline mind, here are some tips for including more cats in your fiction accurately enough to please both feline readers and their civilized humans.

Our earliest ancestors were arboreal. We are still very close to those original tree-cats, even if we have evolved a more complex multi-species language to adapt to civilization. Cats will gravitate to high places! We like shelves, we like them to be stable and we like to drop things off them. Sometimes that's to make room for us to sleep. Sometimes that's just because we're bored and it's fun to drop things. The higher, the better.

Cats can climb anything, in one direction. Up. Humans are more like monkeys; they climb up and down. Cats prefer the simple approach to coming down from trees, bookcases, thirty story high rises. We jump! We like to jump and we do not fear heights. Free fall is one of the most relaxing experiences a cat can enjoy. We want to climb up and do it again usually, unless it was such a big leap it left our feet and tummies hurting on the bottom.

Veterinarians have documented this as High Rise Syndrome. It's not insane for a cat to jump out the window of a very tall building after a bird. He might get the bird, and he's more likely to survive the fall uninjured if he's above the fourth or fifth floor. There's an upper limit to that of course, and concrete's hard. But the injuries cats take from longer falls are less than from short falls if the cat hasn't had time to roll, completely relax, and absorb the shock. Our bodies are loosely articulated, unlike those of humans. We don't fear heights because we don't have as much to fear as humans.

If humans didn't understand our love of hunting, stalking and pouncing, they would never have invented duck blinds. We usually prefer small game like bugs, birds, and mice, but some big game hunters will go after rabbits, raccoons, ducks, and other prey even larger than we are. The hunt isn't always serious. Hunting instincts can also be elaborated into symbolic language.

That clicky sound many humans make to attract a cat's attention is an example of how meaning can change. If that click was a grasshopper or something fun to chase, we'd pay attention by instinct. Humans provide food and make food noises to get our attention. It's become part of universal cat-human communication and its meaning is “something good and fun.”

While I personally prefer the premium brands of dry crunchies, especially Hairball Formula for my long coat, many cats respond to the sound of an electric can opener with the same delight as I do the sound of Robert snipping open a fresh bag of my favorite dry food. This is something else to remember about cats. Every one of us has his own food tastes. Some cats love human foods. I don't care for them much, except for yogurt and a little taste of cheese. When we share a taste of ice cream, he gives me melted vanilla.

Writers and cats also both share an interest in Zen. Cats are more advanced in it. We meditate easily and can fall into light trances at any time. We relax deeply and we don't throw frantic efforts into compulsive activity unless we're actually nervous and compulsive.

Cats can learn bad habits from humans. Kittens who are abused will become untrusting, malicious and constantly nervous. If there's too much fighting going on and a threat of physical violence from a large untamed human, any sensible cat will run away, just as a human would from a rogue elephant.

Anthropomorphic fiction often has an obligatory romance subplot. Feline affection and love is a web of family kinships and deep friendships often centered on a strong matriarch, a cat mother who takes care of everyone in her reach. She won't dominate the way wolves or chimps do, by massive displays of aggression. She will dominate by kindness and withholding affection. Massive displays of aggression do come into it for us toms, but only when other males challenge us for territory. Roaring, fluffing up fur to look larger and dancing in front of the other cat with ritual feints is usually going to end in one quick brawl that resolves the conflict. Winner keeps the territory and the other cat walks away to find something else to do. Cats will save face on most disputes.

Cat societies have another big difference from human societies. Humans have a herding instinct. Socially, most of them prefer activities where they're all doing the same thing. Any cat in a group is participating in the group on that cat's interest of the moment, or on immediate personal relationships with the other cats.

Writers, as a type, are often the humans who tend to go off and do what they like instead of doing what all the other humans do. They're easier to civilize because they already have an almost feline self-sufficiency. Like cats, writers are curious about everything and constantly observant.

Writers and cats go together so well that the only metaphor I can think of is writers and cats. Live in the moment, sleep when you're tired, play when you're bored and snuggle the ones you love. Life's good.